If you’ve spent much time in the Colorado outdoors, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Ponderosa Pine. Capable of reaching a monstrous height of 130 feet, these trees thrive in North American mountain regions with an elevation between 3,000 and 9,000 feet. One thing that makes them unique is their extreme level of resilience. They’re known to withstand wildfires and can even push bark off in the event of a lightning strike instead of taking permanent damage.
However, what is perhaps the oddest trait of a Ponderosa Pine is the unique scent many report smelling while up-close – butterscotch or vanilla…or sometimes cinnamon or coconut. Even odder, people tend to smell one of the scents exclusively, never a blend. Don’t believe me? Give it a try.
The scent is the strongest while the trees are in their “yellowbelly” phase. This occurs once a tree passes roughly 110 years in age, shedding it’s darker layer of bark to reveal a new shield of yellow. While scientists aren’t exactly sure why the bark drops when it does or why the trees smell so sweet, they suspect it could be new, thinner bark allowing more heat to warm the sap, thus making the scent of a chemical in the sap more potent. Why does the same tree smell completely different to different people? If could be a simple difference in perception, variance in the olfactory system, or even genetic.
Next time you come across a Ponderosa Pine on a hike, stick your nose as close to the bark as you can get without touching it and give it a whiff. It’s oddly satisfying. Most people reporting a distinct scent of butterscotch, but you might smell something else.