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|Looking up: Wallace Falls State Park - Lainey Piland photo|
We've all been there. While hitting the trails for a weekend nature excursion, your hiking buddy thoughtfully squints at a tree along the trail, nudges you with an elbow, points and asks "What kind of tree is that?" Your face flushes; you feel like this is something you should know. After silently running through every kind of tree you can remember from last year's visit to the Christmas tree lot, you lamely answer "Ummm, an evergreen..."
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like nature. We like being outdoors. We like the green and the moss and the damp earthiness. But sometimes, we're unfamiliar with the details, such as those that allow us to identify that mystery tree on the trail. That was certainly the case for me, up until a few years ago when I had a desire to connect further with what I was seeing when I was out in nature, and decided to learn the names of the plants and trees commonly encountered in our Pacific Northwest forests. Thereafter, my hiking experiences were forever changed. Nature was no longer experienced peripherally, as something to just pass through. It became something to discover, appreciate, and understand.
Those ambiguous evergreen trees - properly known as conifers (needle-leaved, cone-bearing trees) - can all blend together and look the same to the untrained eye. In the spirit of promoting more intriguing hiking experiences and stronger connections with nature, I thought I'd share my non-scientific and simple methods for identifying a few common species of Pacific Northwest conifers...
Robust and sturdy, these are the iconic evergreen trees of the Pacific Northwest, and are my personal favorites. In the few remaining patches of old-growth forest in our region, you can find monster Dougs towering 250 feet tall, and so large in circumference that it would require at least half a dozen people stretching their arms around to completely encircle it. Most Doug firs you'll encounter along the typical hiking trail are smaller: a few feet in diameter at most.
Identifying features: These trees are distinguishable by their rough, gnarled bark gouged with deep crevices and their sturdy, springy branches covered in long, thin needles and bearing large pinecones. The larger, older Dougs will have mostly naked trunks, with only a crown of branches on the upper part of the tree.
I will admit, these trees are not my favorite, as they lack the formidable size and robust appearance of the impressive Doug firs. Actually, I find that they tend to look half-dead most of the time, due to their sparse branches and needles. Nevertheless, Western hemlock is one of the characteristic PNW conifers, and is actually the official Washington State Tree.
Identifying features: The bark is relatively thin and flat, with shallow vertical crevices. The branches bear short, flat needles with rounded tips, and the pinecones are very small. These trees also have an overall weepy, almost frail appearance, and their tasseled treetops always droop to the side.
|Hemlock growing from a cedar stump in Saint Edward State Park - Lainey Piland photo|
Western Red Cedar
This tree is ubiquitous in Pacific Northwest forests, and has a unique appearance that makes it easy to identify. Like the Douglas fir, specimens of massive proportions can be found in the few old-growth forest fragments that remain in the region, but the cedar trees you encounter along the trail will most likely be no more than two to four feet in diameter.
Identifying features: The bark of a Western red cedar looks like it was run through a paper shredder and stuck haphazardly to the trunk in long vertical strips, and the edges are often peeling up. Underneath, the tree's flesh is a deep red-orange color. From a distance, the branches have a lacy appearance, and almost look as though they've been draped with thousands of dark green doilies. Yes, I know that sounds weird but take a look for yourself - you'll see what I mean! An up-close look at the branches reveals flat green needles joined together in a fan or feather-like appearance.
|Cedar stump at Saint Edward State Park - Lainey Piland photo|
This is not an exhaustive list of Pacific Northwest conifers, but these three are by far the most common species. When you get back on the trail, visit a nearby park, or step into your backyard, see how many conifers you can identify. Are there any notched stumps or alien hemlocks? See what you can find... you may be surprised at how much more engaging your nature experiences become!
Where to Go
To see some of the massive old-growth trees mentioned earlier, plan a trip to Rockport State Park or South Whidbey Island State Park - both are wonderful parks and boast some of the largest old-growth trees I've ever seen. Saint Edward State Park is also a favorite of mine; there are no old-growth trees here, but there is a breathtakingly gorgeous second-growth forest and plenty of notched cedar stumps and alien-looking hemlocks to discover.
|Name that tree! I found this monster at South Whidbey Island State Park.|
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Related blog posts:
Wanderings: Rockport State Park
Wanderings: In Search of Old Growth