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Much of the Sawtooth NRA is forested at higher elevations where an increase in precipitation occurs. Water, or the lack of it, is the primary indicator of forest establishment.

  • Within the forested zones of the SNRA, several forest types occur. Overall, these are arranged by elevation, aspect, and water availability, with different tree species dominating different environments. 
  • Fires of the past have influenced the forest by creating diversity and openings in the landscape allowing fire-dependent species such as lodgepole pine to take hold. 
  • Conifer forests are emblematic of this region. On the lower slopes of the mountains, and foothill moraines (6,500-7,000 feet elevation), the dominant conifers are lodgepole pine and Douglas-fir.

 

All trees of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area provide habitat for wild animals who make the area their home. All are in danger of human impacts, especially fire. We must do our part to keep our forests healthy and thriving. 

 

Following are descriptions of the most common coniferous and deciduous trees found in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

 

Conifers

Douglas Fir

Name 

The Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menziesii is an evergreen conifer species in the pine family, Pinaceae. It is native to western North America and is also known as Douglas-fir, Douglas spruce, Oregon pine, and Columbian pine.

Size 

The Rocky Mountain Douglas-firs are medium-size to extremely large evergreen trees, 70–330 feet tall and living over 500 years, there are records of some being 1,300 years old!

Distinguishing features 

The leaves are flat, soft, linear needles 3⁄4–11⁄2 inches long, typical of firs, and have soft rounded tips- not sharp. They completely encircle the branches, which can be useful in recognizing the species. 

The bark on young trees is thin, smooth, gray, and contains numerous resin blisters. Layers of darker brown bark are interspersed with layers of lighter-colored, corky material. Its thickness makes the Douglas-fir perhaps the most fire-resistant tree native to the Pacific Northwest.

Location 

Douglas-fir prefers acidic or neutral soils. Found at the edge of semi-arid sagebrush steppe throughout much of its range, it generates deep taproots into the acidic and neutral soils it prefers.

Uses

Many different Native American groups used the bark, resin, and pine needles to make herbal treatments for various diseases. Some tribes used the foliage as a hygienic freshener in sweat baths, and the leaves were used as a coffee substitute.

 

Engelmann spruce

Name 

Picea engelmannii, with the common names Engelmann spruce, white spruce, mountain spruce, and silver spruce. It is a species of spruce native to western North America. 

Size 

Picea engelmannii is a medium to large-sized evergreen tree growing to 82–213 ft tall, and with a trunk circumference up to 4 ft 11 in.

Distinguishing features 

The reddish bark is thin and scaly, flaking off in small circular plates 2–4 in across. The crown is narrow conic in young trees, becoming cylindric in older trees. The shoots are buff-brown to orange-brown. Needles roll in your fingertips as they have a square, not flat profile. 

Location 

Engelmann spruce is native to western North America, primarily in the Rocky Mountains and east slopes of the Cascade range from central British Columbia to Southern Oregon and the Cascades and commonly in Montana, Idaho, and Colorado. It is mostly a high-altitude mountain tree but also appears in watered canyons.

Uses 

Native Americans made various medicines from resin and foliage.

 

Lodgepole pine

Name 

Pinus contorta, with the common names lodgepole pine and shore pine, and also known as twisted pine, and contorta pine, black pine, scrub pine, and coast pine.

Size 

The shrub form is approximately 3 to 10 ft high. The thin and narrow-crowned tree can grow 130 to 160 ft high and achieve up to 7 ft in circumference at chest height. The murrayana subspecies is the tallest. 

Depending on the subspecies, Pinus contorta grows as an evergreen shrub or tree. Distinguishing features 

The bark of lodgepole pine is thin, scaly, and grayish brown. The egg-shaped growth buds are reddish-brown and between 3⁄4 and 1 1⁄4 in long. They are short pointed, slightly rotated, and very resinous. The crown is rounded and the top of the tree is flattened. 

Location 

Pinus contorta occurs from upper, dry forests to the subalpine region of western North America. It can be found on the western side of the Cascades, in inland British Columbia, and on the Rocky Mountains except where it is too high and dry. Lodgepole pine can tolerate relatively hostile environments such as high-elevation volcanic rock. Like all pines (member species of the genus Pinus), it is an evergreen conifer.

Uses 

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and of California used different parts of the plant internally and externally as a traditional medicine for various ailments. The gum of shore pine was used medicinally as well as for chewing.

 

Ponderosa pine

Name 

Pinus ponderosa, commonly known as the ponderosa pine, bull pine, blackjack pine, western yellow-pine] or filipinus pine. It is a very large pine tree species of variable habitat native to mountainous regions of western North America. It is the most widely distributed pine species in North America.

Size 

The National Register of Big Trees lists a ponderosa pine that is 235 ft tall and 27 ft in circumference.

Distinguishing features 

Mature trees have yellow to orange-red bark in broad to very broad plates with black crevices. Younger trees have blackish-brown bark, referred to as “blackjacks” by early loggers. Ponderosa pine’s five subspecies, as classified by some botanists, can be identified by their characteristically bright-green needles. The Rocky Mountains subspecies have shorter 3–5 3⁄4 inch and stout needles growing in scopulate (bushy, tuft-like) fascicles of two or three.

Location 

Pinus ponderosa grows in various erect forms from British Columbia southward and eastward through 16 western U.S. states Like most western pines, the ponderosa generally is associated with mountainous topography.

Uses 

Native Americans consumed the seeds and sweet inner bark. They chewed the dried pitch, which was also used as a salve. They used the limbs and branches as firewood and building material, and the trunks were carved into canoes. The needles and roots were made into baskets. The needles were also boiled into a solution to treat coughs and fevers.

 

Subalpine fir 

Name  

Abies lasiocarpa, the subalpine fir or Rocky Mountain fir, is a western North American fir tree.

Size  

A medium-sized evergreen conifer with a very narrow conic crown, growing to 66 ft tall with some reaching 130–160 ft, with a trunk diameter up to 3 – 6 ft 11 in. 

Distinguishing features 

The bark on young trees is smooth, gray, and with resin blisters, becoming rough and fissured or scaly on old trees. The leaves are flat and needle-like, 5⁄8–1+1⁄8 in long, arranged spirally on the shoot, but with the leaf bases twisted to be arranged to the sides of and above the shoot, with few or none below the shoot.

Location   

It occurs at high altitudes, commonly found at and immediately below the tree line. It can be found at elevations of 4,900 to 8,900 ft.

Uses   

Native Americans used the leaves as deodorant and burned them as incense or medicinal vapor. Powdered bark and other components were used in solutions to treat colds. The resin was used to dress wounds or chewed as gum. The tree boughs were used for bedding.

 

Whitebark pine

Name 

Pinus albicaulis is known by the common names whitebark pine, white pine, pitch pine, scrub pine, and creeping pine. It is a conifer tree native to the mountains of the western United States and Canada, specifically subalpine areas.

Size  

In more favorable conditions, the trees may grow to 95 ft in height.

Distinguishing features 

Whitebark pine is a member of the white pine group, the Pinus subgenus Strobus, and the section Strobus; like all members of this group, the leaves (needles) are in fascicles (appear to be in packages) of five with a deciduous sheath. This distinguishes whitebark pine and its relatives from the lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), with two needles per fascicle,

Location 

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) can be found at high elevations in the Rocky Mountains from central British Columbia to western Wyoming occurring in the timberline zone.

Uses 

Many Native Americans, including the Salish peoples, have been known to eat the seeds from the cones of this tree. They were roasted, made into porridge, and mixed with dry berries.

Other 

On July 18, 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the whitebark pine needed protection and that, without it, the tree would soon be extinct. However, the agency announced it would neither be able to list the tree as endangered nor protect the organism, as it lacked both the necessary staff and funding to do so. Today it is listed as a species of concern.

 

Deciduous 

Aspen

Name 

Aspen Populus tremuloides is a deciduous tree native to cooler areas of North America, one of several species referred to by the common name aspen. It is commonly called quaking aspen, trembling aspen,[American aspen, mountain or golden aspen, trembling poplar, white poplar, and popple.

Size 

The trees have tall trunks, up to 82 feet tall. Quaking aspen is a tall, fast-growing tree, usually 50–60 ft at maturity, with a trunk 10 in diameter; records are 119 ft 9 inches in height and 4 ft 6 in diameter.

Distinguishing features 

Smooth pale bark, scarred with black. The glossy green leaves, dull beneath, become golden to yellow, rarely red, in autumn. The species often propagates through its roots to form large clonal groves originating from a shared root system. The bark is relatively smooth, whitish (light green when young), and is marked by thick black horizontal scars and prominent black knots. Parallel vertical scars are tell-tale signs of elk, which strip off aspen bark with their front teeth.

Location 

Populus tremuloides is the most widely distributed tree in North America, being found from Canada to central Mexico.

Uses 

Aspen bark contains a substance that was extracted by indigenous North Americans and European settlers of the western U.S. as a quinine substitute.

 

Cottonwood

Name 

Populus trichocarpa, the black cottonwood, western balsam-poplar, or California poplar, is a deciduous broadleaf tree species native to western North America. It is used for timber and is notable as a model organism in plant biology.

Size 

It is a large tree, growing to a height of 98 to 164 ft and a trunk diameter of over 6 ft, making it the largest poplar species in the Americas. 

Distinguishing features 

The bark is gray and covered with lenticels, becoming thick and deeply fissured on old trees. The bark can become hard enough to cause sparks when cut with a chainsaw. The stem is gray in the older parts and light brown in the younger parts. The crown is usually roughly conical and quite dense. In large trees, the lower branches droop downwards. Spur shoots are common. The leaves are usually 2–7 in) long with a glossy, dark green upper side and glaucous, light gray-green underside; larger leaves may be over 11in long and may be produced on stump sprouts and very vigorous young trees.

Location 

It is also found inland, generally on the west side of the Rocky Mountains, in British Columbia, southwestern Alberta, western Montana, and north-to-central Idaho. Black cottonwood grows on alluvial sites, riparian habitats, and moist woods on mountain slopes, from sea level to elevations of 6,800–9,000 ft. It often forms extensive stands on the bottomlands of major streams and rivers

Uses 

The wood, roots, and bark have been used for firewood, canoe making, rope, fish traps, baskets, and structures. The gum-like sap was used as glue or as waterproofing. Native Americans consumed cottonwood inner bark and sap, feeding their horses the inner bark and foliage.

 

While this is not intended to be a comprehensive guide for all of the trees listed, we have tried to capture some identifiable traits and facts for each species found in the SNRA. For more information on specific characteristics see the following resources used for this post:

 

Northwest Trees: Identifying & Understanding the Region’s Native Trees (field guide ed.). Seattle: Mountaineers Books.  

Western Forests (The Audubon Society Nature Guides). New York: Knopf. 

Native American Ethnobotany DB 

Sawtooth National Forest – Nature & Science.

How to properly identify common conifer trees – MSU Extension.

 

 

Sawyer’s fun fact

Douglas-fir

Despite its name, the Douglas-fir is not a true fir tree but is more closely related to the hemlock. Also known as “red fir,” this species often reaches heights of 100 to 130 feet.