The Smell Of The Great Outdoors — It’s Not What You Think

Oct. 15, 2013 | Northwest Public Radio
Courtney Flatt

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  • Have you ever smelled a ponderosa pine? It's not what you think. credit: Flickr Creative Commons: mbtschetter
Have you ever smelled a ponderosa pine? It's not what you think. | credit: Flickr Creative Commons: mbtschetter | rollover image for more


A couple weeks ago I drove up to the Teanaway in Central Washington. I was covering one of the largest land deals in the state’s history.

For more than a decade, environmental groups and state agencies have tried to buy up parcels of the large valley just outside Cle Elum, Wash. It’s widely known to hikers, snowmobilers, and wildlife enthusiasts. (The Teanaway is home to a wolf pack and moose.)

But I’d never been to the area before. Members of two environmental groups, Forterra and The Wilderness Society, led a couple of journalists around the valley.

The Teanaway is going to be turned into a community forest managed by both the Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources. No other Washington conservation land is managed simultaneously by both agencies.

The 50,272 acres cost about $100 million and is part of a larger conservation project called the Yakima Basin Integrated Management Plan. You can read more of EarthFix’s coverage about the plan here, here and here.

We were winding up the tour on the banks of the Teanaway River’s west fork when Forterra’s Gene Duvernoy pulled me aside. (Duvernoy is deeply committed to maintaining what he calls “sacred areas,” like the Teanaway. His love of nature was readily apparent as he motioned me over to a large ponderosa pine.)

“Hey, Courtney, have you ever smelled a tree?” He smiled as he asked the question, pointing to a deep crevice in the bark.

smelling a ponderosa pine
A little girl smells a ponderosa pine.
Flickr Creative Commons: thewbert

“I, I don’t know if I’ve ever stuck my nose in a tree before,” I mumbled.

“Come here,” he smiled back at me.

I stuck my nose inside a two-inch gap in the tree.

“Whatdaya smell?” He asked.

I was confused. My nose was a little stuffy. “I don’t know,” I said, puzzled.

“Vanilla, butterscotch, pineapple,” he suggested.

So I stuck my nose in the crack again. “Oh, I can smell it. Butterscotch,” I said.

The tree smelled exactly like a butterscotch sucker.

I seemed to set off a debate. The group jumped in with all the sweets they smelled. “I think it’s vanilla,” Dovernoy said.

NPR has covered the unusually smelly trees, which scientist don’t really understand yet. Here’s a snippet from the article:

“The aroma may arise from a chemical in the sap being warmed by the sun. (The Jeffrey pine, a close relative of the Ponderosa, is also known to turn yellow and give off a similar smell.)”

Have you ever stuck your nose inside ponderosa pine bark? What did you smell?

— Courtney Flatt

© 2013 Northwest Public Radio
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