Trees of the Black Hills
April 26, 2021

The Black Hills in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, cover an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide. They encompass rugged rock formations, canyons and gulches, open grassland parks, tumbling streams, deep blue lakes, and unique caves.

The name "Black Hills" comes from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which mean "hills that are black." Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills, rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie, appear black.

Some of the most common types of trees that are found in the Black Hills are Ponderosa Pine, Black Hills Spruce, Quaking Aspen, Paper Birch and Bur Oak.

Ponderosa Pine
They are well-suited to the patterns of low-severity wildfire that were once common through much of the West.  Because the ponderosa pine sheds its lower branches as it grows and has thick bark, it would be relatively unscathed from fires that creep along the ground.  Ponderosa pine grow in most areas, from rocky cliffs to along streams and rivers.  Size is a hard way to judge the age of a ponderosa pine – a 30 inch-diameter tree could be 60 years old or 600 years.  The ponderosa pine is of vital use to tribes who have used its boughs, pitch and needles to produce medicine; its roots to make blue dye; needles for insulation and boards for construction.  Due to its commercial and habitat value, ponderosa pine is one of the several species grown and distributed for replanting after fires.

Black Hills Spruce
Black Hills spruce trees grow in large, conical shapes.  The dark, green needles grown to 1 ¼ inch in length and each needle is attached to the stems individually.  The tree is both male and female.  The bark of an adult tree appears a medium brown and easily flakes off to reveal shades of gray.  The Black Hills spruce tree grows naturally in the Black Hills area of South Dakota and is a variation of a white spruce.  The tree can grow to a height of 95 feet with a large canopy spread of about 42 feet.

Quaking Aspen
The quaking aspen is an important species of tree for wildlife throughout its range, providing food and shelter for mammals and birds.  The quaking aspen is also a vital source of pulpwood in the Great Lakes States and a mainstay of many Canadian industries as well.  The tree’s odd name comes from the fact that its leaves will tremble in even the slightest breeze.  The reason for this lies is the stems of the foliage, which makes the weakest breeze move the leaves in unison, creating an effect that you can hear as the leaves move back and forth.  This comes in handy during high winds, as the leaves’ design reduces air drag that can break the branches and trunks of other species.  No other tree in North America has a wider distribution geographically than quaking aspen.  Quaking aspen is among the first trees to grow after a forest fire, and it colonizes areas where logging has depleted the other trees.

Paper Birch
The paper birch tree is also known as the American White Birch or the Canoe Birch.  The bark of this tree is reddish brown when the tree is young.  As it grows old, the bark turns papery white and peels off like a paper.  This is why this tree is named as the paper birch tree.

Bur Oak
The bur oak is native to the eastern and central United States and also is commonly known as the blue oak, mossycup oak and scrub oak, and gets its name from the appearance of its acorns.  They have a burred fringe on their caps; its acorns are also larger than those of all other oak species native to the United States.  A mature bur oak tree has a broad, rounded canopy and usually reaches a height of 70 to 80 feet.  It has a long lifespan, though, and may survive more than 400 years.  In its native habitats, bur oak can tolerate a wide range of soil types and moisture levels, and its thick bark helps it to resist damage from fire.

For many people, from early Native Americans to today's visitors, the Black Hills has been a special place to come for physical and spiritual renewal. In August 1874, A.B. Donaldson, one of several newspaper correspondents with General George A. Custer's historic Black Hills Expedition, wrote the following:

The lover of nature could here find his soul's delight; the invalid regain his health; the old, be rejuvenated; the weary find sweet repose and invigoration; and all who could come and spend the heated season here would find it the pleasantest summer home in America.

Millions of visitors who come to the Black Hills each year still find it a pleasant place during any season. 


Information in this blog post came from the Black Hills National Forest and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture 

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