Douglas Fir–an Imposter?

Did Hawaiians use Douglas Fir for their war canoes?

The Douglas Fir is possibly the most majestic of the trees native to Colorado and Larimer County.

P1010479
The tagged Douglas Fir in City Park

Considering only conifers, in height in North America this species is second only to the Coastal Redwood. The tallest tree is listed at over 326 feet. Doug Firs are also listed as some of the oldest trees on the continent, with one recorded to be over 1300 years. Of course both the largest, tallest, and oldest of the trees are members of the West Coast Douglas Firs, which some consider a separate species than the Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir. Others list them as geographic varieties. (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Western Region, 1994; North American Trees, 5th Edition 2002.) Apparently the USDA does not distinguish between the two as the range map includes both the west coast and the Rocky Mountains.

In Colorado, the champion Douglas Fir, (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is in the San Juan National Forest. The tallest in the state was measured in 2014 at a height of 169″.

To add to the confusion surrounding this tree, it really isn’t a fir at all and has its own genus, Pseudotsuga. Some authors explain this is because it more closely resembles a hemlock while having traits of both spruces and firs. Most notably, the cones of the tree grow downward and not upward as do those of true firs.

P1010483
Douglas Fir cone

The cones are distinctive with their fringy ends and have their own legend on how they got to look that way!P1030518

 

 

 

 

Like the true firs (Abies), needles are flat.

P1030528
Flat needles with white stripes

This species is one of the most important trees in the western forest. Many animals use parts for food. Along with the usual medicinal uses of the leaves, bark, etc to treat various aliments, including coughs and colds, spring buds were used by at least one tribe to cure venereal disease. Parts of the tree were also ground to be used as a fertilizer. Like many other members of Pinaceae, smaller Douglas fir may make excellent and popular Christmas trees.  Although the parts of the fir might not be a routine ingredient of the current American diet, the leaves can be used as a flavoring agent. A number of recipes can be found here and here. There is even a recipe for Gummy Treats.

Not only is the Douglas Fir important commercially in North America, but according to an article in WOOD magazine.com it has “migrated” to Europe, Australian, and even South Africa! Some of its commercial uses have included telephone poles, railroad ties, flooring, and paneling. The doors and most of the molding in my 1919 home are made of Douglas fir, and likely this same wood is seen in many west coast Craftsman homes. You could say this is continuing a tradition from ancient Puebloans, as they used the trees to construct their dwellings. Other uses included prayer sticks and a resin to coat buckets. The lumber is also used in boats, with the masts of the USS Constitution currently being constructed of it. The bark has been used to make a dye.

Probably one of the most surprising uses of the wood is that, even though these trees  are not native to Hawaii, this was a preferred wood for Hawaiians to construct their canoes! Probably from logs that drifted ashore.

The tagged Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) in City Park is D196. To find this tree, head to the Northeast end of Sheldon Lake. You can park along Sheldon Drive or along the section of City Park Drive that is near the pool entrance. If you have been studying the Engelmann Spruce (D193) or Baker Blue Spruce (D194), you need only to climb up the short embankment through the tall conifers. No matter from which direction you approach this tree, if you see the huge green frogs (more Art in Public Places?) you are getting close. The Douglas Fir is south and east of the monstrosities. Depending if you are walking on the sidewalk that encircles the lake, or approaching from the street, the tree is either behind the swinging bench or in front of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the Firs Whose Tags You See

The cones and needles may be the clues to telling firs from spruces.

Many years ago I went on a ranger talk in a national park and have always remembered the meme “Friendly fir, prickly pine.” A lot of good that does when it comes to spruce, although a landscape architect friend added “spikey” for spruce. After running my hands over the leaves of some of the firs, though, I don’t think that learning aid is completely accurate. Many firs and spruce look disconcertingly similar. The Norway spruce, Picae abies, even shares part of its name with the firs, whose genus is Abies. One way to tell a spruce from a fir is the direction in which the cones grow. Usually trees with cones pointing up are firs. The needles on firs are also flat compared to those of spruces. In the photo below, all the pieces, except the White Fir, lie flat on the background. In the case of the subalpine, the Nordmann, and the Fraser fir, the backside of the needles can be seen to be of a lighter color, too.

P1010508
The needles on the six tagged Abies trees in the park. What looks like stray marks are actually the needles, showing how flat and thin individual ones are.

There are six identified true firs in City Park. Of these, the Subalpine, Corkbark, and White Fir are native to Colorado.

PC300407
Subalpine Fir

Subalpine fir (Abies lasciocarpa) ranges over the western half of the continent. It is also native to Larimer County (Flora of Colorado, Jennifer Ackerfield, 2015.) The tree itself is useful in watersheds and rehabilitating the land. Various parts of the tree were of use to Native Americans as shingles, bedding, and medicinally. This species normally does not produce cones until it is twenty or more years old. Most of the Colorado state champion subalpine fir are found in the San Juan National Forest. The oldest trees, including one found in Wyoming, are around 500 years old. The tallest measure over 172 feet.

PC300402
Leaves of the subalpine fir.
PC300406
Trunk of subalpine fir.

The Corkbark (Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica) is a variant of the subalpine fir found only in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. It does not produce cones until it is over fifty years of age. Trees can be found on Wolf Creek Pass and in the mountains of northern New Mexico, although the champion tree has been listed variously as in Arizona or near Ruidoso, NM.  Its wood is the lightest of American trees and has little value as lumber.

PC200317
Corkbark Fir
PC200315
The trunk of the Corkbark Fir is very white
PC200316
A branch of the Corkbark Fir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Firs are native to the Northwest. The layout of the needles on this conifer seem to be the flattest of the firs in the park and have an almost fernlike appearance. The trees take 200-250 years to mature and are grown for Christmas trees in this country and for lumber in Europe. Native Americans used the needles medicinally, as well as for a baby powder and a cure for baldness. The essential oils of firs have many uses including as a stimulate, deodorant, expectorant, and air freshener.

PB280107
The Grand Fir near the ditch
PB280102
Grand Fir leaves

The Fraser Fir is found in limited areas of the American south. Due to its remoteness and small distribution, its primary use is in watershed management. It is also grown commercially for Christmas trees. Sources list various types of trees as the best/most popular for Christmas; the Fraser fir is usually toward the top of the list. Fir varieties have been used for the Capitol Christmas tree fifteen times.

PB280086
Fraser Fir .

 

The Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmannia) is native to Asia Minor, where it is a popular Christmas tree.

PC300398
Nordmann Fir

The last of the six firs mapped in the park is the White Fir, (Abies concolor) although the tag could not be located. As can be seen on the mat with the needles above, this tree does not look that much like the other firs in the park. Its leaves are 2-3″ in length and it doesn’t lie as flat, although the individual needles are so flat they seem one dimensional!

The white fir is seen throughout most of the west and, according to the USDA map, is also native to Maine and Massachusetts. The US Forest Service distinguishes between a California white fir and a Rocky Mountain white fir. On conifers.org, another writer says white fir may be a catch-all name and that the species may have geographical variations.  The Forest Service mentions the trees can live between three and four hundred years. It is of significant use for wildlife, is used for Christmas trees, some smaller construction projects, and for food containers as its wood has little odor.

Yosemite boasts the largest white firs of the California branch of the species. The tallest tree in the Rocky Mountain group can be seen in the Hermosa Creek area of the San Juan mountains, the same area of the tall Colorado Blue Spruce.

P1010488
White Fir on the right.

Locating the Firs: All but one of the tagged firs are on the west side of the park, west of the ditch. It is probably most advantageous to park near the pool or in the ballpark lot. If you are walking, you could start at either end. The directions below are from the ballpark parking lot.

Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmannia) E41 This fir is located between the Fort Collins Housing Authority, 1715 W. Mountain, the building at the far N end of the ballpark parking lot, and the N baseball diamond. It is the only evergreen tree planted by itself in this spot.

Grand Fir (Abies grandis) E31 From the south section of the parking lot, walk between the the restrooms and the office building. The Grand fir is the evergreen just past the pedestrian bridge over the ditch that runs along S. Bryan. (If you are walking from the main body of the park, it is easy to cross the bridge over the ditch. The Grand Fir is then the first evergreen to your left.)

Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) E29 Continue walking past the basketball court to the small clump of trees, three of which are conifers. The smaller tree planted by itself is the Fraser Fir. The tag is up quite high and may be difficult to read.  

White Fir (Abies concolor) E28 Just beyond the Fraser Fir are two towering trees. The tree to the west does not look particularly healthy. The tree to the east should be the White Fir, but its tag is not to be found. (If you DO find it, please let me know in a comment.)

Both the white and Fraser fir can be accessed from City Park Drive by entering the park through either the entrance to Shelter #7, or an informal entrance between a break in the fence and the stonewall of the road bridge over the ditch.)

Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) E19 The last fir in this area of the park can be located by walking W toward the Big Chair, which is an example of Art in Public Places. The subalpine fir is just south of this chair, the only evergreen in the area. 

If you are viewing this specimen on a separate occasion, you could park in the golf course parking lot and walk back along the road to a break in the fence. The tree is then to the East.

Corkbark Fir (Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica) C132. This tree is at the opposite end of the park, along Jackson Avenue. It is across the street from 220 or 222 Jackson Ave, near one of the workout stations. 

 

 

 

 

 

December is for Christmas Trees and Our First is a Champion

A popular tree to decorate for Christmas

Every year trees are brought to the nation’s capitol to adorn the Capitol lawn, outside the Whitehouse, and sometimes in the interior of the Whitehouse. The National Christmas Tree has been displayed, cut or planted, in the President’s Park as well as other spots. This tradition started in 1923. The most common tree used is a variety of spruce.

Although the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree tradition began before 1970, every year since then a different national forest has provided the tree. The White Spruce has been the tree of choice twelve times, the most of any single species. The tagged White Spruce (Picea glauca) in the City Park Arboretum near the intersection of City Park and Sheldon Drive is not only a native to Colorado, but a state champion tree. This tree probably does not call to mind a tree to decorate, though, as it is quite tall and somewhat spindly looking.

PB060067
The State Champion White Spruce

The USDA shows this species as having a very northern range, including Wyoming, but not Colorado. The Forest Service shows its range as even more restrictive. North American Trees (Preston and Braham, 2002) appears to agree with the USFS. The map on the Gymnosperm Database  also shows the distribution as very northern, mostly Canada, but goes on to list a number of states where the tree is native, again Wyoming but not Colorado. North American Trees says these trees do not reach maturity until 250-300 years and the Gymnosperm Database says the oldest tree, growing in the Yukon, is over 668 years old.

White spruce lumber has been used for sounding boards in violins and other instruments, for pulp, general construction, and Christmas trees. The National Christmas Tree Association suggests their short needles make them ideal for hanging ornaments.  I examined the branches of the tree I bought for my house this year, and I’m thinking it very well may be a white spruce.

The tree is significant for wild life and its roots were used by Native Americans to weave baskets and bind canoes. A British Columbian website includes making snowshoes and bows in its uses. Resin was turned into a gum to stick arrowheads to arrows. Like most of the other trees reported on thus far, this one, too, has medicinal properties, including antiseptic, respiratory, and wound care. It has also been investigated for its relation to diabetes!

PB290008
The needles and cone of the White Spruce

This specimen (A94) can be located by studying the tall conifers at the Northeast corner of City Park and Sheldon Drive. There are ten trees on this corner, but only two of them are conifers. The more northern of the two is the tagged tree, although I suspect the second tree is also a white spruce.

PB060055
White Spruce bark