Up In Smoke: Why Lodgepole Pines Love A Good Forest Fire

Lodgepole pine forest

Lodgepole pine forest

If you’re a homeowner, there’s nothing good about forest fires. But it may come as a surprise to learn that for some species, they’re essential. And one of them is the flagpole-shaped tree known as the Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine.

THE SKINNY ON LODGEPOLE PINES

If you’re a skier, you’re probably already familiar with the lodgepole pine. The tall, slender tree often serves as a repository for underwear tossed from the ski lifts. A common sight at higher elevations, the pines pierce the slopes like pencils, while towering over other plants in the landscape.

According to the USDA Forest Service, the lodgepole pine is one of the most widely distributed tree species in western North America. The Rocky Mountain variety, Pinus contorta latifolia, grows in northwest Canada, the Black Hills of South Dakota and as far south as Colorado, central Utah and eastern Oregon.

Distribution map for Rocky Mountain Lodgepole pines

Distribution map of the Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine

One look up the mountain and you can’t miss them blanketing the slopes in pure, dense stands. Lodgepole pines don’t leave much room for other species. In fact, their slender, reddish brown trunks are packed so tightly together that their lower branches self-prune as they grow. As a result, they tend to develop thin, narrow crowns of stiff, yellow-green needles.

lodgepole pine forest

Still, despite their impressive heights of 150′ or more, lodgepole pines seldom attain large diameters. In Utah, for example, some 50′ trees have diameters that measure just around 5 inches. In general, lodgepole diameters rarely reach more than 16 inches. Yet most trees enjoy a lifespan of 150 to 200 years, with some living for over 400.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE CONES

So why do lodgepole pines like fire? It’s all about reproduction. As the name implies, all conifers reproduce from seeds that are housed in their cones. In the case of Rocky Mountain lodgepole pines, the seeds are located in cones on their uppermost branches. These cones can be either closed (serotinous) or open (non-serotinous).

Closed cone/Photo credit: Oregon State University Dept. of Horticulture

Open cone/Photo credit: Oregon State University Dept. of Horticulture

And depending on what has occurred in nature over time, the cone may shift from one type to the other.

ALL FIRED UP OVER SEROTINOUS CONES

Most lodgepole forests in North America were established because of fire, in particular in the Rocky Mountains. As a result, in areas prone to fires, lodgepole pines typically bear serotinous cones.

Why? Because serotinous cones are covered with a resin seal that must be melted to open. Forest fires provide the high temperatures the cones need, triggering them to release their seeds. 

HOW FIRE CREATES LODGEPOLE FORESTS

Lodgepole pines are generally known as prolific seed producers. In fact, some lodgepole pines can produce up to 9,000 cones in a single growing season. As a result, the thin-barked tree’s susceptibility to fire enables it to release a vast amount of seeds. 

That being said, the trees may have to wait a long time for a fire, which often leads to a large accumulation of seeds. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for multiple years’ worth of cones to build up on a tree. Luckily for the species, though, the average serotinous cone can remain on the tree for at least 15 years, with some lasting more than 30.

Rocky Mountain National Park

In addition to unsealing its cones, fire creates the perfect soil for lodgepole seedlings, one rich in minerals and decomposed organic matter. The winged seeds settle easily into these freshly-prepared beds. This enables lodgepole pines to develop huge stands with great density. 

New lodgepole pines establishing after fire

And with each new forest fire, the stands regenerate new stands and the cycle continues.

DID YOU KNOW?

The name ‘lodgepole’ refers to the use of the wood in teepees and lodges by native American people. Today, the tree is still a highly desirable source of timbers for rail fences, barns structures and log cabins.

Fence made from lodgepole timbers

 

 

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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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