Which Pine Tree Smells Like Vanilla?

There are many varieties of evergreen trees that comprise the forests of the North American west, and many of these evergreens are pines. Have you ever been in one of these forests and caught a whiff of vanilla? Perhaps you’re wondering what particular pine species produces such a unique smell. If so, read on. In this article, we’ll answer the question, “Which pine tree smells like vanilla?” and discuss some related questions you may have.

Which Pine Tree Smells Like Vanilla?

which pine tree smells like vanilla

There are actually two different kinds of pine trees that sometimes produce the unique vanilla scent: ponderosa pines and Jeffrey pines. Let’s take a closer look at each of these trees.

Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa pines are known scientifically as pinus ponderosa. These are some of the tallest pine trees in the west and typically live to around 700 years of age.

Ponderosa pines grow throughout many western mountain ranges, typically at elevations of 3,000 to 9,000 feet. They prefer only moderate amounts of moisture. 

Ponderosa pines sometimes produce a distinctive aroma, especially on warm, sunny days. The aroma has been compared to vanilla, butterscotch, cinnamon, coconut, and baking cookies.

Those who have smelled the aroma agree that it is a wonderful scent and wish that it could be duplicated. However, the smell seems to come and go; sometimes it fills the air, other times it is only faintly noticeable, and still other times it is completely absent.

Jeffrey Pine

The scientific name of the Jeffrey pine is pinus jeffreyi. To the casual observer, this tree holds many similarities to the ponderosa pine, though it is somewhat shorter-lived; these trees live an average of 400 to 500 years.

That said, Jeffrey pine has a much smaller range than ponderosa pine. It is found primarily in California, with its borders reaching to southern Oregon in the north, western Nevada in the east, and Baja California in the south.

Jeffrey pine trees produce a similar aroma as ponderosa pines. It has commonly been described as smelling like vanilla or butterscotch; the scent has also been compared with apples, lemons, pineapple, and violets.

The best way to enjoy the aroma is to break off a small shoot or bruise some pine needles, or by sniffing close to a fissure in the bark. 

Why Do These Pine Trees Smell Like Vanilla?

Scientists are not sure why ponderosa and Jeffrey pines produce these unique aromas, much less why the smell is strong at times and practically nonexistent at others.

What is known is that the smell is produced by chemical compounds in the trees’ sap known as terpenes. These compounds are responsible for attracting and repelling various forms of wildlife in plants.

Some speculate that the aroma is more noticeable on warm days because the warmth causes the sap to flow better and enhances the smell–similar to how the smell of food is enhanced by being warmed on the stove.

However, this is only speculation; the exact reason for why ponderosas and Jeffreys smell like vanilla (or other things) remains a mystery.

What Are Some Other Ways to Identify Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pines?

As noted above, ponderosa pines and Jeffrey pines both look and smell similar to each other; so, how can you tell them apart? What are their unique identifying features?

Perhaps the most notable difference is that ponderosa pines have a much larger range. They can be found throughout much of the west, while Jeffrey pines are primarily found in California.

So, if you’re outside of the Jeffrey pine’s natural range, you are most likely seeing and smelling a ponderosa pine. 

That said, ponderosas can be found in the same areas as Jeffreys; so if you live near or are visiting a forest with both kinds of trees, you may have to look a little harder to spot differences.

If you’re not sure whether you’re looking at a ponderosa or a Jeffrey, check out the tree’s pinecones. Jeffreys generally have larger pinecones with downward-facing spikes, while ponderosas have smaller cones with outward-facing spikes.

To learn more about pinecone differences, check out this video:

Both ponderosas and Jeffreys have blackish bark when they are young that turns more of an orange or yellow color as they mature. However, ponderosa bark takes on a more jigsaw-puzzle appearance and often changes color on only one side of the trunk; these are its more distinguishing features.

Finally, ponderosa saplings tend to grow more quickly than Jeffrey saplings, but Jeffreys grow more quickly once they reach the pole stage. This isn’t a reliable identifying feature, however, since you would have to observe two trees growing side by side over a period of time, and other factors can also impact the rate of growth.


Both ponderosa pines and Jeffrey pines have been described as sometimes smelling like vanilla, as well as other scents such as butterscotch and baking cookies. The aroma is due to the terpenes in the sap, but it’s unclear why the terpenes occasionally produce these particular aromas.

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