Common Trees of the Rocky Mountains

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.

This leads to certain forest zones in the Rocky Mountains.  At different elevations there are a few common trees.  However, above a certain elevation, tree line, there are no more trees.

Common Trees of Rocky Mountains

Aspen

tree aspen leaf singleType:  Broadleaf deciduous

Leaves:  Nearly round with small teeth on the edges

Seeds:  Very small, cottony seeds

Max Height:  80 feet

tree aspen fallFun Facts:  Aspen grow quickly (faster than evergreens) and because of that they are the first trees to grow in areas that have been disturbed by fire, avalanche, or something else.

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.

Cottonwood

tree cottonwood leafType:  Broadleaf Deciduous

Leaves: 1-3 inches long, heart shaped with wavy edges

Seeds:  Fluffy white seeds, like cotton

tree cottonwood treeMax Height:  120 feet

Fun Facts:  This tree grows near water at lower elevations.  The Cottonwood is a major food source for Rocky Mountain Beavers.

Douglas-Fir

tree douglas fir coneType:  Evergreen

Needles:  1 inch long and flattish, green above with two white stripes on the bottom; they have a lemony smell when crushed

tree douglas firCone:  2-3 inches long with what looks like tongues sticking out from between the cone scales; cones hang down on the tree

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.

Englemann’s Spruce

trees englemanns spruce closeType: Evergreen

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).

Lodgepole Pine

tree lodgepole pine needlesType:  Evergreen

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

trees lodgepole pines 1Fun Facts:  This is the most common conifer (evergreen) found in the Northern Rocky Mountains.  It grows very straight.

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.

Pinyon Pine

tree pinyon pine coneType:  Evergreen

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

tree pinyon pine 1

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

trees rocky mountain maple leavesType:  Broadleaf Deciduous

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

trees rocky mountain mapleMax Height: 30 feet

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.

Willow

tree willow leavesType:  Broadleaf Deciduous

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.

tree willow weepingIn the past people used Willow bark to help cure their pain.  They would chew on the bark, which would help their pain feel better.  Scientists studied the bark and created aspirin from it.