JoAnne Skelly: The mighty Jeffrey pine

A limb from a Jeffrey tree. The limb diameter is about 2 feet.

A limb from a Jeffrey tree. The limb diameter is about 2 feet.

Big trees inspire me. In part, it’s their age, but it’s also their size. I was in Agate Bay at Lake Tahoe recently staying with a friend. Outside the backdoor is one of the biggest Jeffrey pines I have seen. It’s massive and regal. Somehow it survived all the logging that went on at Tahoe during the mining era. The tree is at least 150 years old. My friend thinks it might be 300 years old.

Looking at this magnificent old gem of the forest had me reviewing the story of Jeffrey pines. The Jeffrey pine is a close relative of the Ponderosa pine. Both are long-needled yellow pines. Old growth trees could “exceed heights of 150 feet with trunks five feet or more in diameter” (R. M. Lanner, Trees of the Great Basin). One difference between the two pines is their distribution. Jeffrey pines are found primarily on the east side of the Sierra Nevada range, north into southwest Oregon and south into Baja California. Ponderosa pines are widely distributed from Nebraska to California and from British Columbia to Northern Mexico. These trees often grow in higher elevations (even to 10,000 feet in some places) than Ponderosa pines as well as at lower elevations where they often mix with Ponderosa pines (Lanner).

Both species generally have three needles per bundle. Jeffrey pine needles are green-gray to blue-gray; Ponderosa needles are more yellow-green. Jeffrey buds aren’t sticky like Ponderosa buds are. Jeffrey cones can grow up to 12 inches in length where Ponderosa cones are usually 3 to 5 inches long. “Gentle Jeffrey” cones are not prickly to the touch the way Ponderosa cones are. Jeffrey bark smells like vanilla and can be reddish to purplish in color. Ponderosa bark is rather orange with no odor.

Jeffrey pines often grow on drier sites than Ponderosa pines. Some botanists think Jeffrey is a variety of the widespread Ponderosa. Yet, a critical differentiating feature is the chemical makeup of their pitch. Jeffrey pines contain a chemical that makes their pitch explosive. In fact, the story goes that during the Civil War era turpentine was successfully distilled from Ponderosa pitch. However, one day someone made a mistake and used Jeffrey pitch instead, with lethal results.

My old tree friend at Agate Bay has seen a lot of history: sheltered and fed hundreds of birds and critters and hosted eagles and owls. I do wish trees could tell me their tales.

JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


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