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.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Pacific Silver Fir

Pacific silver fir at Hoyt Arboretum

Pacific silver fir is a high-elevation tree that can reach a height of 200 feet (60 meters). At the timberline where winters are cold and the snow is deep, silver fir grows closer to the ground where the snow can protect it from the wind and cold. If you venture there in the winter, you will notice that the dark green needles look nearly black in the winter whiteness.

Although it is generally easy to identify our native conifers, the firs can be tricky. However, Pacific silver fir isn’t closely related to other native firs and doesn’t hybridize with any of them. It is easy to distinguish this fir from other high-elevation firs by its needles and unique bark. 

Pacific silver fir has needles similar to grand fir, dark green on top with white lines underneath.  But the needles point forward and upward rather than lying flat like grand fir needles. However, both of these trees have a mischievous habit of impersonating the other. Grand fir needles growing in direct sunlight will often point upward. And silver fir needles growing in deep shade will often lie flat like grand fir needles. Look for branches growing in moderate shade to distinguish the species. It’s easy to distinguish Pacific silver fir from subalpine fir and noble fir. They both have white lines on both the upper and lower sides of the needles.

Young bark is gray and smooth with resin blisters. Older bark breaks into gray, scaly plates. These large irregular plates are unique to Pacific silver fir, distinguishing it from the furrowed bark on other native firs.

The cones sit upright on the branch and turn from green to purple. Like other firs, the cones fall apart at maturity, leaving a cone core spike on the branch. Pacific silver cones are much larger than grand fir or subalpine fir, but much smaller than noble fir. The immature pollen cones look like delicious tiny raspberries, but certainly are not edible. 

Pollen cones

Pacific silver fir grows at higher elevations in the Cascades, the Olympic Mountains, and a few locations in the Coast Range in Oregon and Washington. On the Olympic Peninsula and north to southeast Alaska, it grows down to sea level. It often grows in pure stands of large trees and sometimes near the timberline, mixed with subalpine fir and mountain hemlock.

Like grand fir, Pacific silver fir is more shade tolerant than our other native firs. You can find it growing in the understory in stands of towering mountain hemlock, for example, on the trail between Mount Hood Meadows and the Timberline Trail. Pure stands of Pacific silver fir grow in the Badger Creek Wilderness near Flag Point on the Tygh Creek Trail. 

Native people used the boughs for floor bedding, chewed the pitch as gum, and used the wood for firewood. Like hemlock and most other firs, the wood is not generally regarded as high quality. Construction lumber from these trees is sold as “hem-fir.” It’s not as strong as Douglas fir, but it has some honorable uses. Many moldings are made from these species. The wood is soft, doesn’t split when nailed, and stains nicely. More commonly these trees are made into plywood, perhaps an acceptable fate, or suffer the final indignity of being made into paper.

The common name reflects the color of the lower surface of the needles and the silvery bark. The scientific name is Abies amabilis. Scottish botanist David Douglas named it Picea amabilis when he found it growing near the Columbia River. It was later classified as Abies, but kept its species name, amabilis, which means "lovely." Other common names: White fir, red fir, lovely fir, amabilis fir, and Cascades fir.

Unless you like snowy winter sports, you won’t see any Pacific silver fir until next summer. But if you can’t wait, you can see some planted just west of the Visitor Center at Hoyt Arboretum in Portland.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Licorice Fern

If you go out in the woods today, you're in for a big surprise: Licorice ferns are having a picnic. These hardy ferns thrive at this time of year. I'm calling them Christmas ferns. I realize that ferns are not conifers. The licorice fern does not even associate with conifers. It does grow on trees, but avoids conifers. Its favorite place to grow is on the bigleaf maple trees, not even a distant cousin of conifers. However, this fern is such a fascinating native of our local forests that it deserves some special mention here, particularly at this time of year.

Unlike most of our native ferns, which thrive in the spring and summer and die down in the winter, the licorice fern thrives at this time of year when the winter rains come. You can see it growing on the trunks and limbs of bigleaf maples. Besides growing on maples, on occasion, it grows on other trees, for example red alder and Oregon white oak. It often appears in the ground next to the trees where it grows. It also grows on logs and rocks, sometimes rocks in the middle of streams. But there is one thing all these tree and rock locations have in common: They are all covered in lush mats of moss. This is what explains the unconventional life-style of the licorice fern. The ferns anchor to the tree with roots growing in a layer of soil-like dead moss. The ferns obtain nutrients from this soil. Most importantly, the moss acts as a sponge, collecting rain water that is essential to the ferns. 

When the moss dries out in the summer, the ferns dry up, too. A summer rain will bring the dried ferns back to life. However, if the dry period lasts too long, the fronds of the ferns will die and fall off. When rain returns, the ferns sprout new fronds from the roots in the moss and grow throughout the wet winter, as long as temperatures stay above freezing. This out-of-phase growth pattern has prompted some to describe licorice fern as “summer-deciduous.”

The unusual growth habit of licorice fern may also explain why it grows on maple trees and not conifers. Although it is moderately shade-tolerant, licorice fern does need sunlight. And since the fern grows in the winter, it needs sunlight at that time of year. But most conifers keep their leaves in the winter. When the deciduous maples lose their leaves in the fall, plenty of winter sun can reach the ferns growing on them. However, the dark understory below conifers is not a friendly place for licorice ferns.

Identification: The easiest way to identify licorice fern is to look for moss growing on a bigleaf maple. If there are ferns growing in it, they are licorice ferns. Conversely, in winter after the leaves have fallen, the easiest way to identify bigleaf maple is to look for licorice ferns. They are likely to be growing on a bigleaf maple, although there’s a chance it could be an alder or oak… or a rock. You can also identify licorice fern by its unique characteristics. It grows on stems that are light green or straw colored, not black like oak fern or some deer fern. A single, non-branching stem grows from each location, while many other ferns have multiple fronds growing from one central location. The leaflets on opposite sides of the stem are staggered rather than directly opposed. Where each leaflet attaches to the stem, it spreads to the next leaflet, rather than attaching at a point like sword fern.

Licorice fern root
Names: The scientific name of licorice fern is Polypodium glycyrrhiza. The genus name, Polypodium, means many-footed, a reference to the way the stems attach along the root or rhizome. If you look inside the moss where the ferns are growing, you will discover the stems attached to a rhizome that is about the diameter of a pencil. I don’t know the Latin for many legged, but that might better describe these ferns, which have multiple stems attached along one root (foot). The species name, glycyrrhiza, comes from Greek and means sweet root. 

Why is this fern called “licorice fern?” If you taste a piece of the root, you may find that it tastes like licorice. It definitely has an interesting, sweet taste. Native Americans chewed the roots and used them to sweeten other foods. They also used them to treat a cough and other illnesses.

Fungus growing in moss
Finally, here’s one more fascinating detail about this mossy-fern ecosystem. Living in a symbiotic relationship with the licorice fern roots, mycorrhizal fungi perform the same task as those found living with the roots of conifers. They help gather water and nutrients. In return the fern supplies the fungi with the sugars it makes through photosynthesis. It’s a microcosm of the larger forest ecosystem.

Pay special attention to these hardy denizens of winter when you hike in the woods. Another apt name for licorice fern would be winter fern, or even Christmas fern.

See also
Licorice fern in Wikipedia
Licorice fern at Portland Nursery
Bigleaf maple

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


A lichen is not a thing. That is, it is not a single organism. It is a living partnership between two kinds of organisms: fungi and algae. Lichens grow on rocks, tree bark and other solid surfaces. They get the water and minerals they need from the atmosphere and make their own food using photosynthesis. They may appear plant-like, but they are not plants. They can have crusty, leafy, branching or other growth forms and come in various colors and sizes. 

Lichen and moss
The mutually beneficial relationship between the fungi and algae in lichens is called a symbiotic relationship. In fact, the word "symbiosis" was coined by scientists to describe this relationship in lichens. Filaments of the fungi provide the structure for the composite organisms. They also collect and store water and nutrients. The algae live between the filaments, near the surface where they can collect the sun’s energy for photosynthesis. These tiny solar cells convert the solar energy to sugars used by the fungus.

Common Lichen Growth Forms
There are over 15,000 species of lichen worldwide and 1000 in the Pacific Northwest, so learning to identify them may seem like a daunting challenge. A more realistic approach might be to distinguish these common growth forms: 

Crustose – A crust on a rock or other surface. 

Fruticose – A tuft of tiny, leafless branches.

Foliose – Flat leaf-like structures.

Leprose – Looks like a powder. 
Scientists once thought that a lichen was a single species of fungus living with a single species of alga. They recently discovered that there can be two or more species of each living together, forming a tiny ecosystem with different organisms performing different functions. 

As I was reading about lichens, it seemed to me that there is a basic problem with the classification of lichen species, even when it is a single fungus and alga living together. A lichen isn’t a single species. It is at least two species living together. Taxonomists have had neat little species boxes that they put all living things into, but, as it turns out, lichens don't fit in these boxes. It looks like we need a different way to classify lichens. Further reading revealed that by convention, lichens are classified as species using the species name of the fungus. However, this is not without problems. A fungus may pair with different algae, and the results can produce quite distinctive forms that would merit classification as different species. Furthermore, some lichens include two species of fungus. Oops! It appears that we need a different kind of box for lichen classification. This is a hot topic among lichenologists.

All this diversity of different fungi and algae living together is what makes lichens particularly hardy, enabling them to populate the entire planet, living where nothing else can, surviving icy cold mountains and hot, dry deserts. They are sometimes the only living thing that can survive in these extreme environments. They are often the first living things to grow after a disaster has destroyed other life forms.

Given a place to grow, sunlight, and water, lichens seemingly live independently in their own little world. However, they play many important roles in the larger ecosystems where they live. Some lichens are an important food source for animals, for example, reindeer. Northern flying squirrels eat lichen in winter and use it as a nesting material. Hummingbirds also use lichen in their nests. In the distant past, lichen has been an important human food in both Europe and North America.

I'm often asked whether or not lichen growing on trees harms the trees. I wasn't sure but I thought that it didn't. Understanding how lichens function in the ecosystem enables us to give a more definitive answer to that question. Lichens do not have roots. They are not parasitic like mistletoe, and do not rob nutrients from their host tree.

Lettuce Lichen (BLM photo)
There is at least one lichen that benefits the trees where it lives. One nutrient that all plants need to grow and thrive is nitrogen. In a young forest nitrogen is supplied by nitrogen fixing plants, for example, red alder trees, shrubs like red currant or deer brush, and other species in the Ribes and Ceanothus genera. These shrubs and trees have nodules of bacteria on their roots that convert the nitrogen in the air to a form that can be used by plants. However, the shrubs and alder are only present in a young forest. As the conifers grow and shade out the shrubbery and even the alders, these nitrogen fixers are unable to compete. For a long time scientists wondered where an old growth forest gets its nitrogen. Then in 1970, scientists at the Andrews Experimental Forest east of Eugene, Oregon, discovered that a lichen that grows in the canopy of an old growth forest is a rich source of nitrogen. This lichen is called lettuce lichen (Lobaria oregana). It grows only in the canopy of mature forests and fixes up to 22 pounds of nitrogen per acre in a year. Some of this nitrogen is used by bacteria and fungus-eating animals. Some of the lettuce lichen falls to the forest floor where the nitrogen is taken up by trees. The iconic Douglas firs of the Northwest could not grow to their immense size without the benefit of lettuce lichen.

Finally, another fascinating characteristic of lichens: Since they get their nourishment from the air, they also absorb any pollutants in the air. Some lichen species are sensitive to air pollutants and will be damaged or even die if air pollution levels are too high. It is possible to determine air quality by looking for the presence and at the quality of these sensitive species. Scientists also gather lichen and moss samples and use them to measure air pollutants. This is how they recently discovered high levels of cadmium and arsenic in the air near two artistic glass factories in Portland.


More info

A Field Guide to the Lichen of Opal Creek

How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology

How Tree Moss Could Revolutionize What We Know About Air Pollution

Lichen (Wikipedia)

The Hidden Forest by Jon Luoma, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR

Monday, November 13, 2017

Deciduous Conifers

Most conifers are evergreen. When fall comes and we venture out looking for beautiful fall
colors, we are looking for maples and other flowering trees, not conifers. However, not all conifers are evergreen. Some are deciduous. That is, the needles lose their green color each fall in a burst of golden color and then fall to the ground.
Japanese Larch
Larch Needles
The most widespread deciduous conifers are the larches. Ten species of larch grow across the northern continents. Two species of larch grow in the Pacific Northwest: Western larch and alpine larch. Larches have two kinds of branchlets: Long shoots with needles spread along the shoot, and short shoots with needles at the end in bundles of about 25. Cones usually grow on short shoots, too. Some of the cones have long bracts that protrude beyond the scales, while short bracts are hidden in the scales. Larches are closely related to Douglas fir.

Western Larch

Alpine larch - Larix lyallii. Native to the North Cascades and Rocky Mts.  
Chinese larch‎ - Larix potaninii. Native to Himalayas. Used for construction.
Dahurian larch - Larix gmelinii. Native to E. Russia, Mongolia, and NE China.
Eastern larch - Larix laricina. Native to NE US, Canada, and south central Alaska.
European larch - Larix decidua. Important timber tree.
Japanese larch‎ - Larix kaempferi. Popular bonsai. Important timber tree.
Masters larch - Larix mastersiana. Native to China.
Siberian larch - Larix sibirica. Wood similar to European larch.
Sikkim larch -  Larix griffithii. Native to eastern Himalayas. Used for construction.
Western larch - Larix occidentalis. Native to the Pacific Northwest. In the Cascades, Western Larch grows mostly on the east side at elevations up to 6000 feet. Important timber tree. The wood is similar in strength to Douglas fir.
Other Deciduous Conifers
Dawn Redwood
Dawn redwood
- Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Fossils of this tree are common in North  America (including the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon), but it was thought to be extinct. Yet it was found alive in China in the 1940’s. It’s now a popular ornamental.

Bald cypress - Taxodium distichum. This native of southeast USA is an important timber tree, and a popular ornamental in the Pacific Northwest. The needles look similar to the dawn redwood, but don't grow in opposing pairs like those on the dawn redwood.

Golden larch - Pseudolarix amabilis. This is the only species in the genus Pseudolarix. As the scientific name implies, it is not a true larch (Larix), being more closely related to firs and cedars (Abies and Cedrus). Like these trees, the cones of golden larch sit upright and disintegrate when they disperse their seeds. It is native to eastern China.

Chinese swamp cypress - Glyptostrobus pensilis. This is the only living species in the genus Glyptostrobus. It’s native to southeastern China and northern Vietnam. When the dawn redwood was first discovered, it was placed in this genus, but then classified as Metasequoia. The species name of the dawn redwood, glyptostroboides, recognizes the earlier classification.
Maidenhair tree - Ginkgo biloba. Although not a conifer, the maidenhair tree is a deciduous tree closely related to the conifers. It's very ancient, dating back to nearly 300 million years ago. I call it an uncle of the conifers. Its fall colors are strikingly bright.


To tour the deciduous conifers at Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, click here for a map.
More info
Native larches
Bald cypress
Golden larch
Chinese swamp cypress

Ken Denniston
November 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Focus on Noble Fir

Noble fir is aptly named. It is a prince among the firs of the Northwest. Its bluish color, its distinctive geometric branching, and the well-groomed appearance of its needles contribute to its desirability as a landscaping tree and Christmas tree. The beauty of this tree inspired David Douglas to name it Abies nobilis when he found it growing in the Columbia Gorge in 1825. It's now called Abies procera. Procera comes from the Latin procerus, which means "tall." This, too, is a fitting name, since it is the tallest of the firs, sometimes growing to 260 feet.

Needles: It's easy to identify noble fir by looking at the underside of a twig. The needles are shaped like hockey sticks with a distinctive curve where they attach to the twig, and sweep away uniformly, giving them a combed appearance. The needles are blue-green with two bands of white on each side, unique among the firs of northwest Oregon and Washington. Grand fir and Pacific silver fir have white only on the lower side of the needles. Subalpine fir needles have two bands on the bottom and a single band on top.

Cones: The cones sit upright on the branch near the tree top, like other firs. But noble fir cones have distinctive whiskery bracts that stick out beyond the scales. Since the cones fall apart at maturity, dispersing seeds and scales, you are not likely to find any intact cones under the tree. However, you may be able to find individual scales with their unique bracts still attached on the ground in the fall. The winged seeds can sail a distance twice the height of the tree, even more on a windy day.

Bark: Young bark is gray and smooth with resin blisters. Older bark breaks into furrows with flat, narrow ridges. The bark is fairly thin, which explains noble fir’s poor resistance to fire.

Where it grows: Noble fir grows in the Coast Range and the Cascades, mostly above 3000 feet, but occasionally down to 2000 feet elevation. Although they don’t usually grow in pure stands, you can find large numbers on Saddle Mountain near Seaside, and at the top of Larch Mountain and Nesmith Point in the Columbia Gorge. You can find replanted noble fir in logged areas of the Clackamas River drainage. Noble fir loves sunlight and ample amounts of rain. It grows on steep mountain slopes and thrives in open, sunlit locations. It grows in the shaded understory better than Douglas fir, but is not as shade tolerant as grand fir or Pacific silver fir. Like Douglas fir, its seeds can germinate and grow on bare soils after disturbances like fire and logging.

In southwest Oregon, noble fir hybridizes with red fir. Although some sources list red fir as an Oregon native, Oregon Flora Project classifies those growing in southwest Oregon as hybrids (Abies magnifica x Abies procera), often called Shasta red fir. The bracts on red fir cones are hidden within the scales. As you travel south in the Oregon Cascades where the hybrids grow, the bracts appear shorter and shorter as they become more like those of red fir.

Uses: The wood is valued for lumber, because it is stronger than hemlock and the other true firs. It has been used to make ladders because it is strong and light. The British used it for the frames of their Mosquito airplanes in World War II. Since fir wood had little commercial value as lumber, noble fir was marketed as the more highly prized larch in the early twentieth century. This is why several peaks where noble firs grow are called Larch Mountain, including one on each side of the Columbia River east of Portland and one northwest of Forest Grove, Oregon. You won’t find any larch anywhere near any of these peaks.

Noble fir is arguably the finest native Christmas tree in the Northwest, prized for its form, stiff branches, groomed needles, and bluish color. Someone told me recently that you can identify a noble fir on a Christmas tree lot by looking at the price tag. It will be the most expensive variety. Noble fir is often planted as an ornamental. It grows well at lower elevations in direct sunlight or partial shade.

Big trees: The tallest living noble fir is 272 feet tall, located at Goat Marsh Research Natural Area, near Mt. Saint Helens. The tallest recorded noble fir was destroyed in the Mt. Saint Helens eruption in 1980. It was 325 feet tall, just two feet shorter than the tallest living Douglas fir.

More  Info.

Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy Mackinnon 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Forest Fires

Recently, the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia Gorge burned over 48,000 acres. It was disheartening to see so many beautiful trees along familiar trails go up in flame. But it also has been an opportunity to reflect on the nature of forest fires and their effects on forest ecosystems. Here are some reflections.

Forest fires happen. Well, accidents happen, too. But we try to avoid them. We try to avoid forest fires, too. And for the past 100 years, we have aggressively tried to put them out when they do happen. We had good reason to do so. After all, it is a disaster when a forest fire also burns down our house, or when a fire burns trees we were about to use for lumber to build houses. However, when I say that forest fires happen, I want to think about them differently. I want to think about forest fires in a natural forest. The key to thinking about forest fires is that in nature, forest fires happen. That is, forest fires are a natural, recurring event, usually caused by lightning. 

What does it mean? Now, let’s think about the consequences of recurring forest fires: If forest fires are a natural occurrence, then it should be no surprise that the forest has adapted to these fires. And this is just what has happened.   Trees have adapted to deal with fire in different ways. Some grow thick bark that protects them from fire. Others wait for a fire to release their seeds. These seeds are the key to generating a new forest.

Fire is necessary. Forests have not only adapted to tolerate fire. Fire is necessary to the healthy development of the forest. We often think of forests growing to their final mature state and living in perpetuity as old growth. We celebrate old growth as the ultimate state of a forest. We love the huge, mature trees and the diversity of life in a mature forest. However, such a forest is not sustainable. It may live in this mature state for hundreds of years, but eventually it will be altered by fire or some other disturbance. So it’s no surprise that some tree species not only tolerate fire, but depend on it. For example, Douglas fir needs bare earth created by a hot fire for its seeds to germinate. Trees that wait for fire to release their seeds also depend on fire. Many forest types depend on a large fire disturbance to regenerate. 
New life after a fire
Some trees depend on smaller fires to maintain the nature of the forest. For example, ponderosa pines have thick bark that resists fire. Not only do they survive frequent fires, but they depend on those fires to suppress competing vegetation. These fires are necessary to maintain the open pine forest. When we suppress the fires as we have done for over a century, competing shrubs and trees grow and provide so much fuel that, when a fire starts, it burns so hot that it kills even the large ponderosas. In the ponderosa pine forests and many other forest communities, fire suppression has actually caused larger and more destructive wild fires.

Forest ecologists now recognize that fire is a natural and necessary part of a forest ecosystem. So how should we think about the recent fire in the Columbia Gorge? It’s natural to think that our beautiful forests have been ruined. No one wants to hike through such a scorched and destroyed landscape. Well, we can take heart that not all the area the fire touched has been torched. And although some areas appear to be devastated now, they will regenerate. I saw this three years after the Dollar Lake fire on Mt. Hood. We can look forward to observing the same results in the Columbia Gorge. There is much we can learn about a forest when we see how it recovers from a fire. 
Three years after the 2011 Dollar Lake fire on Mt. Hood
Not all fires are natural. On the other hand, the Eagle Creek fire should give us pause. It is significant that this was not a natural fire. It was not caused by lightning. It was, rather, caused by teenagers setting off fireworks. So why is that important? First, the fire was started at the bottom of a canyon. This enabled the fire to quickly race up the steep slope of the canyon and spread from there. Lightning fires are more frequently started on ridge tops at higher elevations where the forest is thinner so the fire starts more slowly. 
Eagle Creek Fire Soil Severity Map
Fire and Global Warming. Now we are faced with another challenge to our forests that is also human caused: Climate warming is changing the behavior of these fires. Warmer temperatures have caused the forests to become increasingly dry in the hot summer. Snow is melting sooner, creating a longer fire season. Over the past 40 years wild fires have become more frequent and more destructive. Wildfires may be the biggest threat that our forests face in a changing climate. 

Controlled fires. One strategy for dealing with wildfires is to set smaller controlled fires. The controlled fires remove the excess fuel form the forest, allow the forest to recover, and help prevent hot-burning wildfires. People often object to the smoke caused by controlled fires, but wildfires produce about 10 times the amount of smoke per acre compared to controlled fires. Controlled fires, by their nature, can be set at times when weather conditions are conducive to good smoke dispersal and when the winds blow the smoke away from populated areas.

What can we do? We can speak up in favor of forest practices based on recent research for managing forests as an ecosystem that naturally includes fire. This may include the use of controlled fires in some cases. We can point out that these fires are healthy for the forest and healthier for people who live nearby. And most of all, we can avoid starting fires in dry canyons that all too often become destructive wildfires.

Sources and More Info.
Human-started wildfires expand the fire niche across the United States
How Will The Wildfires Of Today Fuel The Fires Of Tomorrow?
Western Wildfires and Climate Change
Eagle Creek Fire Soil Severity Map
After the Dollar Lake Fire

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On Conifer Names

Botanical names seem to have a special status in our language. When we know the name of a tree, we often feel like we have gained a special knowledge of that tree. Many names describe the tree or tell you where it grows. Some tell who discovered it. So learning the name of a conifer often does tell you something about that species. More importantly, learning the names forces you to look more closely at the different characteristics of each tree so you can distinguish it from other similar ones. Learning the names of the conifers is not the be all and end all of knowledge, but it marks the beginning of a relationship. It allows you to become acquainted. Deeper knowledge comes later when you can take the time to observe more carefully and completely.

Most conifers have two types of names: A common name and the scientific name. A good place to start is with the common names.

Common names
Douglas fir - Pseudotsuga menziesii 

Like many other plants, conifers have names that are determined by common usage. Sometimes a conifer will have several common names used in different regions. Learning the common name is an easy way to identify a tree. The names are familiar and easy to remember. However, common names can be misleading. For example, none of the native Oregon cedars are true cedars. Cedars are native to the Middle East and the Himalayas. They are in the pine family and appear to be cousins of the firs. When Europeans came to North America, they encountered trees in the cypress family that had wood like the wood of the Old World cedars. So they naturally called them cedars. Many conifers get their common name because of the nature of their wood. It's not so surprising that people would name things based on the use they make of them.

Many trees called pines are not really pines at all. In the nineteenth century, English botanists circled the globe looking for new conifer species. They often called anything with needles on it a pine. Even Douglas fir was called a pine at one time. The Norfolk Island pine you find in stores each December is not even in the pine family. And the rare Japanese umbrella pine isn't in the pine family either. The Norfolk Island pine is in the Araucaria family in the same genus as the monkey puzzle tree. The Japanese umbrella pine is the only species in a family of its own.

Western hemlock - Tsuga heterophylla
Some writers have attempted to mitigate the misleading nature of common names by writing them differently, for example, "western redcedar," "Douglas-fir," and "Port-Orford-cedar."  But these strained artifacts don't really mitigate the confusion. The spoken name sounds the same. Even the written names don't convey the intended information. Any normal person seeing "redcedar" in print would still think that it's a cedar. And the names still don't tell you what genus or family the trees belong to. We should just realize that common names are not scientific names. In fact, one reason we have scientific names is to clear up this kind of confusion. If we want to use a name that correctly identifies the scientific classification of a tree, we will have to learn the scientific name.

Scientific names

Each conifer species also has a scientific name. Why learn the scientific name? These names give you an unambiguous way to identify a species. These names are assigned and agreed to by botanists based on rigorous classification of each plant. Each species is assigned to a general grouping or genus and given a unique species name. The names are Latin or at least given a Latin ending. The name for a species written as Genus species, written in italics with the genus name capitalized. For example, the scientific name of grand fir is Abies grandis. This name is universal throughout the world, no matter what language is spoken.

Grand fir - Abies grandis
As a practical matter, knowing the scientific name usually tells you something about the tree. For example, the name of western hemlock is Tsuga heterophylla. Tsuga is Japanese for hemlock. And heterophylla means variable leaves, which aptly describes western hemlock needles. Also, if you want to learn more about a tree, it helps to know the scientific name. Much of the scientific literature references species by the scientific name. Familiarity with these names will help when you see them in scientific writings.

Western red cedar - Thuja plicata
Even though scientific names give us a more precise way to identify each species, that's not to say that there's no confusion with these names. They may change. Science is not static. As botanists learn more about a tree, they may change its classification to a different genus. These changes generally generate a lot of discussion among the experts and confusion for the rest of us. Such a discussion has been raging about the classification of Alaska cedar. It was in the genus Chamaecyparis, the same genus as Port Orford cedar. Recently someone proposed putting it in a new genus called Xanthocyparis. Others have countered, saying it should be classified as Callitropsis or Cupressus. And some are proposing that all the Cupressus that are native to the New World should be placed in a separate genus called Hesperocyparis. Many other names have changed over time. Botanists had a terrible time classifying Douglas fir. Its name changed 21 times before they finally settled on Pseudotsuga menziesii.

Note that scientific names can also be misleading. For example, the scientific name of incense cedar is Calocedrus decurrens. The genus name means "beautiful cedar." Even the scientific name suggests that the species is closely related to the genus Cedrus, which it is not.

Getting Started

The photos above show the common conifers found at low elevations (below 2000 feet) in northwest Oregon. Look for these when hiking in Portland's Forest Park and other nature parks nearby.

Take some time to learn the names of our native conifers. It will help you become acquainted with them. Given some time and attention, you may even become friends with some of them.

For more help identifying our native conifers, go to Northwest Conifers.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Will Conifers Weather Global Warming?

Recent posts on this blog looked at how conifers survive the snow and cold. As increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes climate warming, cold may become the least concern for our forests. But how will conifers deal with the fact that the climate is getting warmer? As with everything related to the life of living things, it's complicated. But we can see some of the effects of climate change because they are happening now. And we can see some future potential outcomes just by understanding something about the lives of trees and how they react to their environment.

At the outset, it is important to remember that, like all living things, conifers growing in the natural environment are adapted to the climate conditions where they are. Each species is adapted to survive where it grows. In the Pacific Northwest, it has taken thousands of years for our forests to adapt to the current climate.

Going up north. One response to warming climate is to move to where it is cooler. Birds can fly to cooler temperatures in the north. Even mammals can move up slope to cooler locations in the mountains. But these options can be a problem for trees. Roots do not make good legs. Even so, successive generations of trees can move as each generation distributes its seeds a few hundred feet. Yes, trees can migrate over long distances, but it may take thousands of generations and millions of years. When climate change is rapid, migrating trees cannot keep up.

Trees marching up Mt. Hood?
Migrating up slope also can present significant problems. The space gets smaller as you near the top of the mountain. And if it becomes too hot for you at the top, you just have nowhere to go. Migrating north can present barriers as well. Mountains can be a barrier, as can rivers, lakes, and even oceans.

Adapting. Natural selection enables trees to adapt. When conditions change, the genetic variability in a population will enable some trees to survive and pass their genes to the next generation. In this way, a species can adapt to a changing climate in place, but like migration, this process could also require thousands or millions of years. Trees cannot readily adapt to rapid climate change.

Are we then putting our forests in danger by causing global warming? Well, the answer to that is complicated, and varied. The temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest will likely be less affected by climate change than those in the southwest U.S. Also, the consequences of climate change for forests is not just about rising temperatures. There are related factors that may more seriously impact our forests.

Vista Ridge fire on Mt. Hood
Drought.  As the climate warms, weather patterns change. Most seriously, rainfall patterns change. Some areas will get more rainfall. Some will get less. Entire forests may be plagued by drought. In these forests, tree species that are drought intolerant will not survive. Mild winters also contribute to summer drought. Winter snowpack stores water that melts in the spring and provides water for growing trees. However, warmer temperatures bring rain in winter instead of snow. The runoff comes early, and trees are left high and dry in the summer.

Wild fires. Drought-stressed forests are subject to an ever increasing risk of wild fires. With increasing drought, fires burn hotter and are more destructive. We have already seen recent devastating wild fires all over the western U.S.

White pine blister rust is killing 
pines on Mt. Hood
Insect invasions and disease. Trees weakened by drought are also vulnerable to insect invasions and disease. Winter cold can help keep insect invasions in check. But with warmer temperatures, the insects can survive the winter and attack forest trees in force the following summer. Recent mild winters have enabled the mountain pine beetle to destroy millions of acres of lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine forests in western North America.

More carbon dioxide. One mitigating factor for forests and other plants would seem to be the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The very thing that is causing global warming could be a boon for our forests. They use carbon dioxide and store the carbon in root, limb, and their massive trunks. Perhaps we can look to forests to store carbon and help prevent more global warming. However, this scenario may not pan out as well as you might think. Just as trees are acclimated to their climate, they are also acclimated to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They won't necessarily grow faster if carbon dioxide concentrations are higher. Other factors often limit growth. Some experiments have shown that increasing carbon dioxide levels does increase production in some conifer species. Others, not so much. Furthermore, forests decimated by drought, wild fires, and disease won't benefit at all from increased carbon dioxide. Thus, our efforts to preserve forests to prevent climate change can be undermined by the climate change we have already caused.

Forest conservation. One thing is clear: Preserving our forests is important. They can be a significant repository of carbon. Forest destruction only adds to the rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. How we protect forests from the effects of climate change is not as clear, but much research has been done. Some work is being done to develop trees that are resistant to disease and can tolerate changes in climate. Foresters are planting trees in new locations where they can thrive. Yet, more research is needed to determine the effects of the changing climate on forests and develop ways to help forests adapt to change.

How can we help? We can support restoration and reforestation efforts. Planting trees is good exercise, too. We can also reduce our consumption of fossil fuels by avoiding travel in fuel-burning cars and airplanes, and instead opting to travel by electric cars, bicycles, and our feet. We can make other lifestyle choices that leave a smaller carbon footprint. We can live more simply and install solar panels on our houses. We will have a smaller impact on our planet, and the the trees in our forests will be happy.

See Also

Climate change’s effects on temperate rain forests surprisingly complex

CNN:Global warming threatens forests, study says