OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

How did Oregon's trees get their names?

02/02/2001

CORVALLIS - Is the Douglas-fir a true fir tree? Is the western larch an evergreen? And where in the heck do "hem-firs" grow?

Don't fret if you can't answer these questions. You'll be able to after you read a publication from the Oregon State University Extension Service.

From the mountain-mahoganies of eastern Oregon to the four types of "false" cedars in western Oregon, "Understanding Names of Oregon Trees" offers tidbits of information about the origins and names of the state's tallest plants.

Examples:

  • The Douglas-fir is not among Oregon's six native true firs because - to put it in plain language - its cones don't have the classic fir shape. The wood products industry often calls the wood of young Douglas-firs "red fir" and the wood of older trees "yellow fir." The Japanese call Douglas-fir wood "Oregon pine." 
  • The western larch tree of northeastern Oregon is a conifer, a type of tree commonly called an evergreen. But the larch is not evergreen. It's the only conifer in the state that sheds its needles every year.
  • If you're having trouble spotting the "hem-firs" you hear builders talk about it's because there is no such tree. Hem-fir is a grouping of woods. The building industry uses the name to refer to species with similar properties, in this case those of firs and hemlocks. The six trees in the hem-fir grouping are western hemlock, California red fir, grand fir, noble fir, Pacific silver fir and white fir.

"It's little wonder that people are confused by tree names," said Scott Leavengood, the OSU Extension wood products agent in Klamath County who wrote "Understanding Names of Oregon Trees."

"Foresters and lay people often name a tree based on its physical appearance, the wood products industry may call the tree another name based on the characteristics of the wood, and botanists name a tree based on its anatomical characteristics and evolutionary relationship with other trees."

"Understanding Names of Oregon Trees" (EC 1502) is available by mail for $1.50 per copy. Send your request along with check or money order payable to OSU to: Publication Orders, Extension and Station Communications, OSU, 422 Kerr Administration, Corvallis, OR 97331-2119.

A more detailed publication titled "Trees to Know in Oregon," EC 1450, is also available by mail for $5 per copy. For more information write to the address above.