September 21, 1998
Douglas firs in your garden
by Clyde E. Shoe
Special to the Woodinville Weekly
David Douglas sent Douglas-fir seeds to Great Britain in 1826. The English have been growing them ever since as valued ornamentals in shelterbelts, parks and gardens. Any tree in the British Isles over 120 feet is likely a Douglas-fir.
Here they are bountiful, and we have the same reasons to admire them.
In youth, their shape is pyramidal, with graceful drooping or level lower branches and soaring, upswept top branches. Young trees have smooth grey bark with many resin blisters. The spicy, resinous fragrance of crushed needles clears the head.
Old trees have chocolate-brown and red corky bark up to one foot thick on the giants. Towering Douglas-fir trunks, straight and round as ship masts, were often used for that purpose.
Douglas-fir can be nicely displayed as a single specimen on a lawn. In good sun the downward hanging cones are plentiful, adding to the decorative effect. The cones grow at all levels, instead of just up high where we can't see them, as with true firs and spruce. Numerous seedlings are often produced, and are easily transplanted.
In groups, Douglas-fir makes a first rate windbreak and garden backdrop or useful screen.
The tree grows best in well-drained, moist soils, neutral to acid, and in full sun or nearly so. It is sickly in shade. Pests and diseases are few, and usually unimportant. In good conditions, you can expect twenty feet in ten years, starting from a seedling.
Arthur Jacobson, in his book, Trees of Seattle, says that many Douglas-firs weep a bit, distinctly floppy and eye-catching. He locates two for us to look at. I have seen one naturally occurring variation like this in the forest, and it was a knockout. I could make my fortune selling cultivated variety, if I could propagate it. I would name it 'Shoeii' and be famous.
You can expect good garden services for many years, but keep in mind Douglas-fir is one of the world's largest trees. Its eventual great height and habit of shedding its lower limbs in storms make large specimens awkward if not dangerous when near houses. If your Douglas-fir is lofty, think carefully about what it might hit.
Think small, and you have some cultivated varieties of Douglas-fir to choose from. One if 'Fletcheri,' a spreading shrub with grey-green needles, nice for foundation planting. It reaches five feet slowly. Another is 'Pendula,' nifty for walls or rock gardens where it can cascade downward.
Stay away from another cultivar also sometimes called 'Pendula,' wa weeper that wants propping. It has a "gaunt snakebranch habit," a grotesque freak of, not nature, but humans. I doubt David Douglas had this in mind when he sent seeds to Great Britain.
My biggest tree surprise was to learn there is not one Douglas-fir species but eight, six of which are foreign. One of the species isn't really foreign (unless you count Southern Californians as foreign,) and that is the Bigcone Douglas-fir. There are four species from China and one each from Taiwan and Japan, none of them coming close to the beauty of ours.
Our native species is Pseudotsuga menziesii (soo-doe-soo-ga-men-zee-see-eye). Pseudotsuga means "false hemlock," which is sort of like someone being name "Not-a-Jones" or "Fake-Sue." Now we know what it isn't.
The common name "Douglas-fir" gives foresters and botanists a problem, and that is why they hyphenate. The hyphen shouldn't be omitted, for if it is, it implies that Douglas-fir is just another of the firs, like Grand Fir and Noble Fir. But it isn't any kind of fir. It is in a category by itself, and to make this clear we call the "other" firs "true firs."
There is an easy way to tell Douglas-firs from true firs. If the buds are rounded and have a sticky coat of pitch it is a true fir. Douglas-fir buds are pointed and dry and papery to the touch.
If the trees have cones there is a really easy way to tell them apart. True fir cones stand upright on the branch, and fall to pieces when mature. Douglas-fir cones have three-pronged bracts that stick out behind everycone scale like little devil's forks. They hang down from the branch, and they don't fall apart. True fir cones stand upright on the branch, and fall to pieces when mature. Douglas-fir cones have three-pronged bracts that stick out behind every cone scale like little devil's forks. They hang down from the branch, and they don't fall apart.
If someone wonders if his tree is a Douglas-fir, the correct botanical question is, "How are they hanging?"