Operation Propagation: A Ponderosa Pine Story
by Jen Elison
Broadcast 1.26 & 1.29.2022
Last winter, a forest of 48 ponderosa pine trees grew in my dining room.
What began as a hike to enjoy an early autumn afternoon transformed into a mission to sow and grow a stand of Pinus ponderosa from seed. I had become enthralled by this possibility as I traversed miles of trails shaded by canopies of pine in Missoula’s Rattlesnake Valley. The intermittent spacing of majestic red-barked ponderosas created a park-like beauty, and the hike was further enhanced by the faint aroma of vanilla periodically wafting through the warm air. Smitten with the idea of mimicking Mother Nature, I chose a large, brown, spiney cone from the duff-littered ground, put it in my backpack, and set out to propagate ponderosa saplings.
Being clueless about germinating pine seeds, I followed the instructions found on several internet sites. Step one involved seed recovery, and I was delighted when 72 winged seeds fell from the cone as I shook it. After sorting for holes and cracks, I had 60 remaining seeds that looked promising. Step two involved placing the seeds in a cheesecloth bag and soaking them in cool, running water for two days so they could absorb the moisture. Next step: stratification, providing a damp and cool environment to encourage germination. So, on the first day of October, I placed the wet cheesecloth bundle in a zip lock bag and stored it in the refrigerator for ten long weeks.
I caught sight of the seeds each time I reached into the fridge. Seeing the small bundle inspired thoughts of time-travel and I envisioned Montana school children celebrating Arbor Day in April 1909, voting to make Pinus ponderosa our state tree. I imagined our state legislators unanimously passing a joint resolution forty years later, in 1949, finally making the children’s vote official. I looked to the future, hoping my descendants would delight in the shade of the trees that had their start in my kitchen.
During the 10-week stratification period, I had been saving cardboard egg cartons to use as planting wells for the seeds. In early December, I filled the wells with ordinary potting soil, retrieved the damp and chilled seeds from the refrigerator, and planted them. All sixty seeds were covered with soil, watered lightly with a mister, and placed under a plant light in the dining room. Each morning I scoured the small pots for signs of life, continuing to keep the soil partially moist and the light as similar to nature as possible. Nothing excited me more during that long winter of COVID restrictions than the sight of tiny, hair-like, green shoots (wearing the remains of their seed shells as hats), emerging from the soil. “I’m holding a forest in my hands!” I declared, feeling like Gulliver in Lilliput as I held the trays containing the surviving 48 seedlings.
Over the next four months, I tended to the ponderosas growing in my home like an overprotective mother. I transplanted them several times into larger containers, and kept them moist and warm. Despite my best efforts, many did not survive to planting time in May. The five hardiest were approximately 4 inches tall with a pom pom-like sprout of 25 or so fine, light-green needles about an 1 inch long, on top of a thin, red trunk. When the outdoor soil was warm enough, I planted these five in an open area in my backyard in the Seeley Swan Valley. To my dismay, two of the ponderosas were uprooted and tossed aside the first night after planting, the ubiquitous ground squirrels at play, no doubt. A third little tree struggled for a month before finally succumbing to the elements.
It is now winter again and at least two feet of snow covers the remaining two ponderosa saplings. Nestled between the Swan and the Mission Mountains, our valley won’t see spring for several more months. It may not be until Memorial Day that I can check on the status of these little trees who, started in my dining room, hold the potential to grow into giants: Pinus ponderosa, the state tree of Montana.
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