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Tyson Gillard | 03.13.2014

If you live on the West Coast of the United States or British Columbia, when you think of home, there are probably many things that come to mind, things that make this place so special. From a naturalist perspective, however, the trees found here set this place apart from anywhere else in the world. Western North America is home to the most iconic, tallest, and largest trees on this planet.

Most people know that the redwoods of the northern coast of California are the tallest living organism on the planet, and the giant sequoias of the Sierra Nevada mountains are the largest single trees, but our trees are champions for more than just their size. Bristlecone pines, found high on the slopes of California's White Mountains, can live over 5,000 years, making them the oldest living trees. A single quaking aspen colony in Utah covers 106 acres and is believed to weigh 6 million kilograms, making it the world's heaviest living organism. And the heavy rain fronts that hit the western slopes of Washington's Olympic Mountains have produced a conifer dominant forest with a biomass density higher than anywhere else, including the rainforests of the tropics. Yes, when you explore western forests, you're enjoying a walk through a special, one might say magical, and oftentimes ancient place.

As an ode to what we call home, we have compiled this special report to highlight the West's most iconic and common tree species. We hope that you can become as familiar with these majestic trees as anything else that makes up your concept of "home". To simplify things, we have identified 25 stand-out species that are representative of a particular region or environment of Western North America.

Coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)

  • Location: Northern California and Southern Oregon Coast.
  • Environment: Damp valley bottoms with common and heavy fog.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Thick, reddish bark; first branches often more than 100' high in mature trees.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At 379 feet, the Hyperion tree is currently the tallest tree in the world.
    • At 42,500 cu. ft, Lost Monarch is the largest redwood (located in Jedediah Smith State Park).
    • Old-growth species can live 1,200 to 1,800 years.
    • Redwood is one of the most valuable types of lumber. Since the 1850's, when redwood logging began, only roughly 5% of the original old-growth redwood forests remain.

Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

  • Location: Western North America.
  • Environment: High to moderate precipitation areas, low to mid-elevation.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Thick brown and fissured bark, small (0.25-0.5") cone-looking forms at end of branches.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At 327 feet, the Doerner Fir (previously called the Brummit fir) in Coos County, Oregon is currently the tallest.
    • Prior to European/American settlement and logging, Douglas firs are believed to have been the tallest trees in the world. Reputable accounts documented a 415-foot tree cut down on the north shore of Vancouver, BC in 1902, and less reputable accounts claim a 465-foot tree was cut down in Whatcom County, WA in 1897. 
    • Old-growth species can live 500 to 1,000 years.
    • Douglas firs technically are not true fir trees and are often called "Douglas-fir" (with added quotation marks) to correct the misappropriation of the name.
    • Because of its tolerance to sunlight and rapid rate of growth, Douglas fir has come to dominate the timber industry, particularly in areas where clearcutting is standard practice. Today, more timber is yielded from Douglas firs than any other species in North America.

Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis)

  • Location: Coastal Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska.
  • Environment: High precipitation coastal lowlands.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Scaly-looking gray bark, very rigid (spiky) needles.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At 315 feet, the Carmanah Giant on Vancouver Island is the tallest spruce tree and also the tallest tree in Canada.
    • At 11,900 cu. ft., the Queets Spruce on the Olympic Peninsula is the largest Sitka spruce.
    • In contrast to redwoods and Douglas firs, due to its growth in very wet climates the spruce hasn't developed a fire-resistant bark. The bark is exceptionally thin for a species that can live for over 700 years.

Giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

  • Location: Western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
  • Environment: Semi-humid areas, granitic-based soils, mid-elevation.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Thick, reddish and fibrous bark, sizable girth of trunk, small (2-3") and very dense cones
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At 311 feet, Reedwood in the Reedwood Mountain grove is the tallest living tree of the species.
    • At 52,508 cu. ft., General Sherman in the Giant Forest grove is the largest single tree in the world.
    • Bark that can grow up to three feet thick makes the species extremely resilient to wildfire. This is the primary factor that has allowed individual trees to live as long as 3,500 years and grow to such mass.
    • The giant sequoia's range is very small, comprising only 68 dispersed groves within the Southern Sierra.

Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

  • Location: Coastal Pacific Northwest up to Alaska and the Canadian Rockies.
  • Environment: High precipitation coastal lowlands and up to 1,800 feet in the interior.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Short round-tipped needles, small (1”) cones, thinner and grayer bark than Douglas fir.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At 271 feet, a tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in California is the tallest specimen.
    • Mountain hemlock, the second tallest hemlock species, looks very similar and is also common throughout the west, but unlike the western hemlock it grows at much higher elevations (up to 10,000 feet in the Northern Sierra). Mountain hemlock is shorter with a thicker trunk and its needles have a slightly bluer hue.

Western redcedar (Thuja plicata)

  • Location: Coastal Pacific Northwest up to Alaska and the Canadian Rockies.
  • Environment: High precipitation coastal lowlands and up to 7,000 feet in the interior.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Reddish, fibrous bark with a broad fluted or undulating base. Branches curl up and have flat scale-like needles, similar to other species in the cypress (Cupressaceae) family.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At 18,000 cu. ft., the Quinault Lake Redcedar is the largest specimen in the world.
    • Old-growth species can live up to 1,400 years.
    • Prized for it's resistance to decay, relative strength to weight ratio, and notable aroma, western redcedar has been heavily harvested for its timber. Its primary use is for outdoor applications such as shingles, fencing and decking.

Noble fir (Abies procera)

  • Location: Cascade Mountains.
  • Environment: Mid-elevation, from 1,000 to 5,000 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Thin gray bark with resin blisters in younger specimens and at the tops of older specimens, and brownish fissured bark at the bottom of older specimens. Distinctively yellow cones with sharp scales.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Along with grand fir (Abies grandis), noble firs are the primary species used throughout the world for Christmas trees.

White fir (Abies concolor)

  • Location: Western North America, primarily in the Sierra and Southern Rockies.
  • Environment: Mid to high-elevation, from 3,000 to 11,000 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Thin, needle-like overall form with distinctively white bark higher up and rough fissured brownish bark lower down similar to noble firs.

California incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)

  • Location: Southern Oregon, California, and Northern Baja Peninsula.
  • Environment: Low to high-elevation,  from 150 to 10,000 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: In contrast to western redcedar, incense cedar has a circular base without undulation and has less dense foliage.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Incense cedar is the primary wood used for pencils.

Western larch (Lanix occidentalis)

  • Location: Northern Rockies of Idaho and Montana, but also found sparsely in the Cascade Mountains.
  • Environment: Mid to high-elevation, 1,500 to 8,000 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: The only deciduous conifer tree, the species exhibits iconic bright yellow foliage in the fall and looses its needles in the winter. Bark is thick and fissured looking like a cross between Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. Needles form into tight clusters along branches.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Throughout the West the tree is also commonly called "Tamarack".

Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)

  • Location: Western North America (from Nebraska to the Pacific).
  • Environment: Low to mid-elevation, found in sunny interstitial areas between mountains and more arid climates.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Orange, broad plated bark with black groves. Younger specimens have darker bark and are often referred to as "blackjacks". Needles are notably long, up to 7-8 inches in length.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Tallest of all pine trees. At 268 feet, a tree in the Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon is the tallest of the species.
    • At only 162 feet tall, but with a circumference of 28.9 feet, the Big Tree in LaPine State Park, Oregon is the largest ponderosa in the world.
    • Ponderosa pines are the most widely distributed pine in North America.

Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)

  • Location: Sierra Nevada Mountains to Alaska and the Northern Rockies.
  • Environment: Low-elevation, adjacent to rivers and lakes up to 2,000 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Glossy dark green leaves with silvery undersides, gray bark that becomes heavily fissured lower on trunk. Cotton-like hairs get dispersed along with seed capsules. 
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Largest poplar species in the Americas.
    • Two trees claim to be the largest: A 101 feet tall, 32.5 feet circumference tree near Haines, Alaska and a 155 feet tall, 26 feet circumference tree in Willamette Mission State Park, Oregon. Recent measurement, however, by Ascending the Giants confirms that the Oregon tree is indeed the largest in North America.

Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis)

  • Location: Cascade Mountains and Coast Range of British Columbia.
  • Environment: Low to high-elevation, sea level to 7,500 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Similar trunk structure as white fir, needles are entirely green on top with bright silver undersides, and cones are dense, 2-4" long, and purple in color.

Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)

  • Location: Broad distribution throughout the Western US, British Columbia and Alberta.
  • Environment: Coastal areas adjacent to sea (shore pine), and interior up to 6,000 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Gray flaky-looking bark, slender trunk and needle formation similar to ponderosa pine, only with much shorter needles (1.5-3"). May take on a shrub-like form in coastal areas and at high elevations, both with high winds.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • There are three distinct lodgepole pine subspecies: subsp. contorta, also known as shore pine, subsp. murrayana also known as Tamarack pine or Sierra lodgepole pine, and subsp. latifolia.
    • The tree is named after its common use for Native American tipis.

Red alder (Alnus rubra)

  • Location: Coastal California up to Southwest Alaska, with limited groves in Northern Idaho.
  • Environment: Low to mid-elevation along river and creek beds.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Gray, smooth bark, green serrated-edged leaves with dangling seed pods called "catkins" which can be up to 3" long.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Red alders are the largest alder species in North America.
    • Along with bigleaf maples, red alders are commonly found with conifers such as Douglas fir, western hemlock and western redcedar.

California Bay laurel (Umbellularia)

  • Location: Coastal California and Southwestern Oregon, and in the Sierra.
  • Environment: Low to mid-elevation, sea level to 6,000 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Evergreen tree with long (4") and slender, smooth-edged leaves. Displays small yellowish flowers at its branches' ends. Trees are often broader than they are tall.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At 108 feet and with a 119-foot spread, a tree in Mendocino County, California is the largest of the species.
    • Leaves have similar flavor to bay leaves, but should not to be mistaken as Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) a slightly different laurel species.

Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)

  • Location: Most of the Northern US and across Canada up to Alaska.
  • Environment: Low to mid-elevation, sea level to 6,000 feet.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Circular green leaves that seem to twinkle in the wind and turn to bright yellow in fall. Bark is white to greenish-gray with horizontal black knots. Individual trees grow in clonal colonies all stemming from the same root system.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Most widely distributed tree in North America.
    • At 80,000 years old and 6 million kilograms, and stretching over 106 acres, a quaking aspen colony called Pando in Utah is considered to be the oldest and heaviest living organism.

Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)

  • Location: Coastal California to Northern British Columbia, and the Northern Sierra.
  • Environment: Low to mid-elevation.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Large (up to 24") leaves, with most 8-12" across. Gray, fissured bark commonly adorned with moss and licorice ferns in wetter climates.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Largest leaf of any maple species.
    • At 88 feet and 25.4 feet in circumference, the largest tree of the species is located in Marion County, Oregon.

Pacific dogwood (Cornus nutallii)

  • Location: Coastal California to Southern British Columbia, and the Sierra Mountains.
  • Environment: Low to mid-elevation, primarily in high-precipitation areas.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Thin, grayish twig like branches and stem. Bright white, 4-8 pedal flowers.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Pacific dogwood is the provincial flower of British Columbia.

Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa)

  • Location: Cascade and Rocky Mountains up to the Yukon and Alaska.
  • Environment: Mid to high-elevation, from 1,000 to 12,000 ft.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Relatively small conifer with narrow spire-like form. Needles are tightly clustered and has a cone with a bluish hue similar to Pacific silver fir. Commonly found at the tree line along with whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis).

Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

  • Location: Coastal California to Southern British Columbia.
  • Environment: Low to mid-elevation, in high-precipitation (Puget Sound) and moderate precipitation (Siskiyou Mountains) areas.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Evergreen tree. Bright orange-reddish bark that is very thin and peels in sheets revealing greenish trunk. Leaves are dark green and thick with a waxy texture. Tree looks like a giant-sized greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula), both of which are a part of the heather (Ericaceae) family.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Pacific madrone's distribution range is currently shrinking, thought to be caused by wildfire control practices.  The tree depends on occasional fires to clear conifer coverage and for seeds to sprout.

Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) + California black oak (Quercus kelloggii)

  • Location: Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
  • Environment: Low to mid-elevation grasslands.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Drought-tolerant tree found in open grasslands that grows in solitude and in groves. Tree crowns are circular with dark green oak leaves and acorn fruits.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Hardwood commonly used for residential flooring.
    • Similar to Pacific madrones, fire suppression practices have reduced distribution, replaced by other conifer species such as Douglas fir.
    • During the 1960s, the US Forest Service policy in California was to eradicate all black oaks, viewed as having little value in comparison to conifers such as coastal redwoods and Douglas firs. This practice was stopped by 1965 once conservationists such as Guy Hall brought the policy to the public's attention.

Western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis)

  • Location: Oregon and Northern California.
  • Environment: Mid to high-elevation, 2,600 to 10,000 feet in the arid high desert of the Great Basin.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Grows in shrub or tree formations. Reddish-brown fibrous bark with circular and scaly leaves. Grows distinct bluish-white berries commonly eaten by birds. 
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At nearly 3,000 years old, standing 85 feet and with a trunk 12.7 feet in diameter, Bennett Juniper in the Stanislaus National Forest in California is considered to be the oldest and largest of the species.
    • The berries of western juniper are sometimes used to make gin.

Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia)

  • Location: Southwestern US in California, Nevada and Arizona, primarily in the Mojave Desert.
  • Environment: Mid-elevation, arid desert.
  • Distinct Characteristics: Long (up to 12"), dark green sword-like leaves cluster at the end of thick branches, often considered top heavy and may resemble pom poms. Extensive root system may stretch up 30 feet from the trunk. Clusters of white bell-looking flowers bloom from leaf centers.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • Concerns exist in regards to the Joshua tree's ability to adapt to global climate change due to its inability to migrate. It is thought that the giant Shasta ground sloth, which went extinct roughly 13,000 years ago and ate many parts of the tree and fruit played a significant role in the tree species' current geographic distribution.

Bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva)

  • Location: Western US in concentrated groves.
  • Environment: High-elevation, 5,600 to 11,200 feet in arid and sunny regions.
  • Distinct Characteristics: ​Truncated and warped growth pattern similar to western juniper due to extremely slow growth. Needles are short and grow in clusters of five.
  • Interesting Facts:
    • At up to 5,000 years old, bristlecone pines are believed to be the oldest living single trees. The durability and resistance to rot have left trees standing up to 10,000 years, long after trees have died.


A few extra points of interest related to the tree and species above ...

1. With Coast Redwood Lost Monarch the 7th largest tree in the world, that leaves 6 Giant Sequoias as the world's largest known trees.

2. Raven's Tower in Prairie Creek redwoods at 317' is the world's tallest spruce, with Daisy Spruce in the same park as world;s 2nd tallest.

3. The world's tallest Hemlock in Prairie Creek at 271 feet, has a 2nd in the same park close to 270 feet.

4. For Bigleaf Maple, the Humboldt Honey at 157' is the worlds tallest for any Acer species.

The attached photo is Tsunami, the tallest Hemlock in Prairie Creek.
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