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.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Popular Christmas Trees

Douglas fir
Do you have your tree yet? Here is a quick guide to popular Christmas trees available in the Portland area.

Native Oregon trees

Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) The #2 Christmas tree in US, #1 in Oregon. Soft, thin needles.

Grand fir
Grand fir (Abies Grandis)  Flat needles. Great aroma and good needle retention.

Noble fir
Noble fir (Abies Procera) Stiff branches with upturned needles. Nice form. Good needle retention.


Nordman fir
Nordman fir (Abies Nordmanniana) Native to S. Europe. A good tree for people with allergies. Good needle retention.

Fraser fir

Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) Native to Tennessee. Good needle retention and scent.

Scots pine
Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) Native to Europe. The #1 Christmas tree in the US. Great needle retention and scent.

For a tour of these and other Christmas trees at Portland's Hoyt Arboretum, see Christmas Trees at Hoyt Arboretum.

A Brief History of Christmas Trees

Early Europeans used evergreen boughs to decorate their homes at the winter solstice.
1500s  Christmas trees decorated in the town square in the capital of Latvia. According to legend, Martin Luther first put a decorated tree in the home.
1600s  Trees commonly decorated with apples in Germany.
1700s  Edible ornaments on trees in Germany. First record of lit candles on trees in France.
1800s  Christmas trees introduced in US by German settlers.
1846  Queen Victoria and family sketched sitting around a Christmas tree, leading to its popularity in England.
1851  First Christmas trees sold in US at a market in NY.
1853   First Christmas tree at the White House.
1882  First electric lights on a Christmas tree by Edward Johnson, protege of Thomas Edison.
1890s  Glass ornaments arrive in US from Germany. Larger trees become popular.
1901  First Christmas tree farm in US.

More information

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Oregon's Rare Cypress

The Modoc cypress (scientific name Cupressus bakeri) is one of Oregon's rarest native conifers. It grows only in about 10 groves in southwest Oregon and northern California. Cypress trees don’t normally grow in cool or wet climates, and true to character, the Modoc cypress favors dry locations. However, it tolerates cold better than other cypresses, growing farther north than any other cypress in North America.

The Flounce Rock grove is the most northern site of Modoc cypress, at the top of a 4000 foot peak near Highway 62, north of Medford. I visited this site last week and took photos of the trees there. 

Meadow at Flounce Rock Grove

After driving almost seven miles of gravel roads, I found the parking area at the end of the road near Flounce Rock. A sign next to an opening in a wood rail fence marks the trail leading to the cypress grove. This short trail leads ¼ mile through mixed conifer woods and across a meadow to the Modoc cypress.

This cypress has gray-green leaves that cling to the stem forming a round covering. The tiny scale-like leaves have distinctive dots of white resin.  The round cones look like Alaska cedar or Port Orford cedar cones, but Modoc Cypress cones are much larger, up to an inch in diameter. The yellow pollen cones grow at the tips of twigs. The thin bark is red on young trees, turning gray and peeling on larger trees.
Modoc cypress is usually a fire-dependent species like knobcone pine. The cones remain closed and on the tree for years until a wildfire causes them to open and release the seeds, which readily germinate on bare soil left by the fire. One exception to this fire dependency is the grove at Flounce Rock, where new seedlings sprouted after trees were blown down in a wind storm.

Although Modoc cypress is usually distinguished as the only cypress native to Oregon, The Oregon Flora Project ( lists two other California species found to be growing in natural stands in Oregon: MacNab's cypress (Cupressus macnabiana) and Sargent cypress (Cupressus sargentii). Cupressus is the genus name of the cypresses. However, some botanists have proposed placing all of the cypresses of the Americas in a new, separate genus. They called this genus Hesperocyparis, which means “western cypress.” If this change is accepted, all of the Oregon native cypresses would be in this new genus and Modoc cypress would be Hesperocyparis bakeri. The species name honors California plant explorer Milo Baker, who discovered the species in 1898. The common name of the species comes from the Modoc tribe, native to the same area as their namesake tree.

More information
Northwest Conifers entry for Cupressus bakeri:
The Gymnosperm Database entry for Cupressus bakeri:
Checklist of Oregon cypress family trees at Oregon Flora Project:
“Cypress Species in Oregon” by Frank Callahan in “Kalmiopsis,” Vo. 20, an interesting account if the discovery and sightings of native cypress:

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Northwest Conifers Quick ID Guide

New at Have you always wanted a tree guide that you could take with you in the woods? I've made a Northwest Conifer Quick ID Guide that you can print and put in your pocket. You can download a PDF or Word version here:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Oldest Trees

Treebeard is Fangorn, the guardian of the forest; he is the oldest of the Ents, the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.
The Two Towers, J. R. R. Tolkien

As noted in the Ancient Trees post, conifers have ancient origins. But conifers are not only ancient in the evolution of trees, they are also the oldest living trees, surviving for thousands of years. Several species of pine, cypress, and yew are among the oldest trees.
General Sherman - Largest Giant Sequoia
Yews Yews can live to be quite old. The oldest known yew is an English yew (taxus baccata) growing in Fortingall, a village in Scotland. Most of the large trunk of the tree is missing, so it's impossible to count tree rings to determine its age, which is estimated to be 1500 to 3000 years old. Redwood Most sources list the oldest redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) as over 2200 years old. However, scientists recently found a living redwood that they determined to be 2520 years old. The world's tallest tree is a 379-ft. redwood called "Hyperion," discovered in 2006 in Redwood National Park. The oldest and tallest redwoods are in California, but they also grow in a few groves in the southwest corner of Oregon. Giant Sequoia The oldest giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), called “The President", is 3200 years old. It is located in the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park. A giant sequoia is also the largest tree in the world. It is General Sherman, located in Giant Forest Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. Coincidentally, the largest giant sequoia in Oregon is in downtown Forest Grove. It is one of many giant sequoias planted in Washington County in the mid 1800’s.

Patagonian cypress
A Patagonian cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides) living in Alerce Costero National Park, Chile is over 3600 years old. One of these trees may be the tallest tree in South America at 187 feet high. The Patagonian cypress grows between 1000 and 3000 feet on mountain slopes and lakeshores.
Bristlecone pine The oldest living trees determined by tree-ring count are bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva). Several are nearly 5000 years old. The oldest known bristlecone pine is over 5000 years old (5060 years old in 2012). It's located in the White Mountains of California south of Mono Lake. Another bristlecone, called “Methuselah,” growing in Inyo County, California, is 4844 years old.

Clonal Trees
Some lists of the oldest trees credit a Norway spruce (Picea abies) growing in Sweden as the oldest living tree. At a reported 9950 years old, this tree is nearly twice the age of the oldest bristlecone pine. But this spruce is a “clonal colony,” that is, a colony of clones of a single ancient ancestor. No single part of the colony is 9950 years old. And as clonal colonies go, this spruce is just a youngster. A clonal colony of quaking aspen in Utah is estimated to be 80,000 years old. This amazing colony covers 106 acres and has over 40,000 tree trunks. However, the oldest of the trees in the colony are only about 130 years old.   

Oregon’s Oldest Tree
The oldest tree in Oregon may be a limber pine (Pinus flexilis) located in the Wallowa Mountains in the northeast corner of the state. Tree rings in the outer 10 inches of the tree date back to the year 1141, but the remaining 20 inches is rotten. The tree is clearly much older than the rings indicate, probably well over 2000 years old. You can view a story on Oregon Field Guide about the tree here:

More Info
Oregon limber pine:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ancient Trees

Conifers have a long history, dating back nearly 300 million years at the end of the Carboniferous Age. But just when life appeared to be going great for conifers, disaster struck in the mother of all extinctions 250 million years ago. Few conifers survived. In fact, none of the conifer families from that time survive to this day. But the conifers that did survive adapted and soon flourished. Conifers ruled the earth for millions of years before the arrival of flowering plants. During the heyday of the conifers, 20,000 species covered the earth, compared to the mere 600 living today. Some of the conifer families of our time have very ancient origins.

Podocarp Family (Scientific name: Podocarpaceae.)
Tasmanian Podocarp
This is an ancient conifer family. The first Podocarps arose 240 million years ago and include 173 living species. The Tasmanian podocarp (Podocarpus alpinus) is native to Australia. Podocarpus, comes from the Greek podos (foot) and karpos (fruit). The cone has a fleshy, berry-like scale with a single seed, similar to those on yew trees.
Monkey Puzzle Tree

The Araucaria family (Araucariaceae)
The Araucaria family dates to 220 million years ago. Now about 40 species, it is found in the southern hemisphere, mostly in tropical rain forests. The monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) grows in the southern Andes. The unique, pointed leaves are quite prickly. The monkey puzzle tree is fire resistant and has edible nuts. It grows to 130 feet. Some trees are 2000 years old. You can find many large monkey puzzle trees growing around Portland. They originated from seedlings that were available at the World's Fair in Portland in 1905.

Ancient Natives

Although Oregon is young geologically, the ancestors of our native conifers are quite ancient. Conifer families native to Oregon include the Pine, Cypress, and Yew families.

Pine Family (Pinaceae)

The pine family includes these native genera: pine, Douglas fir*, fir, hemlock, spruce, and larch. The first pine family trees date to 150 million years ago and now total 232 species. Our most abundant native conifer, the first Douglas fir, appeared 50 million years ago.

Cypress Family (Cupressaceae)

The cypress family dates to 160 million years ago. It totals 142 species and includes cypress, new world cedars**, junipers, and the sequoia sub-family. The cypress family is the most widely distributed family, found on all continents except Antarctica. The first of the Sequoia sub-family, which includes the giant sequoia, redwood, and dawn redwood, appeared 150 million years ago in China. They first appeared in North America 90 million years ago.

Dawn Redwood
The Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia gliptostroboides): Sequoia-like fossils have been found all over North America and Europe. The fossils were classified as Metasequoia in 1941. Metasequoia was widely described as a "living fossil" after living specimens were discovered and collected in China in 1943. Hoyt Arboretum received seeds in 1948. One of the trees grown from these seeds was the first dawn redwood to produce cones outside of China in over 6 million years. Metasequoia fossils are abundant at the John Day Fossil Beds, where they commonly grew 30 million years ago. The Oregon legislature designated Metasequoia as the Oregon State Fossil in 2005.
Pacific Yew

Yew Family (Taxaceae)

Yews date to 175 million years ago, the most ancient of our native trees. The family now includes 28 species, mostly in the northern hemisphere. Oregon’s native yew is the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). Taxol derived from the bark of this tree was used to treat cancer in the 1990’s. This rare tree would be endangered today, but researchers found a way to synthesize taxol from more common yews.

Maidenhair Tree (Scientific name: Ginkgo biloba)
The maidenhair tree is an unusual tree that is even more ancient than any of the living conifer families. Ginkgo-like fossils date to 270 million years ago. Modern Ginkgos are native to China, but have been widely planted wherever the climate is temperate or tropical. 
Maidenhair Tree
Maidenhair Fern
If you compare the unique leaves to the leaves of the maidenhair fern, you can see why it’s called the maidenhair tree. Pollen and seeds are produced on separate trees. Since the female trees produce seeds with a soft, foul-smelling outer layer, most planted ginkgos are male. Since Ginkgos are deciduous with broad, flat leaves, you might expect that they are related to other broad-leaf trees, but this is not the case. Ginkgos are more closely related to the conifers.

* Douglas fir is not a true fir. That is, it is not a member of the Abies genus. It is classified in another genus: Pseudotsuga.
**The cedars of North America are not true cedars. That is, they are not members of the Cedrus genus. The true cedars are native to the Mediterranean area and the Himalayas.

More Info

A Natural History of Conifers by Aljos Farjon. Dates from p. 67.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Giant Spruce Trees

Klootchy Creek Giant
Searching for giant trees is a favorite past time for many Oregonians. I remember visiting the Klootchy Creek Giant Spruce near Seaside many times. Its size was impressive: over 17 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall. It was once touted as the world's largest Sitka spruce, a distinction it shared with the Quinault Lake Spruce in Washington. Then the Klootchy Creek Giant lost a big piece of its trunk during a windstorm in 2007. In 2011, it was cut down to this large stump that you can visit now without worrying that another piece might fall off.

Cape Meares Spruce
With the demise of the Klootchy Creek Giant, another Sitka spruce has the distinction of being the largest, at least in the state of Oregon. It is located at Cape Meares at the end of a short trail that starts where Cape Meares Lighthouse Drive meets Bayshore Dr. It's 144 feet tall and 15.5 feet in diameter.

Another notable Sitka spruce at Cape Meares is the Octopus Tree. Its branches were bent when it was younger so that they grew out and then up, forming the shape of an octopus. This was evidently a special meeting place of Tillamook tribal natives. Now it has a massive base with huge limbs reaching out from the trunk before they ascend to over 100 feet. It's located and the end of a short trail that leads up from the parking lot at the lighthouse.
Octopus Tree at Cape Meares

Cape Perpetua Giant Spruce
Another impressive Sitka spruce is located near Cape Perpetua south of Yachats. It's not as massive as the one at Cape Meares, but it is taller. It is over 185 feet high and almost 16 feet in diameter. It's located at the end of the Giant Spruce Trail that begins at the Cape Perpetua Visitor Center.

Finally, if you want to see the world champion Sitka spruce, now you will have to drive up the coast of Washington to the south shore of Lake Quinault. It's at the end of a short trail next to Rain Forest Resort Village.

Lake Quinault Spruce                                                    

Klootchy Creek Giant Sitka Spruce
Cape Meares Big Spruce
Cape Perpetua Giant Spruce
Lake Quinault Spruce

Friday, May 9, 2014

Pollen Allergies

Are you sneezing yet? If so, it's more likely to be from grass pollen than that produced by conifers. Although conifers produce great amounts of pollen, it's generally not as likely to cause allergies as other sources. Pines, in particular, generate great yellow clouds of pollen. But the pollen grains are larger and heavier and less likely to travel far enough to cause allergy problems. On the other hand,  the pollen from the cypress family, especially junipers, cause more allergic reactions.

Here is a short update on the development of pollen cones, which I've been following this spring. The photos here show two stages of Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis) pollen cone development. In the first photo, you can see the tiny pollen sacs on each cone. The cones begin to elongate and and the pollen sacs separate along a short stem. Then the pollen sacs dry out and burst open releasing the pollen into the air. The photo on the right shows a cone after pollen release.

Later, the pollen cones wither and turn brown. They can remain on the tree for a some time, but eventually they fall off. These photos were taken at Hoyt Arboretum in Portland. Since Pacific Silver Firs naturally grow in the higher elevations of the Cascade Mountains, they will be shedding pollen later this spring.

Pollen cones on other conifers develop in a similar way. Here are the pollen cones of Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), which disperse their pollen in April. These trees grow at lower elevations in the Northwest. If you are allergic to pollen and start sneezing as you hike the trails of Portland's Forest Park, these won't be the culprits. The only native conifer there with allergenic pollen is Western Red Cedar Thuja plicata.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Conifer Pollination

Pacific Silver Fir pollen cones
It is that time of year, when the cherry blossoms bloom and everyone with pollen allergies begins to sneeze. These flowering plants get a lot of attention this time of year. After all, the strategies they have developed to attract insects and birds to assist in pollination are also appealing to us. By our normal standards of floral beauty, conifers don't produce beautiful flowers as such, but they have developed their own amazing, complex strategies that accomplish what flowers and bees do without the help of either. And they have been doing it for millions of years, before there were either bees or flowers. And what is the primary agent of conifer pollination? Wind. Conifers produce prodigious amounts of pollen, which is carried by the wind, often straight to the noses of susceptible humans. But the wind also delivers conifer pollen to the small, immature cones that develop into seed cones.

Douglas Fir pollen cones
Conifers produce two separate types of cones: male pollen cones and female seed cones. We are all familiar with the large seed cones, but it is easy to overlook the tiny pollen cones. If you look closely, you can see them in great numbers in the spring. After the pollen cones release their pollen, they often fall to the ground. You can see large numbers of them under Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees in late spring.

Most conifers are monoecious. That is, they produce both male and female cones on the same tree. This presents some problems, because it is usually not good to allow a tree to pollinate its own seed cones. Self-pollination seldom produces viable seeds, and when it does, the resulting trees are often inferior to those produced by cross-pollination from other trees. With this in mind, it is no surprise that conifers have developed various strategies to minimize self-pollination:
  • Conifers often produce pollen cones lower in the tree than the seed cones. The wind is more likely to blow the pollen to another tree than up to the seed cones above on the same tree. This is particularly true of the firs, which produce seed cones near the treetop. Their pollen cones are typically lower in the tree.
  • Western Hemlock pollen cones
  • Some trees stagger the development of pollen cones and seed cones. The seed cones will be receptive to the pollen before or after the pollen cones release their pollen. Due to variability in the timing of the development of different trees, pollination will happen between trees. As you can see in the photo here, Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) produces both seed cones and pollen cones on the same branches. (The seed cone is older, but there is an old pollen cone near its top.) The timing of pollen release is different than the time that the seed cones are receptive to the pollen.
  • Some conifers are dioecious. That is, they produce pollen cones and seed cones on separate trees. Self-pollination is impossible on these trees. The Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) is the only dioecious native conifer in the Northwest. You can find these yews growing throughout the Northwest, usually a solitary tree growing in the shade of other conifers. In fact, they are so widely dispersed that they often live a solitary, celibate life and don't reproduce at all.
  • Ponderosa Pine pollen cones
  • Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) has an interesting growth pattern that enhances cross-pollination. The young trees start producing pollen cones before they produce seed cones. These young trees can pollinate the cones on larger trees.
The pollen cones on conifers often go unnoticed, but you may have seen the the tiny pollen cones on Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens). Because they appear just before Christmas, you will often see Christmas wreaths made of Incense Cedar with bright yellow pollen cones on the ends of the branchlets.

Incense Cedar pollen cones
Conifer Reproductive Biology by Claire G. Williams, pp. 126-128.
Lives of Conifers by Graham R. Powell, pp. 155-164.