Home & Garden Columns

Douglas-Fir Builds and Graces Towns, Creates Splendid Forests

By Ron Sullivan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday June 27, 2006

Joe and I spent a couple of days up in Humboldt County among the really big trees last week. We stayed in a motel on the Avenue of the Giants among the old redwoods, where we could sit on the front porch in the evening and listen to the Mozartian aria of hermit thrush and the haunting, minimalist song of varied thrush, a bird has perfected wabi-sabi.  

The redwood forest is justly celebrated—I’ve done considerable celebrating of it myself—but there’s a companion, a peer of the redwoods who carries the rainforest system farther north, joining with the great true firs and redcedars to complete world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest.  

This companion, Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menzieseii, shows up in cultivation, on campuses and big gardens here too. In fact, that’s not unique; I was surprised, many years ago, to notice that great big Douglas-firs were all over Harrisburg, Pa., where I grew up. The difference was that I’d learned to recognize them.  

That’s not hard. Aside from the massive yet airy bearing they have, with their deeply furrowed dark-gray bark and short narrow needles, they have a good trademark in their cones: small, brown, papery, and with a three-pointed tongue poking out from under each scale. There are stories about how Coyote was chasing the mice and they asked Douglas-fir to help them, so Douglas-fir let them hide in those cones but their tails and hind legs didn’t quite fit. One variant has Douglas-fir offering the mice shelter and then snapping them up in the cones.  

Maybe that depends on the tellers’ attitudes toward those big, useful guardian trees that, like redwoods, occasionally spear the forest floor with “widowmakers,” self-pruned branches from way way up that come down hard enough to stab the ground and stand upright like a hurled spear.  

Douglas-fir’s usefulness is evident all around us. Intense logging of the species after World War II was the first step toward the construction boom that followed, especially the residential part of that; it’s called “the tree that built suburbia.” As softwoods go, it’s strong, and it goes into plywood as well as board stock. It’s also a common Christmas tree, especially in the West.  

It hangs onto its needles well. If this makes you laugh, consider how extreme a condition it is to be amputated from most of your vital organs—half of your body, at least—stuck onto a truck, then crucified in a parking lot for a few weeks, and finally dragged into the stifling hotbox of someone’s living room for a few weeks more. And having your remaining self mauled and clamped with wire hangers and hung with twig-distorting ornaments and bound with hot points of light all the while. Then imagine trying not to shed any hair, or sweat, or get so much as flaky dry skin during this ordeal.  

The S-and-M holiday atmosphere goes mostly one way; Douglas-fir has rather non-poky needles, which is a virtue in a tree that’s going to be handled, and makes it easier company in the house too. 

The tree’s at its best, of course, in its native land. Old-growth Douglas-fir, like old-growth redwood, makes a distinctive kind of habitat. It’s preternaturally quiet in some of the old coastal groves, a place fit for Zen Druids to meditate, or for Ents to drowse. Birdcalls—hermit thrush, pileated woodpecker, spotted owl—knife the silence, echo, then dissolve into the treetop fog. Red coralroot orchids, pale irises, white-flowered thimbleberry, and tanoak look up to madrones that would be the giants of any other forest.  

The Doug-firs preside, straight as arrows to the sky or spreading low from the crowns like huge hands, “wolf trees” that got a head start in open spaces before other trees or fires got a chance to shape them. The species itself is far from endangered, but the habitats, the particular cathedrals that grow in its company, are few and scattered these days.  

When I see a Douglas-fir in the city I think of these places, and wonder sometimes if planting emissary trees where so many of us live, here in the paved and stifled parts of Earth, can possibly have the effect I’d like to see, striking a spark of longing for what we hardly know. It’s not far from here. We just have to journey there, and then stop, quiet ourselves, sit and listen to the congress of ancient giants.