How to ID Five Common Northwest Trees

According to Charlie Raines

“If you’re going to care about something, you have to know about it,” says Charlie Raines. He’s Forterra’s Director of Forest Conservation. And the way Raines sees it, it’s knowledge about this place that will fuel a desire to preserve our Pacific Northwest.

In his off time, Raines leads children out on tours into the woods to look close, look up, look around. His rationale: “Make a walk not only fun but educational.” The youngest members of his family know “Uncle Charlie” or “Grandpa Charlie” always has something to teach them. “You show them a hand, then you show them a leaf and you tell them, ‘Big Leaf Maple.’ And they remember.”

Trees are, simply put, big, beautiful and old, Raines says. Come fall, when people start talking about going to the East Coast to soak in leaves-changing-color panoramas Raines thinks, Nah, head to the Cascades for a vista of gold, red and deep green.

Raines gathered all the leaves pictured below on a quick walk in his Seattle neighborhood. (He lives in—wait for it—Maple Leaf). You can find these five species in Discovery Park, Schmitz Park, Seward Park, Point Defiance Park, Tiger Mountain State Forest, the Mount Si Natural Resources Conservation Area, national forests and probably in your own neighborhood.

how to identify a douglas fir

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

  • Needles extend outwards
  • Cone has three-pronged bracts that droop
  • Thick bark, which helps to protect the tree against fire
  • It has very strong wood, which is highly valued for use in construction
  • Although this tree has Douglas as a first name, its moniker is actually the last name of a Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who explored the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th Century

how to identify a western red cedar

Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)

  • Scales rather than needles
  • A scent that is pleasantly pungent
  • Fibrous bark
  • Resins make its wood very resistant to rot, so many of the old stumps found in the forest are red cedar (some which were cut more than 80 years ago by loggers using double bitted axes)
  • Prized by Native Americans for building canoes, totem poles and longhouses; its inner bark was woven into waterproof boxes and rain hats

how to identify a western hemlock

Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

  • Look at its top – if it appears to be nodding to sleep, it’s a safe bet it’s a hemlock
  • Short needles
  • Small cones less than one-inch long
  • It’s the state tree of Washington

how to identify a big leaf maple

Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)

  • Five-lobed leaves — like your hand – that can stretch 11’’ across
  • Leaves turn a bright yellow in autumn before falling off
  • Huge shade trees that drip with moss in places like the Hoh Rain Forest
  • Its winged seed pods twirl as they fall to the ground

how to identify a red alder

Red Alder (Alnus rubra)

  • Oval-shaped, serrated leaves
  • Thin, speckled bark
  • Its flowers are catkins, which are similar to cones on a pine tree
  • It’s often the first tree to grow up in an old road bed or after a fire because bacteria on its roots brings nitrogen to it

For more information check out Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska by Jim Pojar (2004).

And can you ID wildflowers? Our guide to five Pacific Northwest beauties can be found here.

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