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.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Favorite Things

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

Conifers are defined by their seed cones. Think about the general shape of most conifers. It is also a cone. It is an attractive shape, of course, but the spire shaped subalpine fir is extraordinary, reaching like the Eiffel Tower into the sky. It is the ideal design for life at high altitudes where the snowfall is deep in winter. Subalpine fir keeps its limbs short so the weight of the snow doesn’t break them. This practical design is the essence of its beauty.

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

Most conifers are evergreen. However, a few species go out in a blaze of golden glory in the fall. The only Oregon native to do so is the western larch. In early November, the needles turn golden. By the end of December, they have all fallen to the ground. In spring, new needles burst out, making another striking display, this time of bright green.


Favorite Non-conifer: Oregon White Oak

I do have a favorite tree among the non-conifers. It is the Oregon white oak. It has been a favorite since my childhood. A large oak stood in front of the house on our farm. The oak is a symbol of strength, and the lobed leaf pattern is an iconic symbol for all trees. Unlike most trees that drop their leaves in the fall, the oak holds onto its leaves through the winter, perhaps another measure of its strength and tenacity. Oak trees were the site of many important historical events. One of these is the Treaty Oak at The Dalles, Oregon. It commemorates the signing of the 1855 treaty between the United States and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Finally, oak trees seem to be on friendly terms with ponderosa pines. You can often see them growing together, for example, in pine-oak woods at the east end of the Columbia Gorge and at oak-savannah sites in the Willamette Valley.

Thinking about your favorite things can be very therapeutic. It's even better to notice the beauty around you when walking in the woods. You can make your own list of favorite things. You might even write a song about them.

1 comment:

  1. I concur with many items on your list. I especially like the incense cedar. However, I would add the swaths of cottonwoods that we have here in the southwest along the waterways instead of the larch. Seeing long bands of gold right around Halloween as you drive up into the nearby mountains is amazing. So are the golden aspen in the high elevations, well at least down here.