Forest Feature: Conifers

Frost on a Ponderosa Pine located on the Deschutes National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

This year, the Willamette National Forest continued the Forest Service’s 50-year tradition of providing the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree for display on the Capitol lawn, along the National Mall, in Washington D.C.

This year’s Capitol Christmas Tree is a noble fir, just one of many species of native Pacific Northwest conifer that are grown or harvested for use as Christmas trees each year.

Conifers are cone-bearing trees that feature needles, rather than leaves.

Dew condenses on the needles of a Douglas fir tree on the Ochoco National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

Dew condenses on the needles of a Douglas fir tree on the Ochoco National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

These trees are often very aromatic: pine, spruce, fir, and other conifers produce chemicals called “terpenes” that many people associate with our forests, fresh air, and time spent enjoying the great outdoors.

Many people think of conifers are “evergreens,” plants that keep their color and foliage all year. But that’s not always true! Some conifers, such as Douglas fir, are evergreens.  But others, like the Larch, are not – they shed their needles every fall.

Ponderosa pines hold a dusting of snow at Mt. Bachelor on the Deschutes National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

Ponderosa pines hold a dusting of snow at Mt. Bachelor on the Deschutes National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

Many Pacific Northwest conifers grow straight and tall, which makes our forests an excellent source of timber for lumber. Conifers are categorized as softwood trees. Timber from conifers is often used products like paper, cardboard, and the kind of board lumber used in many types of construction.

The noble fir’s symmetrical shape, silvery green needles, and stiff branches make it an excellent tree for hanging ornaments from. Douglas Firs and Grand Firs are other Pacific Northwest conifers that are also used as Christmas trees.

A child poses with a noble fir, harvested for use as a Christmas Tree, in this archival photo. USDA Forest Service photo.

A child poses with a noble fir, harvested for use as a Christmas Tree, in this archival photo. USDA Forest Service photo.

Did you know you can harvest your own Christmas tree on National Forest -managed lands? Permits can be purchased from your local forest or a local vendor – contact a district ranger’s office for the forest you want to visit for more information, or visit the forest’s website. Find a forest at www.fs.fed.us.

Fourth graders can receive a free holiday tree permit when they present their complimentary “Every Kid in a Park” program access pass at a Forest Service district office.

Women select a Christmas tree to harvest on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

Women select a Christmas tree to harvest on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

Conifers also bring us many other benefits. Like other trees, they absorb odors, carbon dioxide, and other pollutants. Their shade cools the mountain streams where salmon swim and spawn. On hillsides and river banks, their roots slow water runoff and hold soil in place, slowing erosion.

Living conifers feed birds with their seeds, and provide habitat and shelter for many wildlife species. Downed trees also provide food and habitat for wildlife and plants as the trees decay.

Pine trees dot the Chewaucan River valley on Fremont-Winema National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

Pine trees dot the Chewaucan River valley on Fremont-Winema National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

While conifers are a traditional source of lumber and firewood, researchers are developing new ways to use their wood for construction materials, fuel, and heating homes.

Cross-laminated beams and timber panels can build not just houses, but office towers. Wood pellets burn more efficiently and produce less smoke than logs. Processes like torrefaction and biochar can help wood burn even more efficiently, harnessing it’s energey as fuel to produce heat or even electricity!

If you look, you can probably find something in the room you are reading this in that’s made from a conifer. And if you go outside… you may not need to go far to find a conifer there, too!

More information:

An expanse of conifers rolls across distant mountain ridges, viewed from Bald Knob Lookout on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

An expanse of conifers rolls across distant mountain ridges, viewed from Bald Knob Lookout on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.



Source information: Forest Features highlight a new Pacific Northwest species (or sometimes family, order, kingdom, or genus) each month, as part of the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region’s regional youth engagement strategy.

If you’d like more information about this topic, or other ways the Forest Service can help incorporate Pacific Northwest environmental education and forest science in your classroom, email us at YourNorthwestForests@fs.fed.us.

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