Know Your California Trees!
Becoming familiar with the types of trees in our state helps us develop an understanding of their importance in the forest ecosystem and as part of our state's forest industry. The following guide will help you identify some of the most common conifer trees in California.
The native range of this conifer includes areas of British Columbia, through western Washington, Oregon, the Coast and Klamath Ranges of California and into the mixed conifer forest of the Sierra Nevada. These habitats range from wet in the Pacific Northwest, to dry in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. It can be found at sea level to nearly 7,500 feet.
Douglas-fir is monoecious, which means that the tree has both male and female cones on the same tree. The tree usually begins to produce cones when the tree reaches 12-15 years of age. The tree is considered to be intermediate in shade tolerance and does well as a pioneer species in areas that have been cleared of competing vegetation.
- Female cones are approximately 5-9 cm long and range from deep green when young to reddish-brown as they age.
- Scales on the cones are papery and have 3 pronged bracts that stick out between each bract. (Resembling mouse hind legs and tail)
- Needles are flat and are spirally arranged around the twig. (Resembling a bottle brush)
- Graceful, drooping limbs
- Gray, scaly bark, deep furrows
Trees provide habitat and seeds provide a food source for birds and other small animals such as mice and chipmunks. Characteristics of Douglas-fir wood give it a superior strength to weight ratio, making it a first choice for structural lumber. Douglas-fir lumber was probably used to build the frame of your home.
The native range of this tree includes areas near Mount Hood in Oregon, south to the Siskiyou, Klamath, Cascade, Coast and Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges of California. Incense-cedar grows as far south as the Sierra de San Pedro Martir mountains of Baja California. Incense-cedar tolerates a variety of soil types and can be found from 2,000 - 7,000 feet in elevation in areas with dry summers.
Incense-cedar is monoecious and bears cones as early as September. Pollen is shed in late winter to early spring. Incense-cedar is fairly shade tolerant and is often found growing in the shade of taller trees such as ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir.
- Graceful, drooping branches
- Trunks with fibrous, cinnamon colored bark
- Needles are scale-like and flattened as if they have been ironed
- Cones are up to 4 cm long when they mature in the summer and resemble an open duck's bill when the two longest scales open
Incense-cedars provide habitat for mountain chickadees which nest in the trees and eat insects living in the tree bark. Tannins in the tree give the wood resistance to decay and repels moths, making incense-cedar ideal for decking, outdoor furniture, siding, railway ties, and closets. Have you used a pencil today? Most pencils are made of incense-cedar. Sharpen your pencil to smell the aromatic fragrance of incense-cedar wood.
Jeffrey pine can be found at elevations ranging from 5,000 to 9,000 feet. It grows in southwestern Oregon, south to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, western Nevada and as far south as Baja California. Jeffrey pine thrives in harsh environments.
Jeffrey pine is a monoecious species. Cones mature in the summer of the second season and shed their seeds in late summer. Trees as young as 8 years may produce seeds. Jeffrey pine is intolerant of shade and requires an open space with little competing brush and grass vegetation in order to become established.
- Large beehive shaped cones 13 to 24 cm long, spines point inward and do not poke hands when picked up
- Needles are arranged three to a bundle, grayish to blue-green in color, up to 24 cm in length
- Bark smells like vanilla or pineapple
Seeds are popular with many birds and black bears eat the seeds off the forest floor. Squirrels, chipmunks and mice store seeds in holes that they dig in the ground. Uneaten seeds sprout up as new seedlings.
The wood from Jeffrey pines is used in door and window frames, wood paneling and furniture.
The chemical component of Jeffrey pine sap contains the hydrocarbon - normal heptane, which is highly explosive.
Lodgepole pine is divided into four varieties. The coastal form is known as shore pine, coast pine, or beach pine and grows between sea level and 2,000 ft in elevation. Another variety that grows in Mendocino County, California is called the Mendocino White Plains lodgepole pine. This variety is a dwarf due to the acidic soil that it grows in; with a pH as low as 2.8. The variety growing in the Sierra Nevada is called Sierra lodgepole pine or tamarack pine. There is another variety that is referred to as the Rocky mountain lodgepole pine or black pine. The inland varieties can be found growing at elevations between 1,600 and 12,000 feet.
Lodgepole grows in a wide variety of temperature regimes. Minimum temperatures range from 45 degrees Fahrenheit on the coast to -70 degrees Fahrenheit in the Northern Rockies. Maximum temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit inland.
In Sierra Nevada forests, lodgepole often grows in moist areas of meadows and creek banks. Coastal lodgepole grows on coastal dunes and inland bogs.
Lodgepole is monoecious with female cones on the upper part of the tree's crown and male cones on the branches of the lower crown. Lodgepole pine produces an abundance of seeds beginning as early as 5 years old. Cones on some varieties are serotinous. Millions of seeds can accumulate in an area and germinate after fire. This allows the tree to regenerate in stands that are dense enough to exclude growth of any other species.
Lodgepole is shade intolerant and needs full sunlight to grow.
- Needles are in bundles of two and are short (2 inches).
- Sierra lodgepole has light brownish-gray bark and is a medium height tree with a straight trunk. Bark is thin and flaky.
- Coastal lodgepole is has a forked and / or crooked trunk with a dome shaped crown. Bark is thick and reddish-brown to purplish.
Logdepole is an important forest component that provides tree cover and habitat in many recreational areas and riparian zones.
Lodgepole pine is important to many western communities for its use in a variety of wood products including paneling, corral poles, utility poles and pulpwood.
Ponderosa pine is likely the most common conifer in California. In the west, ponderosa pine is distributed from southern Canada into Mexico and can be found at elevations from 2,000 feet to 5,000 feet Ponderosa pine is a fire adapted species; older trees have thick bark that protects the tree from low intensity fire.
Ponderosa pine is a monoecious species. Seedlings regenerate most successfully after disturbance that removes competing vegetation and exposes bare soil. Ponderosa pine is shade intolerant.
- Tufts of long (10 inches), shiny, bright green needles, 3 needles to a bundle
- Bark has a puzzle-like pattern is brownish red and furrowed
- Cones are three to five inches long and have spines which point outward, making them prickly.
Ponderosa pines provide seeds that are an important source of food for many wildlife species. Larger animals like deer and bears use the forests for cover and shelter. These beautiful forestlands are also popular recreational destinations for many Californians. In addition, ponderosa pine is a valuable timber species for used for flooring, paneling, window and door sills and a variety of other building products.
The majestic redwood excites and inspires with its beauty and rapid growth. Some are famous. A California Coast Redwood is the tallest tree in the world at over 370 feet tall. Coast redwoods span a strip about 450 miles long and approximately 35 miles wide from southwest Oregon to Monterey County, California.
Coast redwoods grow in mild climates with annual precipitation ranging from 25 to 122 inches. Summer fog accumulates on leaves and drips to the soil, increasing available moisture during summer months.
Redwoods are monoecious. Cones mature in one year and shed seeds in the spring. Redwoods begin to grow cones at 5-15 years of age. Redwoods can also regenerate clonally from dormant buds that sprout from the stump after a tree is cut. These rapidly growing sprouts can grow as much as six feet in their first year.
- Needles are flat and ¼ - ½ inch long with green on top and whitish bands of stomata on the undersides.
- Cones are up to one inch long.
- Bark is thick, fibrous and deep red in color.
Redwood forests provide important habitat for a number of birds, mammals, amphibians and fish. Numerous people enjoy visiting the nearly 150,000 acres of redwood forest preserves in California. Privately owned redwood forests provide a sustainable supply of lumber for decks, fencing, siding and outdoor furniture.
Giant sequoia or Sierra redwood is found only in the western Sierra Nevada of California. The northernmost grove is found in the American River watershed of Placer county and other groves are found mostly in Sequoia National Monument and national parks and forests of Calaveras, Fresno, Madera, Mariposa, Tulare and Tuolumne counties. Most groves of Giant sequoia are protected in parks.
Giant sequoia can be found growing in mixed conifer forests receiving 35-55 inches of annual precipitation. Most precipitation is in the form of snow and summers are dry. Unlike coast redwood giant sequoia tolerates cold winter conditions and grows at elevations between 3,000 and 8,900 feet.
Giant sequoias have serotinous cones which can stay on the tree and continue growing up to 20 years before shedding seeds. The species is monoecious. Events which may cause the cones to open and release seeds include fire, harvest of cones by chickarees (Douglas squirrel), storms that tear the cones off of branches and the long-horned wood boring beetle. In order to germinate, seeds need to fall on exposed mineral soil. Fire is very important in clearing away forest litter so that taproots of seedlings can reach water in the soil. The bark of old trees can be as thick as 20 inches and protects the tree against damage from low intensity fires.
Trees up to 20 years of age are capable of producing stump sprouts as a response to injury. Unlike coast redwoods, older giant sequoia trees do not normally sprout from stumps or roots. Giant sequoia is shade intolerant.
Giant sequoias can grow into massive trees. The 2,500 year old General Sherman tree is over 275 feet tall and 27 feet in diameter! Distinctive Characteristics
- Bark is fibrous, deeply furrowed and reddish brown
- Scale leaves are lance-shape and bluish green
- Cones are egg shaped, 3 inches long, with diamond shaped scales
Giant sequoia is valued for its beauty and habitat provided to many forest animals.
Red Fir (also called Silvertip)
Found at high elevations from 5,300 to 9,000 feet in the Cascades of southern Oregon through the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges of California. Climate is classified as cool and moist with high temperatures rarely topping 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Total precipitation ranges from 30 to 60 inches per year.
Red fir can begin producing seeds when trees are 35 years old. Trees are monoecious. Female cones are found in the top of the crown and sit upright on branches. Cones are purplish brown and large - up to 9 inches in length. Cones disintegrate on the tree and release winged seeds in the fall and winter. Red fir is somewhat shade tolerant but grows best in full sunlight.
- Blue-green needles and horizontal limbs
- Thin, smooth gray bark with resin blisters in young trees
- Older trees have thick furrowed bark that is a deep reddish to purplish color when peeled back
- Needles are short and square in cross section
- Cones are up to nine inches long, purplish-brown and sit atop branches
Red fir seeds provide a food source for small rodents. Wood is a general construction grade that can be used in many building products. Red fir is a common species grown on Christmas tree farms.
Sitka spruce is a coastal species that can be found growing in a narrow strip on the Pacific coast from northern California to Alaska. This conifer is able to withstand very moist soil and is a prominent species in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.
Sitka spruce usually does not bear cones until 20 years of age and is monoecious. This species is fairly shade tolerant. Distinctive Characteristics
- Tall, straight tree with upward slanted limbs
- Trunk is often swollen at base
- Bark is thin and may flake off in large, purplish-gray pieces
- Needles are flat and sharply pointed
- Cones are approximately 4 inches long and have thin, papery, scales
Sitka spruce trees growing along ocean bluffs make good sites for bald eagle nests. The wood's high strength to weight ratio makes it stronger than steel and is valuable for pianos, guitar faces, ladders and boats.
In California, sugar pine can be found in the Klamath, Siskiyou and North Coast Ranges, as well as the Sierra Nevada and as far south as the Sierra San Pedro Martir in Baja California. It grows in a wide variety of climates and soil types and its elevation ranges from near sea level in the North Coast forests to nearly 10,000 feet in Baja California.
Sugar pine is the tallest and largest of the pines. It's cones may be as long as 24 inches and are the longest cones of any pines. Trees are monoecious and cones develop over two years. Sugar pine is more tolerant of shade than ponderosa pine, but less shade tolerant than Douglas-fir. Distinctive Characteristics
- 5 needles to a bundle, needles approximately 4 inches long
- In summer, pendulous cones hang from ends of branches like Christmas tree ornaments.
- Cones are usually over one foot long
Sugar pine sap was used by Native Americans as a laxative. Trees produce food and habitat for a number of birds and small mammals. Sugar pine's high quality wood makes it ideal for use in molding, frames for windows and doors, paneling and piano keys.
White fir has a wide distribution from central Oregon to the coastal mountains of California, south into the Sierra Nevada and the northern most mountains of Mexico. It also grows in the Rocky Mountains. In California, it grows best on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and in the southern Cascades.
White fir is monoecious and female cones develop on the upper part of the tree. Cones sit upright on branches, are 3 to 5 inches long and disintegrate on the tree. Seedlings germinate after snowmelt and are shade tolerant with the ability to survive beneath brush cover until they eventually grow tall enough to overtop the brush.
- Needles have a frosted appearance from below and are flat and aromatic when crushed. Needles are twisted at the base.
- Bark on young trees is thin and grayish with resin blisters
- Older trees have deeply furrowed bark that has a mottled, bacon-like appearance when peeled from the tree.
Whit fir provides cover and food for forest animals. It is a popular species grown on Christmas tree farms and also is a construction-grade wood used for plywood and framing.
Descriptive References courtesy of:
- Silvics of North America, Volume 1 - Conifers
- Conifers of California, Ronald M. Lanner 1999