Lodgepole Pine vs. Ponderosa Pine: What Are the Differences?

grove of lodgepole pines
© Sara Kendall/Shutterstock.com

Written by Heather Hall

Published: November 7, 2022

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Many pine trees are hard to tell apart due to their similar appearance, and lodgepole pine vs. ponderosa pine is no different. Ponderosa and lodgepole trees are both needled pines that grow to an average of one hundred feet tall and prefer to grow at higher elevations than other trees. They both have needles, cones, and fissured bark. But there are quite a few differences as well. Once you learn the difference between lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine, you can easily tell them apart.

Comparing Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine

The differences between lodgepole pines and ponderosa pines include needle size and bark texture.
Lodgepole PinePonderosa Pine
Scientific NamePinus contorta subspecies latifoliaPinus ponderosa
Needle DescriptionBundled in groups of two. 1-3 inches longBundled in groups of three. 5-10 inches long
Cone DescriptionPrickled, egg-shaped. 1-2 inches long and only opens at high temperatures.Egg-shaped cone 3-5 inches long with straight pointed prickles
Bark Description
Thin, scaly, and brownish-gray. Thinner and darker than ponderosa
Thick, brownish orange. large, blocky fissures that are split into plates. Coarser than lodgepole
Size of TreeAverage 100 feet tall. Spread of 20 feetAverage 100 feet tall. Spread of 30 feet.
OdorFaint resinous odor, similar to turpentineSmells like butterscotch or vanilla
WoodYellow pine – produces wood that is softer and less dense than ponderosaYellow pine – produces wood that is harder and denser than lodgepole
GrowingZone 1a. Full sun. tolerant of some shade.Zone 2a. very drought tolerant

Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine: Key Differences

The main differences between lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine are in the number of needles per bundle, the length of the needles, the size of the pinecone, and the tree bark. They also have different odors and grow at different elevations. Both ponderosa and lodgepole are yellow pines with solid hardwood. However, ponderosa produces wood that is both harder and denser than lodgepole, which is softer.

Yellow pine trees are characterized by wood that is strong, stiff, and dense. It is prized by builders because it can hold a nail or fastener well. It is a great choice for construction or pressure treatment. Yellow pine wood is also used by companies that manufacture trusses, framing, decks, pallets, and crates.

We will go into much more detail about these differences below.

Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine: Native Environment

grove of lodgepole pines

The lodgepole pine is one of the most common pine trees in North America.

©Sara Kendall/Shutterstock.com

Lodgepole pines naturally grow in dry upper forests in the subalpine regions of the western side of North America. They love to grow on the slopes of mountains, but they don’t succeed at the highest and driest peaks. Lodgepole pines are tolerant of volcanic rock, thin soil, and drought.

Ponderosa pine, on the other hand, likes the lower part of mountainsides and does not grow above four thousand feet very often. It is native to southwestern Colorado and has spread to a wide range of places. These pines grow in mountainous topography in Nebraska, Oregon, British Columbia, South Dakota, and the peaks of Arizona and New Mexico.

Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine: Needles

The easiest way to tell lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine apart is by looking at their needles. The lodgepole pine has needles that are grouped in bundles of two. Each needle is between one and three inches long. 

On the other hand, the ponderosa pine has much longer needles that grow five to ten inches long. Each group of needles on a ponderosa pine grows in bunches of three needles each. This fact alone makes the two trees easy to tell apart. 

Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine: Cones

Lodgepole pine has smaller cones than ponderosa pine. This difference in cone size is another trick you can use to tell them apart.

The lodgepole has prickly egg-shaped cones that are only one or two inches long. The cones are tightly closed and they will only open when temperatures are hot enough to melt the resin that holds them closed. The opening of the cones usually occurs during fires or when summer temperatures rise above 104°F. They are one of the first trees to regrow after a forest fire for this reason.

Ponderosa pine also has prickly cones, but the prickles are straight and pointy, and the cones are between three and five inches long and shaped like an egg. If you pick up a ponderosa pine cone, they have outwardly curving spines that make them prickly to handle. The cones mature in a two-year cycle and typically fall only about one hundred feet from the parent tree.

Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine: Bark

Lodgepole pine bark is thinner, finer, and darker in color than ponderosa pine. Lodgepole bark is thin and scaly with a grayish-brown color. If you see the two trees side by side, the bark is very easy to tell apart.

Ponderosa pine has bark that is coarse and more orange in color than lodgepole pine. It is thick and deeply fissured. So deeply fissured that the blocks split into large plates on the trunk. Some people have described ponderosa bark as looking like a jigsaw puzzle.

This difference in bark appearance is another easy way to tell lodgepole pine vs. ponderosa pine apart from each other.

Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine: Size

ponderosa pine forest

Widely distributed, ponderosa pines are some of the tallest pines around.

©SED Travel Photography/Shutterstock.com

Both lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine grow to an average height of one hundred feet, but the ponderosa pine has the ability to grow much taller when in ideal conditions. The most towering lodgepole pine ever recorded was found in Finland and measured 110 feet tall. The tallest ponderosa pine ever recorded was found in The Sierra Nevada foothills in the United States and measured 274 feet tall! 

Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine: Odor

Lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine also have drastically different odors. If you smell the bark or the pine cones of either tree, you can use the different smells to tell these trees apart.

Lodgepole pine has a faint odor of resin and smells clean and green. Like a turpentine cleaner or pine sol cleaner, but muted.

The ponderosa pine has a sweet smell, like vanilla or butterscotch. Loggers have long described ponderosa pines as smelling like baking cookies. Scientists do not know what causes that wonderful scent but have theorized that a chemical in the sap being warmed by the sun may be the explanation.

Lodgepole Pine vs Ponderosa Pine: Growth and Care

If you want to grow a stand of lodgepole pines, plant them in a location with full sun or partial shade. They are not fussy about soil but do have a preference for regular moisture when they are young. Lodgepole pines grow about two feet per year and require very little attention once they have deeply established roots. They prefer to grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8. You can grow them as low as zone 1a if you provide them with winter protection when they are young.

If you want to grow a group of ponderosa pines, plant them in full sun with deep moist soil that is well-draining. Ponderosas will adapt to a wide variety of soils and don’t mind wind or drought. They need tender loving care and even moisture when they are young but are one of the most drought-tolerant of all conifers when they are mature. A ponderosa pine will grow happily from USDA hardiness zones 3 to 7 and put on 12 to 24 inches of new growth each year.

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About the Author

Heather Hall is a writer at A-Z Animals, where her primary focus is on plants and animals. Heather has been writing and editing since 2012 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, Heather enjoys hiking, gardening, and trail running through the mountains with her dogs.

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