North Island Hidden Treasures
Spring is an amazing renewal time for Mother Nature that is especially visible here in the outdoors of the Pacific Northwest. Today we came upon a fabulous and unexpected find, a “flowering Douglas-Fir” tree!
As a bit of a background, a Douglas-Fir is one of British Columbia’s most important and valuable forest evergreen trees. There are two varieties of these huge conifers that grow across the Pacific Northwest and Central Interior, appropriately referred to as the Coastal & Interior Douglas-Firs. Named after David Douglas, a Scottish botanist, the Douglas-Fir is not actually a “fir” ! It is a conifer more closely related to the pine & spruce family. A major characteristic that distinguishes Douglas-Fir from true firs is that it has cones that hang down, and eventually these cones will fall from the tree intact. (True firs are conifers that produce cones that stand upright on branches like little owls, and such cones do not fall intact).
Douglas-Fir needles are 2 to 3 cm long, green, flattish, soft, blunt, and wind around a branch, resembling a bottlebrush. Needles have a wonderful fragrance and when made into a “tea” is sometimes called “Nature’s Gatorade”! It is interesting too that indigenous peoples, trappers, and others also have eaten Douglas fir and other evergreen tree tips when traveling or during hard physical work to ward off hunger and thirst. Needles are also thought to contain immune building medicinal properties.
The Coast Salish name for the Douglas-Fir is lá:yelhp. They used many parts of the tree, wood, needles, cones, bark, sap, branches, in all sorts of ways, including cooking fuel, fishing implements, making tools, lodge flooring, and medicinal purposes. Today home builders prize the wood as lumber because of it’s strength, sturdiness, and workability.
The hugh towering monarchs stretch to the sky on thick barked trunks that may be 3 1/2 meters or more in diameter. Massive Douglas-Firs are essential for their intrinsic contributions to healthy ecosystems; revered by wildlife and all peoples; country folk, city dwellers, poets, loggers, and hikers alike. Yet anyone asked the question “do these magnificent trees, towering 90 meters or more and living over 1000 years, “flower?” The most common answer is an unequivocal yet incorrect no!
However, on our hike this fine April morning on beautiful North Vancouver Island we found a Coastal Douglas covered with a few dozen spectacular magenta coloured flowers. Yes, Douglas-Fir and other conifers do indeed produce flowers called strobili! While strobili lack a calyx, corolla, stamens, and pistils as many flowers have, they are in every sense the reproductive structure of the tree and hold the beauty of flowers.
Sitting upright on branches the 2.5 – 3.5 cm tall brightly coloured flowers are actually infant female seed producing cones, usually found on upper canopy branches high in the sky of mature conifers. Both female and male cones grow on the same tree. The small tannish male pollen producing cones hang down from the same branch homes where flowers sit… an abundance of yellowish pollen grains will fertilize the female flowers assuring generations of future trees.
Following pollination flowers will then morph over the season growing, changing into a greenish colour, then slowly becoming the brown coloured 10 cm cone most recognize… cones that hang downward from their lofty perches. Each cone can produce fifty or so seeds.
The mature cones have distinctive three point bracts that stick out from under the cone scales… that look like miniature mouse hind feet and tails. Indigenous folk lore tells a story of the mighty Douglas-Fir giving sanctuary to tiny mice in these cones during a great forest fire when no other tree would help. Look closely at the mature brown cones pictured here. One can clearly see what looks like little hind feet and tails of mice sticking out from beneath the cone scales.
Every 5 to 7 years Douglas-Firs will produce a bumper crop of flowers resulting in an abundance seeds for forest regrowth.
I can not visualize a world without such magnificent trees…. Just imagine the human history, cultural changes, and environmental challenges a centuries old forest monarch lives through!
Isn’t Nature Grand!
Safe travels out there… Gord Patterson
© Photos Gord & Chris Patterson