This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Focus on Port Orford Cedar

Port Orford cedar is a large, attractive tree native to southwest Oregon. The leaves are small, flat scales, often with a white X pattern on the lower surface. This pattern is unique for cedars of the Pacific Northwest. The cones are round and woody, similar to Alaska cedar and many cypress cones. The bark is brown with flat ridges and furrows, becoming thick on old trees. The thick bark helps the tree resist fire. However, the bane of Port Orford cedar is a fungus that attacks the roots. The remaining stands not cut down for lumber have been decimated by this root rot, which arrived in the native forests in the early 1950’s.

Many conifers in the Pacific Northwest have a large range, sometimes extending to Alaska or California. Port Orford cedar? Not so much. It is confined to a small area along the Pacific Coast from Coos Bay, Oregon to the Klamath River in California, extending to 5000 feet in the Siskiyou Mountains. However, they may have had a greater range at one time. Or maybe some made a run to the north. They are still growing in a small area near Florence, Oregon. You can see some at the Darlingtonia State Natural Site, north of Florence.
Port Orford cedar cones

A fire in the early 1950’s burned a wide area of Portland’s Forest Park in the vicinity of Saltzman Road. During replanting, several locations were replanted with Port Orford Cedar for some reason (probably because native seedlings were in short supply due to replanting in the Tillamook State Forest). You can find these Port Orford cedars growing in Forest Park along the Wildwood Trail at miles 14.3 and 16.6. More grow at the top of the Dogwood Trail and above Leif Erikson Drive near the junction with the Cleator Trail. Hoyt Arboretum has a few Port Orford cedars, but many have succumbed to the root fungus. Infected trees first show brown leaves in the lower branches.Two healthy ones remain along the Lookout Trail. Most of the specimens along the Redwood Trail have been lost, but some new ones that are resistant to the root disease have been planted there.  These seedlings came from the Dorena Genetic Resource Center, which has been working with Oregon State University to research and grow Port Orford cedars that are resistant to the root disease.

Sign on the Redwood Trail at Hoyt Arboretum
Spring is a good time to look for Port Orford cedars, when their distinctive, pollen cones appear. They are small, like most pollen cones in the cypress family, but their bright red color is striking and unique.

Port Orford cedar pollen cones
The scientific name of Port Orford cedar is Chamaecyparis lawsoniana. The species name, lawsoniana was named after nurseryman Peter Lawson of Scotland, who distributed cultivars throughout Europe. Port Orford cedar is one of the most cultivated conifers, with over 500 varieties. They display an amazing variety of colors, forms, and sizes. 

Current uses of the wood are similar to western red cedar. The whitish wood is strong and resists rot, making it a desirable  alternative to western red cedar. It became popular in Japan because of its similarity to hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), one of the five sacred trees of Japan and an important tree used in Japanese architecture. However, limited supply and popularity in Japan have forced up the price of Port Orford cedar to levels among the highest for any Northwest tree.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Focus on Alaska Cedar

Years ago, I was working for a home builder in The Dalles, Oregon. At one point, the local lumber yard delivered a load of 2 X 4 Alaska cedar decking. As the load dropped to the ground, we noticed that the wood was a curious yellow color. Closer inspection revealed that the wood had a smooth, waxy surface and a distinctive, unpleasant smell. Some years later, while hiking on the south side of Mt. Rainier, I saw what looked to me like an Alaska cedar. To be sure, I stuck a knife blade into the trunk. Sure enough, when I pulled it out and smelled the blade, it smelled just like the 2 x 4 decking. It’s not often that it’s possible to identify a tree by its odor.

Alaska cedar is an attractive narrow tree, easily recognized by its distinctive drooping branchlets. The leaves are scaled with pointed tips that can be prickly. The small round cones are distinctive for conifers of the Cascades, although they look similar to those of Port Orford cedar, which grows along the south coast of Oregon. The bark is gray, and the stringy strips are often detached, giving it a scruffy look. When looking for Alaska cedar, don’t forget to also use your nose. When crushed, the leaves also have an unpleasant smell.

Alaska cedar grows in the upper elevations of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains. You can also find it throughout Southeast Alaska, where it grows down to sea level. In colder regions, it grows where there is deep snow, which protects its shallow roots from freezing. Ironically, the warming climate may cause freeze damage to the roots, as snowpacks become thinner. If you drive to Government Camp on Mt. Hood, you can see some Alaska cedar growing in town. You are likely to see Alaska cedar growing in urban areas, where its attractive, weeping form is desirable for plantings as an ornamental. A number of them are growing at Portland’s Hoyt Arboretum along Fischer Lane.

The wood of Alaska cedar is strong and resists rotting. Sometimes called yellow cedar, the wood is light yellow and turns brighter yellow when wet. The native people of Canada's west coast and Southeast Alaska made canoe paddles, bows, and many other tools and implements from Alaska cedar. Today it is used to make furniture, boats, window frames, shingles, and siding. You can find beautiful carvings of Alaska cedar in gift shops in Southeast Alaska.

Pollen cones

The scientific name of Alaska cedar is Callitropsis nootkatensis, formerly Chamaecyparis nootkatensis. The classification of this conifer has been the subject of much recent discussion and indecision among botanists. Other proposed genus names include Xanthocyparis, Cupressus and Hesperocyparis. The species name, nootkatensis, is derived from the name of the Nootka people of Vancouver Island. Oregon Flora shows Callitropsis nootkatensis as the name. Other common names include yellow cedar, Nootka cypress, yellow cypress, and Alaska cypress.

Note: Like the other cedars of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska cedar is not a true cedar. That is, its genus is not Cedrus, the genus of the true cedars from the Middle East and Himalayas. Some writers indicate this by writing the name as "Alaska-cedar."

More Info

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Focus on Incense Cedar

My first encounter with incense cedar wasn’t a sighting. It was a smelling… of trees in Yosemite Valley below Yosemite Falls. Walking through the trees there, I noticed the pleasant aroma and asked a ranger what it was. He told me I was smelling incense cedar. With such an overpowering aromatic presence, this tree is well-named. These aromatic qualities have contributed to its wide use in cedar chests and closets. Its resistance to decay makes it a good choice for siding and other outdoor uses.

You may not realize it, but you have most certainly used small amounts of incense cedar. It has been the preferred wood for making pencils for many years. However, planting incense cedar as an ornamental is surely more noble than its use in pencils. Its slow growth and beauty make it a preferred landscaping tree. Incense cedar displays bright pollen cones in the fall. You often see them on branchlets in Christmas wreaths.

Leaves and pollen cones
Incense cedar has small, flat scale-like leaves forming overlapping, long, wedge-shaped joints. The leaves are often described as forming the shape of a wine glass, but beer drinkers would swear that they are shaped like a beer glass. This pattern, often outlined in white, is distinct to incense cedar. The foliage forms flat sprays that often have a vertical orientation, unlike western red cedar, which has drooping sprays with a horizontal orientation.

The reddish-brown bark looks similar to western red cedar, but it is deeply furrowed on large trees. The best way to identify incense cedar is by its unique cones if any are present. The differences that distinguish incense cedar leaves and bark from other cedars may be subtle, but incense cedar cones are unmistakably unique. They are shaped like a duck's bill, and when they mature, they open, looking like an open bill with its tongue sticking out.

Incense cedar is primarily a California tree, growing in the mountains throughout the length of the state. But some grow in the Oregon Cascades north to the south slopes of Mt. Hood. None are native to the Washington Cascades, at least, not yet. As the climate warms, they may be headed north. While our other cedars in the Pacific Northwest (western red cedar, Alaska cedar, and Port Orford cedar) favor wet areas, incense cedar tolerates dry conditions. It is moderately shade tolerant, but less so than our other native cedars. You can find incense cedar growing in the southern parts of the Mt. Hood National Forest. As you travel south in the Cascades, they become more common, also growing in the coastal mountains of southwest Oregon. If you want to see incense cedar in the Portland area, several were planted at Hoyt Arboretum along the connector trail between Bray Lane and the Redwood Trail. More are growing along the Marquam Trail, west of the Vietnam Memorial.

The scientific name of incense cedar is Calocedrus decurrens. Calocedrus means "beautiful cedar." Decurrens describes how the leaves extend down the stem. The English form of the word is "decurrent."

Note that the cedars native to North America are not true cedars. That is, they do not belong to the genus Cedrus, the genus of the cedars from the Middle East and Himalayas. Common names often can be misleading. However, did you notice that cedrus is embedded in the genus name of incense cedar? Even the scientific name suggests a close relationship to the genus Cedrus. Scientific names can be misleading, too.
See also
New World Cedars
Western Red Cedar

Monday, May 25, 2020

Focus on Mountain Hemlock

“My God. It’s full of stars.” This is what Dave Bowman exclaimed when he looked into the monolith orbiting Jupiter in the classic science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. If he had looked at a mountain hemlock, he might have said the same thing. The needles at the tips of the twigs often look like tiny stars with bright blue-white beams of needles radiating out from a point. The needles of other hemlocks tend to lie flat and have white stomatal bands only on the lower surface.

With complete disregard to any sense of order, the needles of mountain hemlock point in all directions. The needles are short like Western Hemlock, but they have white stomatal bands on both sides of the needle, often giving it a bluish color. The leader at the top of the tree curves and droops over like Western Hemlock. The cones of mountain hemlock are also distinctive. They are about two inches long, three times the size of other hemlocks. In fact, mountain hemlock is so different from other hemlocks that some botanists once thought that it was a hybrid between hemlock and spruce.

Tsuga Mertensiana is the scientific name of mountain hemlock. Tsuga is the Japanese name for hemlock.  The species name, mertensiana, comes from Karl H. Mertens, a German botanist, who first collected specimens in southeast Alaska while on a Russian expedition in 1827.

Mountain Hemlock grows in the higher elevations of the Cascades and Olympic Mountains, often at the timberline with subalpine fir and whitebark pine. Below the timberline, it sometimes grows in pure stands of large trees. However, at the timberline, it often remains a dwarf, creeping shrub, where winter snow flattens it to the ground. In these park-like settings, the hemlocks also grow in clumps, which contain one or more old, large trees and several young trees. The range of mountain hemlock extends into the High Sierras of California, where it grows at higher elevations, the northern Rocky Mountains, and along the coast of Alaska to Anchorage, where it grows down to sea level.

Mountain hemlock at Gnarl Ridge

As you gain elevation when hiking in the mountains of Oregon, you will see mountain hemlocks growing among the western hemlocks, starting at about 3500 feet elevation. By the time you reach 4500 feet, the western hemlocks give way to mountain hemlocks. However, you don’t have to drive up to the mountains to find mountain hemlocks. You can see them planted as ornamentals in urban areas. Look for the bluish color and the drooping top. They thrive even at lower elevations, but grow slowly, which makes them a fitting landscaping tree.

Mountain hemlock has little value as lumber. However, it is an important factor in watershed protection, a fact not lost on people in Portland, which gets its water from Bull Run Lake near Mt. Hood. The water from Bull Run is renowned for its purity, thanks to the mountain hemlock and other trees in the forest above the lake. We can also appreciate the scenic beauty of mountain hemlocks growing in and around grassy alpine meadows. You can see them at Paradise on the south slope of Mount Rainier, at Elk Meadows east of Mount Hood, in Jefferson Park on the north side of Mount Jefferson, and in the Three Sisters Wilderness.

John Muir was impressed by the contrast between its delicate appearance and its ability to thrive in the harshest conditions, spending the long, cold winter at the timberline under many feet of snow. “No other of our alpine conifers so finely veils its strength. Its delicate branches yield to the mountains' gentlest breath; yet is it strong to meet the wildest onsets of the gale,—strong not in resistance, but compliance, bowing, snow-laden, to the ground, gracefully accepting burial month after month in the darkness beneath the heavy mantle of winter…. Thus warmly wrapped they await the summer resurrection. (The Mountains of California, Ch 8 “The Forests”) Curiously some observers have noted that mountain hemlocks may need the protection of all this snow. The roots may freeze in cold environments where there is little snowfall. Heavy snowfall can insulate these delicate roots. John Muir called the mountain hemlock “... ineffably beautiful, the very loveliest of all the American conifers.” (The Yosemite, Ch. 6) Mountain hemlock is one of my favorites, too. Look for them the next time you’re up in the mountains or shopping at a local nursery.

See also
Focus on Westerm Hemlock

More info on mountain hemlock
Gymnosperm Database

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Focus on Hemlocks

Hemlock trees are not the source of the poison hemlock that killed Socrates. They are not poisonous and not even related to poison hemlock, but the foliage looks similar, and crushed needles have a similar smell. This, no doubt, led European settlers of North America to call these trees hemlocks. The scientific name of the hemlock genus is Tsuga, which also has a curious origin. Rather than the usual Latin name, Tsuga is the Japanese name for Japanese hemlock. In the nineteenth century, hemlocks were first classified as a pine, then as a fir, and later as a spruce. After the discovery of Japanese hemlock, hemlocks were assigned to the genus Tsuga.

Hemlocks are in the pine family (scientific name: Pinaceae) and are unique in the family. They have a distinctive drooping leader at the top of the tree. Hemlocks also have the smallest cones in the pine family. They can tolerate growing in the shade of other large trees for years. However, hemlocks can grow to enormous size and eventually dominate other trees in the forest. Although they can grow in the shade of Douglas fir for hundreds of years, in the normal succession of a Douglas fir forest, the hemlocks will eventually prevail, forming the canopy of the mature forest.

Western hemlock
At least nine species of hemlock grow in North America and Asia. Curiously, they are absent from Europe. Four species are native to North America, with two of them in the Pacific Northwest, western hemlock and mountain hemlock. They are important commercial trees, used to make lumber, plywood and pulp for paper. However, the beauty of their drooping form and delicate branchlets far exceeds their usefulness as lumber. And pulp? How degrading. Their purpose is better served by horticulturists, who have developed many popular cultivars.

Mountain hemlock
Hemlock needles are short and usually flattened on the twig, but they have a tendency to deviate from their flattened position. The needles are dark on top with two white lines on the lower surface. The cones are usually less than an inch long, and the scales are thin and rounded. Mountain hemlock is an exception to these characteristics, with bluish needles that make no pretense about lying flat, surrounding the twig in all directions. Also, the cones are over achievers, being twice as large as other hemlock cones.

Western hemlock at Elk Mountain
Hemlocks flourish in wet, cool environments. They can tolerate a heavy snowpack, not with strength, but by bending. They will spring back when the snow melts in the spring. On the other hand, one thing they do not tolerate is drought. Unless you live east of the Cascade Mountains, a hemlock would be a graceful addition to your yard, whether it is a cultivar or one of our natives.

More info
Tsuga at
Tsuga in Wikipedia