Trees play a vital role in our world. They produce oxygen, which allows people and animals to survive. They also provide habitat (places to live) and food for animals, birds, and bugs.
There are about 100,000 different species of trees in the world. The cold and high mountains in the Rocky Mountains create an environment in which not very many different kinds of trees are able to live. In fact only around 50 different species of trees are located here.
These trees in the Rockies do not live throughout the mountains at all elevations and aspects. Instead, certain types of trees tend to dominate at the different elevations because they are better adapted to live there. Conditions at the different elevations are quite different, for example the lower elevations are drier and the higher elevations receive much more snow and wind.
Common Trees of Rocky Mountains
Leaves: Nearly round with small teeth on the edges
Seeds: Very small, cottony seeds
Max Height: 80 feet
Aspens have some roots, called suckers, that don’t grow down, but grow sideways. New trees grow from these so that many Aspen are all connected below ground. This means that if you see a grove of Aspen on a hillside they could all be connected. Due to this, Aspen are among the largest organisms on Earth.
Leaves: 1-3 inches long, heart shaped with wavy edges
Seeds: Fluffy white seeds, like cotton
Fun Facts: This tree grows near water at lower elevations. The Cottonwood is a major food source for Rocky Mountain Beavers.
Needles: 1 inch long and flattish, green above with two white stripes on the bottom; they have a lemony smell when crushed
Max Height: 300 feet
Fun Facts: This tree can live for a long time – up to 500 years or even longer, making it among the oldest trees in the world.
Needles: only 1 inch long and bluish-green in color
Cone: 1 to 2 inches long
Max Height: 130 feet
Fun Facts: This tree grows at high elevations and has a very conical shape (it is straight up and down with a very narrow top and wider base). They can survive in very cold temperatures, down to negative sixty degrees!
The needles are four sided, which allows them to be rolled in your fingers (unlike fir needles which are flat and can not roll in your fingers).
Needles: 1 to 2 inches long in bundles of 2
Cone: 1 to 3 inches long; cones have sharp tips on the scales
Max Height: 100 feet
The Native Americans used to use the trunks from these trees to make their tipis since they are long, straight, and lightweight.
The cones are tightly sealed and only open after extreme heat, such as from a fire. After a fire hundreds of seeds will grow in the same area and form an even aged lodgepole pine forest.
Needles: 1 to 2 inches long and grow in pairs of two; green with a whitish band on the inside surface
Cone: 1 to 2 inches long
Max Height: 60 feet
Fun Facts: This is a small to moderate sized tree that grows at lower elevations.
The seeds inside of the cone are called pine nuts. Pine nuts are good to eat and were one of the main foods Native Americans ate.
Rocky Mountain Maple
Leaves: 1 to 4 inches with three lobes; coarsely serrated on the edge like the edge of a saw
Seeds: Light brown, v-shaped seeds that fly like little helicopters if caught in the wind
Fun Facts: This is a small tree that does not have just one main trunk. Rather it has many different small trunks together in a clump.
It is one of the first trees to begin growing in an area after a fire or other disturbance.
Leaves: Long and slender
Max Height: 75 feet
Fun Facts: There are over 300 species of willow in the world, some of which occur in the Rocky Mountains. Willows tend to grow near water, such as along rivers and streams.