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, November 25, 2020

Sugar Pine

John Muir called sugar pine the “King of the Pines.” It is the tallest of all the pines and can grow to over 200 feet. You can easily recognize it by its super long cones, which are longer than the cones of any other conifer, up to 20 inches long. Unlike the curved cones of western white pine, sugar pine cones are mostly straight. They have large seeds, but the seeds have large wings, so they can float long distances on the wind.

Sugar pine is primarily a California tree, growing throughout the mountains of the state. However, it has made inroads into the Cascades of Oregon. Some grow as far north as the Mount Hood National Forest, east of the Bull of the Woods Wilderness. 

Sugar pine is a white pine with needles growing in bundles of five. The needles are bluish-green, with stomatal bloom on all three sides. Like other white pines native to the Pacific Northwest, it has been decimated by white pine blister rust. Fortunately, foresters have found trees that are resistant to the disease. Sadly, most of the large sugar pines were cut down for lumber by 1950.

Sugar pine is named after the sweet resin that oozes from wounds to the tree. According to John Muir, the sap is better than maple sap. He thought Native Americans ate it but Aljos Farjon* notes that they chewed it like chewing gum. Note to anyone wanting to eat it: It is also a laxative. However, Native Americans did eat the seeds, which are as large as the seeds of the stone pines. You can buy stone pine seeds at your local grocery, where they are sold as pine nuts. They are tasty, but likely to deplete your bank account.

David Douglas gave sugar pine its scientific name, Pinus lambertiana, named after British botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert. Following the directions of a Native American, Douglas found a sugar pine October 26, 1826 and wrote this account of that adventure in his journal:

The large trees are destitute of branches, generally for two-thirds the length of the tree; branches pendulous, and the cones hanging from their points like small sugar-loaves in a grocer’s shop, it being only on the very largest trees that cones are seen, and the putting myself in possession of three cones (all I could) nearly brought my life to an end. Being unable to climb or hew down any, I took my gun and was busy clipping them from the branches with ball when eight Indians came at the report of my gun. They were all painted with red earth, armed with bows, arrows, spears of bone, and flint knives, and seemed to me anything but friendly. I endeavoured to explain to them what I wanted and they seemed satisfied and sat down to smoke, but had no sooner done so than I perceived one string his bow and another sharpen his flint knife with a pair of wooden pincers and hang it on the wrist of the right hand, which gave me ample testimony of their inclination. To save myself I could not do by flight, and without any hesitation I went backwards six paces and cocked my gun, and then pulled from my belt one of my pistols, which I held in my left hand. I was determined to fight for life. As I as much as possible endeavoured to preserve my coolness and perhaps did so, I stood eight or ten minutes looking at them and they at me without a word passing, till one at last, who seemed to be the leader, made a sign for tobacco, which I said they should get on condition of going and fetching me some cones. They went, and as soon as out of sight I picked up my three cones and a few twigs, and made a quick retreat to my camp, which I gained at dusk.**


See also

Sugar pine at Northwest Conifers

Sugar pine at Wikopedia

Conifers of the World, James Eckenwalder

*A Handbook of the World’s Conifers, Aljos Farjon

** Sugar pine at the Gymnosperm Database


Friday, November 13, 2020

Bird Calls

 One of the great gifts to hikers in the Pacific Northwest is the sound of birds in the forests. Even if you are not a dedicated birder, you can enjoy their chatter. However, you can enhance the experience if you can recognize the calls and songs of different birds. Bird songs are mostly heard in the spring and summer, so fall is a good time to focus on simple calls. Here are some of the calls of common birds heard in the forests of the Northwest. 

American robin. The American robin is a familiar sight in both cities and forests. It has a large vocabulary. The “tut,” “peak," and “whinny,” here are the most common calls. You will commonly see robins pulling earthworms from your yard.
Steller’s jay. Has a series of loud, harsh calls, often in conifer forests. The first three here are common. They also imitate other birds, especially red-tail hawks, probably a good strategy to clear their territory of competing species. Steller’s jays eat conifer seeds, nuts, acorns, and berries. 

Northern flicker. This call is similar to the typical call of a Douglas squirrel. Like most woodpeckers, the northern flicker also drums on trees to communicate with other birds.

Pileated Woodpecker.
This large woodpecker has a loud “cuk cuk cuk cuk” call that echoes through the woods. You can recognize it by its bright red cap. “Pileated” is Latin for “capped.”

Crows are common in cities, often in large flocks, so its “caw” call is all too familiar. 

The common raven is larger and its call is deeper and more resonant. Its translation is “Nevermore.” Ravens are often seen in pairs.

This is one of my favorite little birds, but it is very self-centered: It keeps saying its name, sometimes adding “dee dee dee” at the end. You may hear any of these, but the black-capped chickadee is the most common:
Black-capped chickadee
Chestnut-backed chickadee (pictured)
Mountain chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch. Like the knights* who say “Nee,” this little bird also says “Nee,” but much more softly. Also, it never demands a shrubbery. You can see it walking down the trunk of trees eating small insects as it goes.

*Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Spotted Towhee. This ground feeder looks similar to a robin, but it is slightly smaller. It seems to have a hearing deficiency, because it keeps saying, “What?” 

Walk quietly and listen for these birds when hiking in our forests. You may hear some friendly voices calling from the trees.


More info

A Beginner’s Guide to Common Bird Sounds


All About Birds

Birding by Ear

Tuesday, October 27, 2020


When walking in the woods, be sure to listen for the sounds of forest creatures. If you do, you may hear the high-pitched call of a chipmunk. It sounds similar to the excited call of a robin. You can hear the calls here:

Townsend’s chipmunk
National Geographic Guide to Chipmunk Noises

Chipmunks are magical leprechauns of the squirrel family. If you have ever watched them, you cannot help but wonder at the movements of these sprites. They move so quickly, it is as if they don’t move at all, but disappear from one place and instantly reappear in another. Running is a series of these magical appearances. The other magic trick of chipmunks is stuffing nuts in their cheeks. Just when you think a chipmunk's cheeks are stuffed full, it stuffs another one in. Then in an instant, it is off to store the nuts in its burrow.

Chipmunks are smaller than the Douglas squirrel. You can identify a chipmunk by the stripes on its back and the sides of its little face. Chipmunks live in our conifer forests and are adept at tree climbing. But they prefer to be near the ground and construct burrows underground. They feed on berries, nuts and seeds, but they don’t fatten up for hibernation like ground squirrels. Instead they store food in their burrow for winter. During their partial hibernation, they wake up from time to time to eat from their cache of stored food. In the spring, they emerge from the burrow at about the same weight as they were in the fall.

Three species of chipmunk are native to the Pacific Northwest:

  • The Townsend’s chipmunk (Neotamias townsendii) is the only species native to western Oregon and Washington. It’s about 10 inches long from its nose to the tip of its tail, about 3 inches shorter than a Douglas squirrel. At lower elevations, it is active throughout the year. You can see them in winter, perhaps munching on a fungus. All the photos here are of the Townsend's chipmunk.
  • The yellow pine chipmunk (Neotamias amoenus) lives from the summit of the Cascades to large areas of eastern Oregon and Washington. It’s about 8 inches long, 2 inches shorter than the Townsend’s chipmunk.
  • The least chipmunk (Neotamias minimus) lives east of the Cascades in Oregon and in central Washington. This chipmunk can survive in dry desert areas where no water is available. It’s nearly 8 inches long, slightly smaller than the yellow pine chipmunk.

Listen for these chipmunks when you are hiking in the woods. When you hear one, stop and look carefully. You may see it scurrying around in the bushes or sitting on a fallen log. Perhaps you can catch the magic of its movements.


More info

“Mammals of the Pacific States,” Lloyd G. Ingles, Stanford University Press.

Chiipmunks on Wikipedia 


Thursday, October 22, 2020

Douglas Squirrel

Walking in the conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest is always a visual feast, with so many tall, awe-inspiring trees and an enchanting understory of diverse shrubs and wildflowers. However, you will miss a wonderful part of the experience unless you are quiet and listen. You can hear a chorus of various bird calls and songs. However, one of the most intriguing calls is not from a bird at all. It is the melodic call of the Douglas squirrel.

The most frequent Douglas squirrel call is similar to the call of a flicker. It is a short burst of high frequency that quickly drops in frequency and volume: “Chee-you.” This call is a warning that a predator is nearby. Maybe the squirrel has spotted you. When really excited, it gives a rapid sequence of just “chee chee chee chee” sounds. The other sound you will often hear is a long, continuous “cheecheecheecheechee.” This is the Douglas squirrel’s intruder alert. These squirrels are territorial and will defend the area around their nest and food cache. Perhaps it doesn’t have a large vocabulary, but this string of loud squirrel profanity would give any intruder pause. If you surprise a Douglas squirrel on the ground, it may make an excited combination of variable sounds as it scampers up a tree. You can hear the different sounds here

Other sounds to listen for: The scurrying of little squirrel feet scampering up a tree trunk. Also, if you hear the sound of cones hitting the ground, chances are, there is a Douglas squirrel dropping them from the top of a nearby tree.

The Douglas squirrel is a small squirrel native to the conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest. In summer, it is brown on top and orange underneath with a dark stripe on the side between the top and bottom colors. In winter, the top is darker, and the color below turns light gray. The dark stripe on the side fades in winter. The Douglas squirrel is about 12 inches long, including its bushy tail, much smaller than the western gray squirrel, and somewhat smaller than the two non-native squirrels often seen in urban areas: the eastern gray squirrel and the fox squirrel.

What the Douglas squirrel lacks in size, it makes up in energy and personality. It races up and down trees, takes flying leaps from branch to branch and tree to tree. Even when it is still, it appears and sounds like a concentration of suppressed energy, calling and flicking its tail. It is these birdlike calls that distinguishes the Douglas squirrel from the larger squirrels. Their calls sound like the unremarkable bark of a tiny dog.

The favorite game of the Douglas squirrel is the chase. Juveniles start playing this game as soon as they can be out of the nest, chasing each other up, down and around tree trunks, leaping from branch to branch. It is good training for the adult chase, which takes two forms. One is the intruder chase, which starts when an intruder ignores the loud intruder call. The other is when a female leads a male on a mating chase.

The Douglas squirrel was a favorite of John Muir. He devoted an entire chapter to this squirrel in “The Mountains of California.” He wrote that the Douglas squirrel

… threads the tasseled branches of the pines, stirring their needles like a rustling breeze; now shooting across openings in arrowy lines; now launching in curves, glinting deftly from side to side in sudden zigzags, and swirling in giddy loops and spirals around the knotty trunks; getting into what seem to be the most impossible situations without sense of danger; now on his haunches, now on his head; yet ever graceful, and punctuating his most irrepressible outbursts of energy with little dots and dashes of perfect repose. He is, without exception, the wildest animal I ever saw….

Douglas squirrels like mature forests with cone bearing conifers. The seeds inside the cones are their primary food. A squirrel will get a cone, sit on a branch, deftly strip the scales, and eat the seeds inside. In about two minutes, the squirrel will be finished and drop the stripped cone core. The squirrels often have a favorite spot for stripping cones, creating a large mound or midden of cone scales below. Look for the tiny “cone cobs” in the midden.

A squirrel strips a cone, asks, "You looking at me?" And is off in a streak.

Douglas squirrels also eat fungi, and the seeds from maples and other broadleaf trees. In the spring they feast on the tender new growth from a great number of trees, including flowers, pollen cones, and conifer needles.

Douglas squirrels do not hibernate. They must store food for winter. When they drop cones on the ground, they will come down and carry them off to a hidden cache, usually under a log or some other damp place. They do this in late summer or fall after the cones are mature, but before they open and disperse the seeds. Timing is critical. They must wait until the seeds inside are fully developed. And storing cones with no seeds is, well, just pointless.

The scientific name of the Douglas squirrel is Tamiasciurus douglasii, both named after David Douglas. It is native to the forests of western Washington and Oregon. It also lives in southwest British Columbia and northern California. Its cousin, the American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is widely distributed across the rest of North America wherever conifer forests grow, including eastern Washington and northeast Oregon. Both species are sometimes called pine squirrels or chickarees. Although the range of the two species does not overlap, curiously, the red squirrel lives on Vancouver Island, while the Douglas squirrel populates the coast of mainland British Columbia.

Be sure to listen for these squirrels when you are hiking in the woods. If you hear one high in a tree overhead, sit down and wait. It may come down for a closer look, and possibly give you a sharp burst of squirrel profanity for invading its space.


More info

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Focus on Whitebark Pine

Whitebark pine is a perfectly adapted alpine tree. It grows at or near the timberline throughout the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Since it doesn’t compete well with other conifers in wet or shady locations or on north facing slopes, you will find it in open, dry and sunny locations on ridgetops or south facing slopes.  Whitebark pine is the only stone pine that grows in North America. The stone pines have large wingless seeds. Other stone pines grow in Europe, China and Korea. These edible seeds are called “pine nuts,” which you can buy in grocery stores if you can afford them.

You can identify whitebark pine by counting the number of needles in each bundle. Whitebark pine needles grow in bundles of five. Western white pine also has 5 needles per bundle, so it’s easy to confuse it with whitebark pine. However, if you see any cones, and can tell eggs from bananas, it’s easy to tell them apart. Whitebark cones are about the size and shape of eggs, while western white pine cones are about the size and shape of bananas.

The most remarkable thing about Whitebark pine is its relationship to the Clark’s nutcracker. Unlike the cones of most other native pines in the Northwest, which open and disperse their winged seeds, white bark pine cones remain on the tree and do not open when they mature. This is where the eating habits of the Clark's nutcracker play an essential role in the life cycle of the Whitebark pine. These birds easily pull apart the cones to get the seeds and bury them in the ground for eating later. Or perhaps they fancy themselves as tree planters. It’s just that they often get hungry and return to eat some of the seeds. In either case, they don’t eat all of the seeds they “plant,” so some of them germinate and continue the life cycle of the pines. This paradigm case of mutualism benefits both the nutcrackers and the whitebark pines. However, nutcrackers don’t get all of the whitebark seeds. They are also a favorite of Steller’s jays, Douglas squirrels, golden-mantled squirrels and chipmunks.

By the way, the feeding habit of nutcrackers is why you seldom find any whitebark pine cones on the ground, just cone fragments left by the nutcrackers. This can make it more difficult to tell a whitebark pine from a western white pine. If you are at the timberline, it’s probably a whitebark. If it’s a small tree, it may not be producing cones yet, so good luck. Looking at the needles may help. Whitebark needles are green, while western white pine needles are blue-green.

The scientific name of whitebark pine is Pinus albicaulis. The common and scientific names describe the whitebark pine. Albicaulis means "white stemmed." To remember the name, think of it as the "Albino-bark Pine." Other common names: Pitch pine, scrub pine, and creeping pine. John Muir called it "Dwarf Pine."

If you go looking for whitebark pine, you may be disappointed. Like other white pines, whitebark pine has been decimated by white pine blister rust. You can see their ghostly, white forms still standing in large areas, for example, above Mount Hood Meadows. White pine blister rust is a disease caused by an Asian fungus, which was introduced to North America over 100 years ago. It has caused serious damage to the white pines all across the U.S. In the Northwest, white pine blister rust has infected large areas of whitebark pine. The fungus first attacks the needle, then the branches, and eventually the trunk of the tree.

Whitebark pines tested for resistance to blister rust.
Some survive, others, not so much.

White pine blister rust has a fascinating life history. It requires two host species to complete its life cycle. One is a white pine. The other can be a variety of plants from the Ribes genus, locally, usually shrubs like currants and gooseberries. The infected shrubs infect the trees, and the trees in turn infect more shrubs. If you remove one of the hosts, the fungus cannot reproduce. Years ago, the Forest Service sent out summer workers to clear affected areas of the shrubs necessary to complete the life cycle of the fungus. Unsurprisingly, that effort failed. More recently, efforts have been underway to develop genetic strains of whitebark pine that are resistant to the disease. For details on this effort, see this post on the Dorena Genetic Resource Center

Whitebark pines just don’t seem to be able to catch a break. Recently, the mountain pine beetle has attacked large areas of whitebark pine. More outbreaks are likely as winters become warmer allowing pine beetles to survive in areas where they were once killed by cold winters. Due to the decline in whitebark pine from blister rust and beetles, it is now listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List. Climate change may prove to be the biggest challenge to the survival of whitebark pine.

Whitebark pines may need our help to survive the assault of these enemies. They are an important member of the alpine ecosystem, providing food for nutcrackers and shelter to other birds and mammals, and contributing to the beauty of the high mountain environment. We can help them survive by supporting efforts to combat blister rust, and by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If you want to see some whitebark pines, here are some locations that are easy to get to: Above Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, on the rim above Crater Lake, and at the top of the Mount Howard tram at Wallowa Lake.


More info

Northwest Conifers: Whitebark Pine  

Gymnosperm Database: Pinus albicaulis 

Our Threatened Timberlines: The Plight of Whitebark Pine Ecosystems  

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Focus on Western White Pine

Western white pine doesn’t have the charm and stature of ponderosa pine with its golden bark and lofty height, but this white pine does have many subtle, attractive qualities. It grows straight and tall when given a chance, sometimes to a height of nearly 200 feet. The needles grow in bundles of five and have a blue-green color. The cones have a distinctive banana shape and are longer than any other Northwestern conifer except sugar pine cones. The gray bark breaks into rectangular plates on large trees. Another distinctive feature is the sticky resin on the cone scales. You will often see cones on the ground under a western white pine, and if you pick one up, don’t be surprised if you have sticky fingers. You were warned.

The scientific name of western white pine is
Pinus monticola, named by David Douglas after he found it growing on Mount St. Helens. The species name is Latin for “mountain dweller,” and that is where you can find it, growing throughout the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. It grows in the Cascades and in the Coast Range at elevations of 3000 to 5000 feet. In Washington and British Columbia, it grows right down to sea level. It also grows in northeast corners of Oregon and Washington, and in northern Idaho. It is the state tree of Idaho, where it’s sometimes called “Idaho pine.” In California, it grows in the Siskiyous and Sierras.

You may be surprised to find western white pines growing in the Coast Range of Oregon, but you can find some in the higher elevations. Some young ones grow in the Tillamook Forest near the top of the Storey Burn Trail, west of Storey Burn Road. In Portland, you can see several large western white pines at Hoyt Arboretum. They are growing along the Bristlecone Pine Trail. They are easy to identify by the labels on the trees and the banana-shaped cones on the ground. Again, don’t pick them up if you don’t want sticky fingers.

Western white pine was once abundant in its range, but disease and logging have greatly reduced its numbers. As with many other white pines, the bane of western white pine is white pine blister rust, a fungus introduced in North America from Europe over 100 years ago. Although the extensive stands of western white pine have been decimated by blister rust, the species has developed some resistance to the disease, and the Forest Service has a program for breeding rust-resistant trees. For more information, look here. Bark beetles also attack western white pine, especially after they have been weakened by blister rust.

Western white pine wood is described as nonresinous — no surprise, since it seems to send all that sticky resin to the cones. The wood is soft, straight and stable in character, which make it desirable for making moldings and window and door frames. The wood is light, attractive, and easy to work, making it ideal for wood carving. In the past, it was the primary source of match sticks.

Pollen cones

There appear to be few genetic differences between western white pines in different locations in the Pacific Northwest. So you can collect seeds from one habitat or elevation and successfully grow them elsewhere. The trees can readily adapt to different growing conditions. However, California populations do seem to be genetically distinct from those in the Northwest. The California trees are more resistant to white pine blister rust.


More info

Northwest Conifers
Gymnosperm Database 
USDA: Silvics of North America
Coniferous Forest


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Alpine Conifers

The timberline in the mountains is a special place for conifers. Below the timberline, the trees grow tall. Visitors walk among the large trunks in deep shade under the canopy high above. However, at the timberline, the conifers are transformed into a completely different form. The timberline is often a park-like area that conifers share with grasses, shrubs and wildflowers. If the towering trees in the forests below remind us of the pillars of a great cathedral, the trees at the timberline elicit visions of heaven. Indeed, when the wildflowers bloom in summer, the streets there are paved with gold, as well as blue, red, and white wildflowers.
McNeil Point
McNeil Point on Mount Hood
Mountain hemlock

Yet, the beauty of these trees is forged in adversity. It is a wonder that conifers can survive at these high elevations where they can be completely covered in deep snow, where they can be blasted with ice crystals in fierce winds, and where their branches and even their roots can be frozen by severe winter temperatures. To survive here they must adapt. The short branches of subalpine fir and Pacific silver fir keep them from breaking when covered in snow. Mountain hemlock branches are bendable and small trees that are covered with snow bend to the ground and pop back up in summer. The drooping branches of Alaska cedar just don’t collect much snow. On the other hand, many species depend on deep snow to protect their roots from freezing. The snow also protects trees from high winds that would blast them with ice crystals.
Subalpine fir
The conifers that can survive these harsh conditions often grow in small clumps with just one or two larger trees, surrounded by a thicket of small trees. At the highest elevations, these conifers may grow in a stunted, krummholz form, often unrecognizable from their tall relatives below.
Mountain hemlock and whitebark pine

Whitebark pine
In his book, Timberline, Stephen Arno explains how these alpine conifers survive the extreme conditions at the timberline. Curiously, the winter conditions are not the limiting factor for these trees. Summer is the critical time when conifers must prepare for the winter. They must have enough time in the brief summer to put on new growth and for the new growth to become mature. Arno describes this maturation process as “hardening off of shoots.” This hardening enables the new growth to survive the winter. (Arno, p. 57)

Contrary to common sense, it is not only the cold of winter that is destructive to alpine conifers. It is also … wait for it … heat. Conifers prepare for cold weather in the fall when temperatures begin to drop below freezing. If needles do not mature in the summer, they can be damaged by frost. But warm weather can dry out the new growth in winter, especially when it is windy or sunny. This drying or “winter desiccation” can be fatal to needles that have not had a chance to mature in summer. This hardening protects the needles, enabling them to retain their moisture. You can look at damaged needles and tell whether they were damaged by frost or winter desiccation. Frost damaged needles shrivel and then turn black. Needles damaged by winter desiccation turn orange-brown. (Arno, p. 58)
Mount Rainier
The factor that determines the upper elevation limit for conifers is not how cold the winters are. Rather, it is how cold the summers are. Summer must be warm enough and long enough for new growth to become hardened to survive both frost and desiccation.

Late summer is a great time to visit alpine areas. The snows have melted, and wildflowers are taking advantage of their brief summer and blooming in abundance. These parklands of life living on the edge are unmatched in stunning beauty themselves. Also, the view there is often framed by picturesque, snow-capped mountain peaks.
Mount Hood
The most common conifers at the timberline are mountain hemlock, subalpine fir and whitebark pine. Look closely on the ground, too. You may see a mat of common juniper. To identify all the trees you find at the timberline, print this page: Alpine Conifers
Common juniper

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."

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