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Earth Notes: Southwestern Douglas-Fir Trees


Douglas-fir trees are a well known fixture in the Pacific Northwest; their common name honors Scottish botanist David Douglas who collected seeds in Oregon in the early 19th century. But, an inland variety also grows here in the Southwest.

They grow mostly – but not exclusively – at higher elevations on cool, moist north-facing slopes. The Douglas-fir is a conifer, but is neither a pine, a spruce, nor a true fir. It’s in a genus all its own.

The single best identifier is the three-pronged bracts on the cones that hang like pendants from the branches. The trees’ variable growth forms and ability to live in many different soils and climates make them both common and unique.

Indigenous people used Douglas-fir beams in kivas and houses, and for firewood, tools and medicines. One venerable tree lived on bare lava fields in El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico for more than 650 years. In Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, Douglas-firs tower below the rim.

In 1976, a Douglas-fir tree was planted by the Frances Short Pond in Flagstaff: it was grown from seeds taken into space on the Apollo 14 moon mission. The original Moon Tree didn’t survive, but a replacement still grows at the site.

While it may be common, the Southwest’s Douglas-fir has a remarkable history.