Ponderosa Pine | Pinus Ponderosa

Ponderosa is Latin for "having great weight" from the Latin pondus or "weight" and refers to the impressive size and stature of the pinus ponderosa or ponderosa pine.  A close relative of the pinion pine, which was revered by many tribes throughout the west and southwest, the ponderosa may have been overlooked for its medicinal properties by western herbalists.  Abundant throughout Colorado, its pungent and astringent needles and resin may become an important constituent of western Ayurvedic preparations.

Searching through the Dr. Vasant Lad's Yoga of Herbs (YOH) and the classic text Aṣṭāῆga Hṛdayam, I found no reference to the ponderosa pine, with only a brief reference to the white pine (pinus alba) in YOH.  After expressing interest, Alakananda Ma responded affirmatively that she was interested in the ponderosa pine as "a special part of our local ecology."

Botany and Ecology

The ponderosa pine, pinus ponderosa C. Lawson of the pinaceae family, is a majestic tree found throughout the vast majority of the American mountain west.   Varieties of this species include ponderosa (also known as the Pacific ponderosa pine) found in California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington and in British Columbia, Canada.  The variant scopulorum (or Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine) is more widely distributed and is found throughout the western United States of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming and in British Columbia, Canada.  This monograph focuses on pinus ponderosa C. Lawson var. scopulorum.

Kingdom: Plantae

Division: Coniferophyta

Class:  Pinopsida

Family: Pinaceae

Genus: Pinus L.

Species: Pinus ponderosa C. Lawson

Common Names

Known by many names, which may create confusion among  amateur arborists or botanists, the ponderosa pine is alternatively and colloquially referred to as big heavy, black jack, bull pine, Montana black pine, pino real (or "real pine"), ponderosa white pine, pondos, pumpkin (in reference to the brilliant color of the mature tree's bark), Sierra brown bark pine, silver pine, western pitch pine, western red pine, western yellow pine, yellow pine, yellowbellies, and Yosemite pine.

In the Nez Perce language Niimiipuutímt the ponderosa was referred to as lá'qa from which Lewis and Clark called the tree "long leafed pine."


"If you know your west at all, you know its Yellow Pine." (Peattie, 1991ed.)

The distinguishing characteristic of the pinus genus are its needles: fascicles (leaves) contain 2-3 needles.  Pinus ponderosa can be identified by its needle length and grouping: needles are 10-28 cm long in groupings of 3s or 2s with the fascicles crowding the ends of the branches on mature trees.  The fascicle groupings are encased at the base with a tiny papery sheath.

An evergreen gymnosperm (Latin for "naked seed"), mature ponderosa pines reach heights of 30-50 m with trunk diameters of 0.6 - 1.3 m, and have a lifespan of 300-600 years.  The bottom half of the trunk is frequently without branches.

Generally, you can spot the ponderosa not only by its great size and bright, deeply grooved bark, but by its three needles joined in a bundle, which form a Y to help identify the species.

Morphology and Phenology (or Lifecycle)

Look up at the great ponderosa.  Notice its mass and the shape of its crown.  The general shape or morphology of the ponderosa pine is conical or round-shaped at the crown of the tree.  Its bark is orange-brown with an appearance of scales or plate-like scales, with deep dark-brown or black grooves between and beneath.

Needles are thin, long, and pointed, with a tooth-like edge (visible on very close inspection or felt by running your finger over the edge).   Twigs are substantial, up to 2 cm in diameter, with the needle clusters giving the end of the twig a tufted appearance.

Young female cones on Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Marki, Poland. Polski: Młode kwiaty (szyszki) żeńskie sosny żółtej (Pinus ponderosa), Marki, Polska. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Male cones are orange to yellow in color and are found at the tips of branches in small clusters.  Female cones are large and woody, 8-15 cm long, oval in shape, with a small thorn-like prickle at the end of each scale. 

Seeds mature and are shed on a two-year cycle.  In the first year, the tree may flower between April and June.  In the second year the cones mature and shed winged seeds between August and September.

Habitats and Ecosystems

Ponderosa pine trees can be found in single-species ponderosa groves or in mixed conifer forests in the mountains and, in Colorado, are an important part of the forest cover type Interior Ponderosa pine.  It is typically a climax stand, bordering grasslands and forests.  As defined by the US Forest Service, climax stands are characteristically warm and dry, and occupy lower elevations throughout their range.

The US Forest Service recognizes the following ecosystem classifications for the ponderosa pine:

   FRES20  Douglas-fir

   FRES21  Ponderosa pine

   FRES22  Western white pine

   FRES25  Larch

   FRES26  Lodgepole pine

   FRES28  Western hardwoods

   FRES34  Chaparral - mountain shrub

   FRES36  Mountain grasslands

Throughout the Rocky Mountains and Utah, in mixed conifer forests, ponderosa pines can be found amidst the Rocky Mountain Douglas fir, blue spruce, lodgepole pine, limber pine, and quaking aspen.  

Undergrowth (or understory) is often sparse, and includes grasses and low lying shrubs such as ceanothus, sagebrush, oak, snowberry, bluestem, fescue, and polargrass (USDA Plant Guide).

Geographic Range

From the USDA Plant Guide, the range for ponderosa pine is USDA zones 3-7, thriving on soils from shallow to deep, and from gravelly sands to sandy clay loam throughout the mountains of the American west and up into British Columbia, Canada.  It is a widespread species.

Ponderosa pine can be seen growing on bare granite (see the painting illustration on the cover of this report) with its roots in cracks and crevices. 

It prefers slightly acidic soils with a pH of 6.0-7.0 and rain coverage of at least 30-60 cm average annual precipitation.   It has moderate to good drought tolerance, although extended drought increases susceptibility to invading insects including a variety of beetles.  The ponderosa pine will survive very cold winters.

Medicinal Use

The seeds of the ponderosa pine are edible, and are "perhaps the best kept secret of all the wild edibles" (Elpel, page 44).

The needles make a pleasant tea, helpful as an expectorant.  Medicinally, the needles may be used as a diuretic. 

The Nez Perce Indians used the green needles for dandruff; pitch served as an ointment for rheumatism or backaches, and heated needles were used to help deliver the placenta.

It should be noted that when ingested in a relatively large quantity, over three or more days, ponderosa pine needles induced premature parturition in pregnant cattle, especially when ingested during the third trimester or after 8 months of pregnancy.  While no other species were adversely affected (sheep, goats and rabbits were examined in the 1992 study published in the Journal of Animal Science), and cycling non-pregnant cattle were not affected, we should consider the ponderosa pine contraindicated during pregnancy.

Collection & Preparation

To collect the inner bark, or cambium layer, select a branch that is very fresh.  Make shallow cuts around the diameter of the branch every foot or two, and cut length-wise every 2-3 inches.  Carefully pull off the outer bark.  This bark can be scraped for its inner bark, or threaded onto wire or coarse thread (be sure to oil coat hangers if using, to prevent rusting) and hung to dry in well-ventilated shade (Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, page 16).  The inner bark, or cambium layer, may be chewed raw, like gum.

To collect needles, hang the branch over a newspaper until dry.  Crush the dry needles and steep in boiled water for 10 minutes.  Strain and drink as a tea. 

To collect the resinous pitch, scrape from the outer bark.  "For less fussy types, the pitch may be saved and collected, adhering bark, dirt, bugs, and all" (Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, page 126). Otherwise, melt over as low a temperature as possible, and poor through a metal sieve to separate the pure from the impure.  You will likely need to discard the sieve, but may attempt to clean it with turpentine if you desire to reuse.  Organic solvents like high percentage alcohol are needed to extract the resin from the plant, if preparing tincture from pine needles.

To collect the seeds, be aware that the collection period is short, requiring an observant eye.  Watch for the cones to ripen on the tree, and collect them from the tree as they begin to open up, before they drop their seeds (or nuts). Use a hook to pull the cones from the tree. If the cones have yet to open, you can encourage them to open by placing them to dry in a warm, sunny location. Shake the seeds from the cones when open. You may choose to eat the seeds hull intact, although commercially prepared pine nuts (from the pinion pine) are hulled. Seeds may be eaten whole or ground, raw or cooked. 

Primary Constituents

The ponderosa pine is a resinous plant.  Resins are sticky, semi-solid or solid at room temperature and are formed from oxidized volatile oils.  Resins are not water soluble, requiring the use of high-percentage alcohol to extract as tincture.

Medicinal Use

Ponderosa pine pitch may be warmed lightly and spread over the skin or taken internally in tincture form. 

Externally, when applied as a poultice, pine resin has a disinfectant quality, and may help to draw foreign objects (such as splinters) out of the skin.  Resins are warming and stimulating, and may be helpful when used externally to ease arthritic joints, back ache, and rheumatism.

Internally, resins are expectorant, diaphoretic and diuretic.  They may also be carminative, helping to ease gas and improve digestion.

As an expectorant, the volatile oils from the pine soothe the mucous membranes of the throat and are absorbed into the body, helping to expel phlegm so that it may be more readily coughed up.

A tea may be made from the pine needles and functions as a gentle expectorant.  More effectively, the inner bark or cambium layer may be slowly boiled and served as a tea with honey to improve expectorant action.  Most effectively, the pitch may be rolled into a ball, chewed and swallowed, which will soften bronchial mucous producing a very productive cough.  As the resin and volatile oil constituents are diaphoretic and heating to the body, care should be taken during fevers, used only to spike a low-grade fever, but never used with prolonged or high fever.

Taken internally, the pitch may have some benefit in treating lower urinary tract infections, but should not be used when kidney inflammation is present.


With excessive use, resins can irritate the kidneys, and should be avoided with use in patients with kidney problems.

Ponderosa pine needles have been implicated in the premature parturition of pregnant cattle, and have been used by the Nez Perce Indians to induce the birthing of the placenta after childbirth.  With these effects in mind, ponderosa pine administration should be avoided during pregnancy.

Ayurvedic Information and Use

Ponderosa pine: VK- P+

Rasa (Taste) - pungent, astringent

Collected and chewed raw, ponderosa pine needles are strongly pungent and astringent, producing an immediate drying sensation in the mouth. 

Virya (Energy) - heating
Ponderosa pine resins are strongly pungent, giving them a heating virya or energy.  Pungent herbs improve digestion, stimulate agni, and ease gas as a carminative, are diuretic, and may be used to purify the blood and induce sweating during illness as a diaphoretic.

While the needles are astringent in the mouth, the cooling action of astringency is secondary to their primary pungency, with the net effect of having a heating virya.

Vipak (Post-Digestive Effect) - pungent

Being primarily pungent and secondarily astringent in taste, the ponderosa pine resin has a pungent vipak

Prabhava (Special Potency)

Some native tribes, including Apaches, Hopis, Navajo, Paiutes and Zunis, collected the seeds of the pinion pine, close relative to the ponderosa, and revered the pine as deeply important to their culture. 

The seeds of the pinus family resemble the pineal gland in name and shape, acknowledged in Ayurveda and Yoga as the area of the "third eye."  This resemblance, if seen as a "signature," providing a clue to its usefulness and prahbav, or special potency, may indicate that the ingestion of pine seeds may stimulate or awaken the pineal gland.

In native medicine, the fresh sap or gum was also chewed and swallowed for its laxative and carminative properties.  These effects are in direct contrast to the ponderosa's pungent vipak, which is said to aggravate vata.  Therefore, its prabhava may be calming to vata in the colon.

Because of their great size, it may be seen that preparations with ponderosa resins may be building to the tissues.


Pranavaha srotas - the channels which carry the breath or prana.  Expectorant.

Annavaha srotas - the channels which carry the food.  May improve digestion and stimulate agni.

Ambuvaha srotas - the channels which carry water and mutravaha srotas - the channels that carry urine or the urinary system.  Diuretic and diaphoretic.

Rasavaha srotas - the channels that carry the plasma portion of the blood and tissue.  Pungent and aromatic.

Majjavaha srotas - the channels which supply the bone marrow, nerve and brain tissue; and Manovaha srotas -  the channels that suplly the mind or carry mental energy.  If the prabhava is accepted, the pinus ponderosa seeds may stimulate the pineal gland.

Artavavaha srotas - the channels which carry the menstruation.  Warmed pine needles were used to by Native Americans to help with the afterbirth; may stimulate apana vayu.

References and Bibliography

Elpel, T.J. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. Pony, MT: Hops Press. 2008.

Foster, Steven.  Johnson, Rebecca L.  Desk Reference to Nature's Medicine. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.  2006.

Habeck, R. J. 1992. "Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa," In: Fire Effects Information System, url. http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/, accessed 7 December 2010. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,  Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).

Lad, Dr. Vasant. Frawley, David. The Yoga of Herbs. Santa Fe, NM: Lotus Press. 1986.

Lang, Frank A. "Ponderosa pine," The Oregon Encyclopedia, url. http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/etnry/view/ponderosa_pine/, accessed 5 December 2010.

Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West. Santa Fe, NM: The Museum of New Mexico Press. 1990.

Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Santa Fe: The Museum of New Mexico Press. 1979.

Nyerges, Christopher.  Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press. 1999.

NPS, US Department of the Interior. Nez Perce National Historic Park, url. http://www.nps.gov/nepe/naturescience/plants.htm, accessed 6 December 2010.  Washington, DC 20240

Panter, K.E. James, L.F. Molyneux, R.J. Ponderosa pine needle-induced parturition in cattle. J Animal Science [seriel online]. 1992; 70:1604-1608. Available at: http://jas.fass.org/cgi/reprint/70/5/1604. Accessed 5 December 2010.

Peattie, Donald Colruss.  A Natural History of Western Trees.  Boston, Houghton Mifflin. 1991 ed.

PDR for Herbal Medicines. Fourth Edition. Scientific editors Gruenwald, Joerg PhD. Brendler, Thomas BA. Jaenicke, Christof MD. Mongvale, NJ: Thomson Healthcare. 2007.

USDA, NRCS. 2010. The PLANTS Database, url. http://plants.usda.gov, accessed 6 December 2010. National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.

USDA, NRCS.  Ponderosa pine Plant Guide, url. http://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_pipo.pdf, accessed 6 December 2010.  National Plant Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.

US Forest Service, NPNHT. Ponderosa pine, url. http://www.fs.fed.us/npnht/wildlife/ppine.shtml, accessed 5 December 2010.  NPNHT Administration, Orofino, ID 83544 USA.

Weber, W. A. Whittmann, R.C. Colorado Flora: Western Slope. Third Edition. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. 1990.

Weber, W. A. Whittmann, R.C. Rocky Mountain Flora. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado. 1976.

Wong, James. Grow Your Own Drugs. London: Collins.  2009.

 By Heather Baines

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