Northwest Conifers


Overview of Northwest Conifers

The conifers native to the Pacific Northwest are members of just three botanical families:

  • The Pine family (Pinaceae) -  includes these conifer groups or genera:
    - Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga) curiously stands alone, as noted below.
    - Hemlock (Tsuga) - 2 species
    - Fir (Abies) - 6 species
    - Pine (Pinus) - 8 species
    - Spruce (Picea)- 3 species
    - Larch (Larix) - 2 species
  • The cypress family (Cupressaceae) - includes the 4 species commonly called "cedar," a cypress, two junipers, and the Redwood.
  • The yew family (Taxaceae) - includes just Pacific yew.

Douglas Fir

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii

Douglas fir is by far the most common conifer native to Oregon and is distinguished as Oregon's state tree. But remarkably, Douglas fir it is not a fir at all. That is, it is not a member of the Abies genus. It stands in a genus by itself. It was classified as a fir at one time, because it has resin blisters in the young bark like the true firs. It also has been classified as a pine, spruce, and hemlock. The scientific name for its genus reflects one of these misclassifications: Pseudotsugameans false hemlock. Undoubtedly, its presence everywhere throughout  the Pacific Northwest and its widespread use as lumber has contributed to the confusion about its classification. You can easily identify Douglas fir by its soft, bottle-brush needles, by the unique three-pointed bracts that protrude from the cones, and by the thick, deeply-furrowed bark. Finally, Douglas Fir has unique pointed buds visible during most of the year.

Western Hemlock

Hemlocks (Tsuga)

The Northwest has two varieties of hemlocks. It is easy to distinguish them from other native conifers by their short, flat needles and by the drooping branches and drooping leaders at the top of each tree. The cones have rounded scales like Douglas fir, but don't have bracts protruding from them. You can usually distinguish one hemlock from the other by elevation, although their ranges overlap. Where they do grow together, the needle arrangement and cone size will show the difference. Tsuga is the Japanese word for hemlock.

Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) - Has short, flat needles and 3/4 inch cones.

Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) - Has short irregular needles and 2 inch cones.

Subalpine Fir

True Firs (Abies)

The expression "true fir" distinguishes the firs from Douglas fir. The cones of the firs are perched on the top of the upper branches, and fall apart at maturity, leaving a cone core spike on the branch. So you won't find any fir cones lying under the trees unless a squirrel cut them loose and dropped them. The bark is smooth with resin blisters on younger stems and has furrows between smooth plates on larger trunks. The needles lie in flattened rows or curve upwards.  All the needles of Northwest firs come to a point that is soft and not prickly. Finally, when the needles fall off, they leave round, flat scars on the twig. The scientific name of the genus is from the Latin abeo, which means "to rise." These firs are native to the Northwest:

Grand Fir (Abies grandis) - Has flat needles that lie flat.

Noble Fir (Abies procera) - Has needles shaped like hockey sticks.

Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis) - Has flat needles that point up.

Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) - Has needles with white lines above and below.

These firs grow in southwestern Oregon:

White Fir (Abies concolor) - Long needles with white lines above and below. In Oregon, it grows as a hybrid with grand fir.

Red Fir  (Abies magnifica) - Rare. Similar to Noble fir, but has no whiskers on its cones. In Oregon, it grows as a hybrid with noble fir.

Whitebark Pine

Pines (Pinus)

Although pines are the most common conifer throughout the world, they don't compete as well in the climate of the Northwest, where forests are dark, damp, and dense. You will find them high in the mountains in more open forests and east of the Cascades where the weather is dry. Pines have long needles that grow in bundles. You can usually identify a pine by the number of needles in each bundle. The cones are the largest you will find in the Northwest. Unlike the thin scales on hemlock and spruce cones, pine cones have thick, woody scales. Pinus, of course, means "pine tree." Four species of pine grow throughout the mountains of the Northwest:

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) - Has bundles of 3 needles.

Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta) - Has bundles of 2 needles. Also grows along the coast.

Western White Pine (Pinus monticola) - Has bundles of 5 needles.

Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) - Has bundles of 5 needles and grows near the timberliine.

These pines grow in the mountains of southwestern Oregon:

Jeffrey Pine (Pinus jeffreyi) A 3-needle pine similar to Ponderosa Pine but with larger cones.

Knobcone Pine (Pinus attenuata) - A 3 needle pine with short needles.

Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana) - A 5-needle pine similar to Western White Pine but with larger, straighter cones.

This rare pine grows in the high elevations of the Wallowa Mountains:

Limber Pine (Pinus Flexilis) - A 5-needle pine similar to Whitebark Pine.

Sitka Spruce

Spruces (Picea)

The Spruces are easy to identify. The needles look like Douglas fir needles, but they are pointed and sharp. Unlike Douglas fir and the true firs, each spruce needle grows on a small peg. These unique pegs remain even after a branch loses its needles. The cones have paper-thin scales. The bark is gray and breaks into scales on large trees. Picea is derived from the Latin for "pitch."  Three species of spruce grow in the Northwest:

Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) - Grows along the Pacific Coast.

Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii) - Grows high in the Cascades.

Brewer Spruce (Picea brewerana) -  Rare. Grows in southwestern Oregon.

Western Larch

Larches (Larix)

Unlike most conifers, larches are deciduous, dropping their needles in the fall. The needles grow in bundles like the pines, but they have many more needles per bundle, and each bundle grows on a distinctive little spur twig. Two species of larch grow in the Northwest:

Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) - Grows on the east side of the Cascades.

Alpine Larch (Larix Lyallii) - Grows high in the North Cascades of Washington.

Western Red Cedar

New World Cedars

The cedars of North America are called "new world cedars" to distinguish them from the dissimilar, "true cedars" of the Himalayas and the Mediterranean region. Thus, some writers call our native cedars "false cedars." However, these trees are commonly referred to as just "cedars," even though our northwest cedars belong to four different genera, none being Cedrus, the genus of true cedars. All these new world cedars have similar looking flat, scale-like leaves, and somewhat similar stringy bark. And they all belong to the Cypress family (Cupressaceae). Although these new world cedars grow in the Pacific Northwest, only western red cedar is common: 

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) - Grows throughout western Oregon and Washington, mostly in wet areas.

Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) - Grows in the Cascades south of Mt. Hood.

Alaska Cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) - Grows high in the Cascades.

Port Orford Cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) - Grows along the southern Oregon Coast.


Other Cypress Family Conifers

The following members of the cypress family also grow in the Northwest:

Modoc Cypress (Cupressus bakeri) - Rare. The only cypress native to the Northwest.

Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) - Grows across much of eastern Oregon.

Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) - Grows in central Washington.

Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) - Grows along the coast from Oregon to central California.

Western Larch & Pacific Yew

Yew (Taxus)

Yews are unique among the conifers. Yew seeds are enclosed in small red berry-like fruit, called an "aril." Because yews seem to lack proper cones, their status as a conifer has been questioned, in spite of the obvious similar appearance of the needles. Recent research has led some botanists to describe the arils as highly modified cones. The needles are dark green on top and light green underneath. The distinctive papery bark is brown or red. Just one species of yew is native to the Pacific Northwest.

Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) grows in shady locations at low to medium elevations.


Pronunciation Guide

© 2012 Ken Denniston