Last week when writing about the Pacific wren and its “look alike” cousin, the winter wren, I noted a comment I read that stated it might not be possible to identify individuals even with a photograph. Like these two wrens, many other bird pairs are so similar in general appearance they are difficult to distinguish. Birds are not the only life forms with “pairs”.
The Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) and the ponderosa pine (Pinus pinderosa) look very similar. Once these two trees were classified as the same species or some botanists considered the Jeffrey pine a variety of the ponderosa pine. To further confuse the situation the ponderosa and Jeffrey pines occasionally hybridize. Now they are each given their own species designation.
Tree shape, branch characteristics, needle and bark color, scent, cone size – all these are characteristics that separate the Jeffrey and ponderosa pines. It sounds easy enough. In reality though trees and branches take many different shapes depending on their environment. Soil composition can affect subtle color differences – green for ponderosa needles and blue green for Jeffrey needles. Cone size overlaps with ponderosa cones generally considered smaller. I even read several articles debating the value of scent in separating the two trees. The ponderosa pine supposedly has an orange scent while the Jeffrey pine has an odor that is difficult to describe, maybe vanilla, apple, pineapple, or. . . ?
The one way I tell these two Pinus species apart is by the prickles or barbs at the tips of their cone scales. Usually there are mature cones at the base of these trees. The ponderosa pine has barbs that point outward while the prickles at the end of Jeffrey pine cone scales point inward. Pick up a ponderosa pine cone carelessly and the barbs impale your fingers while a Jeffrey pine cone is much kinder to one’s fingers. Where the ranges of the Jeffrey and ponderosa pines overlap these species can be distinguished by gently running one’s hand up the side of the cone – if you get pricked it is a ponderosa pine while if the barbs are not sticking outward it is a Jeffrey pine.
Interestingly, the wood of these two trees is identical in structure and commercially no distinction is made between them. Jeffrey pine and ponderosa pine are both sold as yellow pine.
The difference in barb direction is visible in the pictures, both taken near Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park.