Since I have a bit of a reputation for being a conifer geek, people sometimes ask me what my favorite tree is. Would you ask a mother which is her favorite child? With a similar attitude toward conifers, I can’t name a favorite. However, I do have some favorites among the different parts of trees. Here is my list of my favorite things about our local conifers.
Favorite Bark: Ponderosa Pine
Ponderosa pine bark is the clear winner, both for the striking golden color and the distinctive plates that appear to be covered with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The bark is more colorful on older trees, most notably on large trees growing east of the Cascades. Climate may also influence bark color.
Favorite Needles: Noble Fir
Firs have a reputation for well-ordered needles. Noble fir needles are the epitome of groomed order. They appear to be combed up and out from the twig. The curve where they attach to the twig is unique. The soft points are friendly and touchable. The color has a classy hint of blue. The red fir of California is similar to the noble fir. Where the two interbreed in southern Oregon, they are called Shasta red fir.
Favorite Cones: Jeffrey Pine
The cones of the pines are larger than those of our other native conifers. The stiff, woody scales make them heavier and more substantive than those of other conifers. My favorite is the Jeffrey pinecone. Its woody scales and characteristic pinecone shape are similar to the ponderosa pinecone, but Jeffrey pinecones are notably larger than those of the ponderosa. The long prickles on the scales are usually bent back so you can safely pick up the cone. It is fascinating how the scales on pinecones grow in rows arranged in spirals. Jeffrey pine has 13 rows that spiral to the left. You can see 8 rows that spiral to the right. Both of these numbers are Fibonacci numbers. You can see this pattern on ponderosa cones as well. The next time you see a cone under a ponderosa, pick it up and check this out. Nature often develops growth patterns that are mathematically interesting.
Favorite Pollen Cones: Ponderosa Pine
Most pollen cones are hidden on the lower side of twigs. The pollen cones of ponderosa pines are prominently visible at the ends of branches. They are large, colorful and arranged like the petals of a flower. How could anyone not love them?
Favorite Smell: Incense Cedar
If you have ever smelled the wood of Alaska cedar, you will forever be able to identify it by that smell. But it’s not a pleasant smell. On the other hand, incense cedar has a wonderful smell, as you might guess from its name. A few years ago, I was walking up a trail in Yosemite National Park to Yosemite Falls and encountered a wonderfully sweet smell in the trees. A park ranger told me that the smell was from incense cedar trees. It’s no wonder that people willingly spend large sums of money to buy chests made of incense cedar.
Favorite Shape: Subalpine Fir
Favorite Fruit: Pacific Yew
We don’t expect conifers to have a fruit, and technically the little red berry-like arils on yews are cones. But the cones have just one scale that surrounds a single seed. The scale ripens to a plump, bell-shaped aril. These arils have a sweet flavor that birds love, which is how yew seeds are dispersed. However, the seeds inside are quite poisonous to humans. So I don’t love them for the taste but rather for their bright red color, a unique thing to see growing on a conifer.
Favorite Fall Color: Western Larch
Favorite Non-conifer: Oregon White Oak