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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Focus on Grand Fir

Grand fir is the only true fir found in the lower elevations of the Pacific Northwest, so it’s no surprise that it’s sometimes called “lowland fir.” David Douglas was more impressed when he found large specimens growing near the Columbia River on one of his journeys to the Northwest and named it grand fir, Abies grandis. It deserves this grander name. It can grow to 200 feet tall.

Needles: Grand fir is easy to identify just by looking at its needles. They spread out on opposite sides of the twig in flattened rows, unlike any other conifer in the Northwest. 
However, you may notice that when growing in direct sunlight the needles sometimes crowd to the top of the twig. Each twig typically has a mixture of long and short needles, the longer ones being about 1.5 inches. The individual needles are flat with a groove along the top. Their color is a dark, shiny green on top with two white lines underneath. Pacific silver fir, which grows at mid to higher elevations of the Cascades has similar needles but they point forward and upward rather than lying flat like grand fir. However, if you find a twig blown out of the top of a grand fir, it can look very much like it came from a Pacific silver fir.

Note the non-flat needles
Cones: You can hike the forests of the Northwest for years and never see a grand fir cone. They sit upright on the branches near the treetop and are difficult for ground-dwelling humans to see. Like other firs, grand fir cones fall apart at maturity, dispersing the winged seeds and leaving a cone core spike on the branch. You won't find grand fir cones on the ground unless they were dropped by a squirrel, which happens more often than you might think.

Bark: The gray bark is smooth with blisters on small branches, breaking into flat ridges and narrow furrows on large trees. It is easily distinguished from the deeply furrowed bark of Douglas fir or the stringy western red cedar bark, but looks similar to the bark of western hemlock.

Grand fir grows at lower elevations throughout most of western Oregon and Washington, but it also grows at elevations up to 5000 feet. It is the only true fir you will find growing below 1500 feet. (Remember, Douglas fir is not a true fir.) Grand fir is a moderately shade-tolerant tree that thrives in moist areas. It is not as abundant as Western Hemlock in its range, but you can usually find it growing here and there among the other conifers, often under larger Douglas fir. Grand fir is more common in the mountains of northern Idaho, occasionally growing in pure stands.

The grand firs that grow east of the summit of the Cascades are sometimes characterized as a separate variety. These eastern trees grow significantly slower than the west slope trees.

Like other true firs, grand fir is used to make plywood and paper. It is also one of the species of lumber sold as “Hem-Fir,” indicating that it is either hemlock or fir. It is not as strong as Douglas fir lumber, but is used in home construction for framing. The white, soft wood is easy to work with and does not split when nailed, which makes it an ideal choice for baseboards and other mouldings. Christmas tree lots often feature grand fir. Its dark-green needles and its strong fir-like fragrance make it a popular choice. If you are allergic to the strong fragrance, you might consider it for outside planting, and choose a similar-looking Nordmann fir for a Christmas tree.

The biggest grand firs grow in western Washington. The largest by volume is in Olympic National Park.  The tallest is 267 feet in height. It’s located in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in the North Cascades.

Looking for grand fir in the Cascades near Crater Lake and the coastal mountains of southwest Oregon can be tricky. Grand fir in these areas hybridizes with white fir (Abies concolor). The characteristics of the hybrids can vary between these two species.

See also

Monday, June 15, 2015

Focus on Western Red Cedar

If you are a fan of ferns, you will love western red cedar (Scientific name: Thuja plicata). This conifer looks like a fern on steroids. It is big, even for a tree, sometimes growing to 200 feet. But its foliage of scale-like leaves spreads out in delicate, fern-like sprays. It is easily recognizable in the lower elevations of northwest Oregon and western Washington because it is the only conifer with scale-like leaves. In the Cascades where other cedars grow, you can distinguish western red cedar by the shape of the leaves, which are about as wide as they are long, and by looking at the lower surface of the leaves, which often have a white butterfly-shaped pattern.

The 1/2-inch cones are smaller than western hemlock cones. They sit on top of the branches, often in great numbers. Each cone looks like a tiny rose bud. You can easily recognize a western red cedar even when the branches are too high to see either leaf or cone. Just look for a tree trunk with thin, stringy strips of brown bark. The base is usually buttressed to a greater degree than other conifers.

Western red cedar thrives in wet areas near streams, but don’t be surprised if you find it growing on hillsides and even ridgetops in the coastal forests, where rainfall can top 80 inches in a year. In the Cascades, it often grows to an elevation of 5000 feet. In some locations, it grows higher, for example, around the rim of Crater Lake.

The delicate beauty of western red cedar is well-known. It adorns the cool woods where hikers walk and is a popular and attractive choice in landscaping in its native form. A number of cultivars are available from nurseries, many with patches of yellow foliage.   

Building our sunroom
The wood of western red cedar is light and soft. It has a pungent, pleasing smell and an attractive red-brown color. Its resistance to rotting makes it the wood of choice for many uses, including shingles, siding, decking, and fencing. The most remarkable and extensive uses of western red cedar were before European settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest. For thousands of years, it was the most important tree to the people who lived in the region, playing an important part in nearly every aspect of life. It was widely used in making canoes, totem poles, tools, and utensils. Without the benefit of saws, they were able to drive wedges into standing trees and split off boards that they used to build lodges. They stripped the bark and used it to make rope, baskets, mats, fishing nets, and even clothing.

Names: The genus name, Thuja, is derived from the Greek name for a kind of juniper. Plicata means "pleated," referring to the pattern of its leaves. Note that the genus of western red cedar is not Cedrus, the genus of the true cedars from the Middle East and Himalayas. The Indian name for the tree, "Shabalup," means "dry underneath," a good thing to remember if you’re ever caught in a rain storm out in the woods. Other common names are canoe cedar, Pacific red cedar, British Columbia cedar, and shinglewood. It is also called giant arborvitae (Latin for "tree of life"), in reference to its East Coast cousin, arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), a much smaller tree. Arborvitae is a widely planted ornamental and commonly used to create hedges. It is also called eastern white cedar, although curiously, occidentalis means western. From the standpoint of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who named it in 1753, it was very western.

Quinault Lake Cedar
Giant Cedars: The biggest western red cedar in the Northwest is the Quinault Lake Cedar on the north shore of Lake Quinault in western Washington. It is 174 feet tall and 19.5 feet in diameter. It has been characterized as the largest cedar in the world measured by volume. Recently discovered and measured in 2011, the largest western red cedar in Oregon is the Arcadia Cedar, near Arcadia Beach State Park, south of Cannon Beach. It is 17 feet in diameter and about 152 feet tall. Not only is it the biggest western red cedar in the state, but the team from Ascending the Giants who measured it determined that it is the biggest tree in the state, based on a scoring system that uses circumference, height and crown spread. A short trail leads to the Quinault Lake Cedar, but there is no trail to the Arcadia Cedar.
References and More Info:

Monday, June 1, 2015

New World Cedars

Port Orford cedar
As is often the case with common names for trees and other living things, the names do not reflect their scientific classification. The common names often reflect other concerns. Life isn't all just science and academic research. This discontinuity between common names and scientific names is no better illustrated than in the naming of cedars of North America. You have, no doubt, heard of the cedars of Lebanon and their use in the building of Solomon’s Temple. We are at least familiar with the name, if not the tree. The first Europeans to arrive in North America were likely familiar with the tree, or more to the point, the wood. Cedar wood is known for its fragrance and resistance to rot. Early settlers to the East Coast found trees there that had these same characteristics. So it is perfectly natural that they would call them “cedars.” And from the standpoint of classifying wood uses, it is a perfectly reasonable name.

Deodar cedar
Now we realize that these North American cedars are unrelated to the cedars of Lebanon. They are not even in the same family. The old world cedars are in the pine family (Pinaceae). The true cedars, that is, those of genus Cedrus, are native to the Himalayas and the Mediterranean region. They include 2 species often planted as ornamentals:

Cedar of Lebanon
Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara) -- native to the western Himalayas. It has 2-inch needles.
Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) -- native to the mountains of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Atlas Cedar, native to the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa is usually considered a subspecies (Cedrus libani subsp. atlantica). The needles of this species are about 1-inch long.
All the true cedars have bundles of needles that grow on short stems, like larch needles. The cones of the cedars look and act like fir cones. They sit upright on the branch and disintegrate as they disperse their winged seeds. Deodar Cedar is a common urban conifer in the Northwest. Cultivars of the cedars are also popular, mostly dwarf-sized varieties that have blue needles. In contrast to the true cedars, all of the cedars of North America are in the cypress family (Cupressaceae). So what should we call them? Some have called our cedars “false cedars,” and tried to distinguish them from the “true” cedars with unconventional typographical notation (“western redcedar” and “incense-cedar.”) However, we must recognize two things: 1) Common names arise from common usage and do not reflect scientific classifications. This a major reason why we have scientific names. 2) You cannot just decide to change common usage. Consider this riddle: If you call a horse’s tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have? Answer: Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. When listing the common name for a tree, it’s best to just report the common usage.

Alaska cedar
Our cedars are not the only trees with this disconnect between common usage and the scientific name. Douglas fir is not a true fir. Wollemi pine is not a pine. Norfolk Island pine? Not a pine. Hemlock trees are not related to the poisonous plant they were named after. So what about our cedars? Several native trees in North America are commonly referred to as cedars. That is their common name. It may be confusing, but it is what it is. For clarification, it is good to give their scientific names and note that they do not belong to the the genus of the true cedars, Cedrus. To distinguish the cedars of North America from the old world cedars, I refer to them as “new world cedars.” This way of distinguishing them has precedent going back to the seventeenth century. In his book New English Canaan, published in 1637, Thomas Morton wrote, “New World Cedars are not true Cedars, but are of the Cypress family….” In the Pacific Northwest, we have four native cedars, but none of them are classified in the same genus. Yet they all have a similar look to them. They have similar looking flat, scale-like leaves that grow down the twig like shingles on a roof. You can easily distinguish the native cedars from other conifers just by looking at these leaves. The branchlets have a similar drooping look in varying degrees. And they are all particularly aromatic, although each has its own distinctive aroma.

How to identify native cedars of the Northwest
In northwest Oregon and western Washington below 2000 feet elevation, any cedar you find is a western red cedar. In the Cascades, it gets more complicated. You will also find Alaska cedar there, and south of Mt. Hood, incense cedar. The other native cedar is Port Orford cedar, which grows in southwest Oregon, especially near its namesake.

Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) has flat, wide scale-like leaves, often with a white butterfly-shaped pattern on the lower surface. The 1/2-inch cones sit on top of the branch and look like tiny rose buds. The red-brown bark is stringy.

Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) has longer tapered leaves. It has bark that looks similar to western red cedar but is deeply furrowed on large trees. The best way to identify incense cedar is by its unique cones. They are shaped like a duck's bill, and when they mature, they open, showing the open bill with its tongue sticking out.  

Alaska cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) has small, round cones and scruffy looking gray bark. When crushed, the foliage has a distinctive, unpleasant odor. Alaska cedar is also called yellow cedar, which describes its yellow wood.

Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) has small round cones like Alaska cedar. The leaves often have a unique, white X pattern on the lower surface.

Did you notice the cedrus embedded in the genus name of incense cedar? Calocedrus means beautiful cedar. Even the scientific name suggests a close relationship to the genus Cedrus. Scientific names can be misleading, too.