Pine Tree Atop Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon, ID

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Pine Tree Atop Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon, ID

Post by edfrank » Sun Mar 25, 2012 2:13 pm

Pine Tree Atop Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho

Sitting atop Inferno Cone in Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho is a single limber pine tree. I wanted to do a more detailed history of this particular scenic tree after some comments about it posted on my Facebook page.
photo by Edward Frank (2005)

Inferno Cone is a cinder cone made from ash blown skyward from a volcanic vent. “Inferno Cone Trail is a short but steep path up the cinder cone at the center of the scenic loop drive in Crater of the Moon National Monument. This 6,181-foot summit provides a panoramic view of the surrounding volcanic landscape. Inferno Cone Trail is just half a mile round trip with 160 feet of elevation gain. The killer overview of Craters of the Moon is well worth the effort.” ... one-trail/

Inferno Cone and Trail 2011
Tree atop Inferno Cone, 2011

There is very little soil atop the cone and the ash itself is very porous. I am sure very lttle water is available for vegetation on the cone. There are scrub grasses and this single limber pine tree. A variety of pioneering plants that can grow in these tiny pockets of fine ash, and perhaps some windblown sediment. Eventually larger grasses became established. Grasses and similar vegetation slowly established a thin soil layer with the ability to hold some water. This single limber pine likely established and grew in soil formed by the grasses. This is the only living tree presently growing atop the cone, but nearby is a stump from another dead tree specimen.
“Limber pine (Pinus flexilis) is the dominant tree on lava flows in the northern third of the Monument. Limber pines are long-lived,slow-growing trees of small to medium size. They grow at elevations between 3,000 ft. and 12,500 ft., but do not typically occur at elevations below 6,000 ft. except where barren rocky conditions exist (Steele 1990). Limber pines grow best on certain types of soils and in the central Idaho mountains they are found largely on rocky ground with soils derived from sedimentary rocks (Steele 1990). However, at Craters of the Moon limber pines can be found growing with roots deep in the cracks on the lava and alongside windswept cinder cones. Within portions of the Monument, such as the north side of Inferno Cone, limber pines are well adapted and almost grow dense enough to form a closed canopy forest. In most areas, however, they grow in open stands or just as scattered solitary trees.

Young limber pines are often found growing in places where as a sapling they were protected somewhat from high winds; as adults they can survive and grow in these harsh elements with a well established root system. Limber pines account for a large percentage of the tree cover within the Monument (CRMO 2007c).

Limber pine branches are very flexible (hence the scientific name Pinus flexilis). The flexibility in the branches allows for easy movement in strong winds and effortless snow shed in heavy snow without doing damage to the tree itself. Though they are adapted to harsh conditions, high winds often cause branch flagging. Frequent strong winds pick up soil and cinders in the summer, and ice and snow in the winter act as abrasives. These wind blown materials abrade the terminal buds on the windward side of the tree leaving more successful limbs on the leeward side of the tree; making the trees appear like a flag blowing in the wind. Limber pines are monoecious: male and
An example of a healthy limber pine (Pinus flexilis).

female cones are born separately on the same tree. As with most pines, the male cones that contain the pollen dominate the lower part of the tree and the female cones develop at the end of the main branches in the upper part of the tree. The female cones have scales and are shaped like a pine cone but they are the larger of the two. The male cones are more budlike in their structure in the spring, and then turn into small clusters of spirals that may be green or yellow in the summer and fall (Steele 1990). On a healthy limber pine this is the ideal structure of cone distribution. The arrangement of cones helps eliminate self-pollination but allows the pollen from the male cones to pollinate female cones of other limber pines in the area.”

Interpreting Biological Diversity at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Natural Resource Report NPS/UCBN/NRR—2007/019 ... 080115.pdf
image015.jpg (70.55 KiB) Viewed 3613 times
Pine tree in 2005 - photo by Edward Frank

I a sure that everybody who climbs to the top of Inferno Cone Takes photographs of the tree. It is a fantastic subject. The tree itself has not been cored as far as I can find out. I found a few photos of the tree to supplement the ones I took in 2005.
This photo was taken in 2008 by Becki Peterson ... 672&type=3

Most of the photos I found were recent ones by professional photographers. I will not include these here because of copyright concerns, and basically they added little to the discussion anyway.

I put together these three snippets from larger images to show a range of images of the base of the tree. Looking at these photos there is a noticeable change in the amount or absence of ground cover in the vicinity of the tree. They are not all taken from the same angle, but still that is obvious. The loss of the cover will affect the ground temperature in the vicinity of the tree enormously, and loss of the cover and thin soils will adversely affect the limited water retention that exist within the cinder substrate. Currently the tree has exposed roots from foot traffic around its base. Compaction may or may not be a problem, but loss of ground cover, soil, and physical damage to the tree roots themselves should be a concern as this tree is being loved to death.

[html]<object classid="clsid:D27CDB6E-AE6D-11cf-96B8-444553540000" codebase=" ... n=9,0,28,0" id="_360_krpano_id_660149" name="_360_krpano_name_660149" width="425" height="315"><param name="movie" value=" ... f"/><param name="quality" value="autohigh"/><param name="allowScriptAccess" value="always"/><param name="flashvars" value="pano= ... a"/><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"/><embed src="" pluginspage="" width="425" height="315" allowFullScreen="true" allowScriptAccess="always" quality="autohigh" flashvars="pano= ... ct><br/><a title="panorama photos of Craters of the Moon, Inferno Cone, Idaho, USA on" href=" ... a">Craters of the Moon, Inferno Cone, Idaho, USA</a> in <a href="" title="panoramic images from Idaho">Idaho</a>[/html] ... 0.44,110.0 here is a nice 360 degree interactive panorama of Inferno Cone.

I contact the National park Service to ask if they had any older photographs of the tree. Ted Stout, Chief of Interpretation and Education for the Monument replied, “The tree on top of Inferno Cone may have many images taken by visitors but we don't appear to have many park images of that particular tree.”

Steve Bekedam, Vegetation Ecologist for the Monument also replied to my request: “Unfortunately in my cursory review of our files it appears we do not have any historic photos of the "limber" pine in question. Sorry...I haven't given up though and will make an inquiry with our museum curator to query the archives. It's quite a specimen for sure but no, surprisingly the tree has never been measured or aged to my knowledge. As Ted passed along the Triple Twist tree has gotten far more attention and acclaim.

You are astute to notice that it is clearly being impacted by the constant foot traffic. Unfortunately again, as you mentioned, I'm not sure how we might reinforce its footing without adversely impacting the visual scenery of the area. With its remote and wind-swept location, transporting cinders to the area also seems out of the question at least as a long term fix. As small sign might be the best we can do and it would be difficult to enforce...but a possibility none the less.”

So, fellow NTS members, at this point I am at stand still. I will continue to search for older photos of the tree. I will measure it when I get back to the park. Contributions of old photos to the effort are welcome and appreciated. I will do a separate post on the Triple-Twist Pine.

I would like to see more portraits/histories of individual tree done by NTS members about trees that inspire them, trees that have an interesting history, and trees that have personal meaning or memories for them. Larry Tucei did a nice report on the Andrew Jackson Oak. Here is one of this unnamed pine tree. Who will be next with a special tree?

Ed Frank
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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Re: Pine Tree Atop Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon, ID

Post by jamesrobertsmith » Sun Mar 25, 2012 5:23 pm

Wow! Great stuff to make me want to head right out there! My wife and I were very close to that area in 2010. But we were in a hurry to get to Yellowstone and couldn't take the time for a detour of that magnitude. I've since learned that it has about the darkest skies in the continental USA and is a great star-gazing location. I'd really like to head back out there and spend a few days at Craters of the Moon.

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Re: Pine Tree Atop Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon, ID

Post by Chris » Fri Mar 30, 2012 11:18 pm

I kind of wonder if it may have been planted as a marker [given size, probably Native Americans]. I haven't been to Craters, but other cinder cone complexs can start to look the same... easy to get lost. A lone tree on a summit would be a greater guide.

It is pretty interesting Limber is growing there. I guess because my experience with the species is high mountains, that is where I picture them.

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Re: Pine Tree Atop Inferno Cone, Craters of the Moon, ID

Post by edfrank » Sat Mar 31, 2012 7:34 am

It is possible it was planted, but my feel for the site and distribution is that they are naturally occurring, self planted specimens. Overall trees and other plants seem to have grown wherever there was a pocket of soil and some trace of water. I really don't see any advantage for its placement in terms of navigation. In these places you could plant all you want at most locations and the tree wouldn't survive anyway.
"I love science and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awe by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and revigorate it." by Robert M. Sapolsky

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