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Know your trees

Know your forest. Imagine not knowing what different animals are called: driving down the highway you look over and see cows in a pasture with a deer grazing too and you say to the kids “Oh, look at the animals, children, that one animal is grazing right alongside of the other animals which seem to be so much fatter and a different color, too.” Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But that is how it seems to me when I hear people say “Look at that beautiful tree, kids and oh, look, there is another beautiful tree which looks pointier” or “Look at all the beautiful pines... there are so many different pines around here,” as they gaze upon a stand of fir and larch trees.

Maybe I am splitting hairs but I cannot imagine living a life of not knowing what the names of the trees are. I can’t claim to know all the ornamental trees which are around, various products of hybridization and importation from different places all over the world, but I do know all the indigenous trees in the area I live in and can’t even imagine owning land and not knowing the names of the residents on my property.  I am amazed at the number of land owners I talk to who refer to the trees with needles as their pine trees and the ones with leaves as the hardwoods.

As you might expect, different trees have different requirements to thrive and will do best in specific habitat types. Some trees require some very specific situations to reproduce at all, while others will germinate just about anywhere but in order to reach maturity will need some fairly specific conditions. Some require bare soil to germinate, some require fire, some require full sunlight or shade to thrive while others require drier soil and others require more damp soil. In order to assess your forest, you must know the components of it and what it takes for the various components of the system to function properly. Trees are a major component and need to be understood.

I could not begin to teach a person the identity of the species of trees on their property in this article or all the complexities of their interactions and requirements for peak health, but I may be able to explain how a person could go about learning the different types of trees on their own.

First, go to the local USFS office and get a copy of their pamphlet on identifying the most common forest trees. This pamphlet is a very basic publication which depicts drawings showing the general shape of the tree from a distance or its form, a close-up of the branches with needle patterns or leaf shapes, a drawing of the pattern of the bark, and drawings of the cones or fruit types. With this simple guide, any land owner can spend some time in their forest learning the types of trees species which grow there.

I tend to identify trees by their bark and so, in big timber when the branches are way up high, I still know the tree species, but this method is a little trickier as bark patterns can vary within a species, as well as between species. The texture and patterns of bark tend to vary by age within a species, and even vary on an individual tree from the base to the top. So, it is important to learn the needles/leaves, the bark pattern and the general form of the tree.

The most common conifers in this area are, beginning with the most shade tolerant, cedar, hemlock, Grand fir, spruce, Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, white pine, larch and Ponderosa pine. Most people recognize cedar trees—they have scales instead of needles with unique bark and form. Hemlock has very short needles with an unruly pattern, very small cones and the tops look hooked or droopy. Grand fir have a very grey bark which if cut into will have purple streaks; the needles are short, rounded on the ends and come out flat off the twig or rather do not grow all around the twig. Spruce and Doug fir needles grow all around the twig like a bottle brush, and are both pointy on the end but spruce needles are much stiffer (they really prick you) and Douglas fir bark is thick and corky while spruce bark is flakey, curling out on the ends away from the tree trunk. (Click here for a legend about the Douglas fir that will help you to recognize its distinct cone.)

Lodgepole pine bark is very dark grey— almost black— and this tree has smaller cones. The needles grow in bundles of two. White pine has grey bark which is smooth when young or on the higher reaches of the tree but, as the tree gets older, it reminds me of alligator skin and the needles are in bundles of five (think w-h-i-t-e). The Ponderosa pine has classic pine bark, usually reddish, very long needles and they come in bundles of three (Adam, Hoss and  Little Joe). Larch is the only deciduous (sheds or loses foliage at the end of the growing season) conifer we have. The needles grow out of a nodule on the twigs and they are relatively short, about one inch long.

These brief descriptions may help you refresh your memory or familiarize you with the differences to look for but in no way will be enough to teach you the different species.

I highly recommend that you get the free pamphlets at the USFS office and/or buy a good plant identification book which includes both trees and plants. Learn to identify the trees first, then do some research on the requirements of these species, where and under what conditions they are most healthy. After you have a good understanding of the trees learn some of the key plants (habitat indicator species) and edible plants too. Then you can read a book on forest ecology of the Inland Northwest and the information will have much more meaning. This will allow you to begin understanding the forest and its complexities.

With this base of knowledge you will be able to much better understand and make intelligent decisions about your forest. So, whether you are just walking on your land with friends, or your children or whether you are talking to a forester about getting a management plan done for the Forest Land Tax Exemption or to guide your future management activities or to a local logger, you will have a base of knowledge to relate and understand better how it applies to your property.

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Author info

Michael White Michael White is a Realtor with Coldwell Banker - Sterling Society and a consultant for Northwest Group In-Land. He has a BS in Forest Resources & Ecosystem Management and specializes in land, ranches and homes with acreage.

Tagged as:

Environment, forest, trees, land management

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