Writer sets out on an urban tree hunt to find the most spectacular conifer specimens around.
Special to The Seattle Times
MY BATHROOM has no window, but I still manage to admire the trees when I’m in there, thanks to a small tree guide pinned next to my medicine cabinet. The Ponderosa pine with its long, clustered needles, the Sitka spruce with its branches flared out like a Farrah Fawcett hairdo — I see these while brushing my teeth and flossing.
Pinned up in my bathroom is Mac’s Field Guide to Pacific Northwest Trees. A laminated chart published by The Mountaineers, it features coniferous native trees on one side and deciduous trees on the other. Occasionally, I take my guide out of the bathroom and wander around my Northwest corner of Seattle, identifying trees around Green Lake and Woodland Park based on the needle, bark and cone illustrations in the guide.
The tree-identification walks have become a pastime, a way to get out of the house and enjoy the pleasures of each season. In the summer, when the deciduous trees are in verdant bloom, they vie for our attention with the faithful conifers that stick it out with us year-round.
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Until I took the time to identify each conifer, I’d never noticed how different they are from each other — and just how worthy of a closer look they are.
So this spring, I decided it was time to set out on an urban tree hunt to find the most spectacular conifer specimens around. For guidance, I called on a local arborist who leads tree tours. And I tracked down the real Mac — Craig MacGowan — the man behind my laminated window to the forests.
ON A SPECTACULARLY windy day in March, I’m standing to the side of the upper trail in Seward Park with Arthur Lee Jacobson, staring up the trunk of a huge Douglas fir. He’s brought me to Seward Park because it features old-growth trees, the sort that used to blanket all of Seattle.
Jacobson, the arborist who’s written books on Seattle’s most impressive tree specimens, explains that in the Pacific Northwest, the Big Three species — the Doug fir, the Western red cedar and the Western hemlock, our state tree — make up the bulk of our forests.
Jacobson, who started nerding out on trees as a teenager and never stopped, says many of his favorite trees are in parks, easily accessible to all of us.
From the upper trail in Seward Park, we’d walked about 15 minutes to reach this particular Doug fir, its thick branches swaying to the rhythm of persistent gusts. Standing about 190 feet tall, this gorgeous giant has a trunk more than 7 feet thick.
“This is a good day for us to be out because you can get a closer look at the needles and cones,” he says, picking up a decent-sized piece of debris that had fallen from the fir in our sights. This tree, Jacobson estimates, is probably about 300 years old. All around us the trees are squeaking and creaking, and you couldn’t help wondering, a little nervously, how well a 300-year-old tree limb holds up against such wind.
But Douglas fir in these parts are used to such battering. A sun-loving sort, this tree’s branches are high up, giving it the scrappy, top-heavy silhouette that Douglas firs, the tallest species in the city, sometimes adopt.
The fir is just off the trail, but to get to our next stop, we had to march through the forest beyond. Jacobson stopped a few times to get oriented in the vegetation — left this way, slight right that way — but 10 minutes later we were standing in front of a Western red cedar with a hollowed-out trunk. Purported to be a gathering point for wiccans practicing neo-pagan beliefs, the hollow is big enough to walk through. Inside, people have sketched icons into the wood and left idols.
But as a species, the Western red cedar — most identifiable by its flat, fan-like needles and red bark — has a more significant role in our regional landscape. For decades, it was crucial to native peoples, who used its material for clothing, shelter, transportation and food preservation.
In search of the third of Jacobson’s Big Three, our conifer tour took us next to the east side of Lake Washington at O.O. Denny Park in Kirkland. There we found not only Western hemlocks — members of the pine family that thrive in our mild, humid climate — but also grand firs. As we stood under the towering grand firs I learned that the needles have a distinctive tangerine scent. Pinch just one needle and that zippy citrus scent is released; rub it on your skin and breathe deeply.
But no time to stand around breathing. Off we go to Lincoln Park in West Seattle to get a look at some impressive pine trees and coast redwoods.
It was dusk by the time we made it to our last stop — Lake View Cemetery on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where Jacobson wanted to measure a giant Sitka spruce he’s monitored over the years. As he got his laser range finder positioned to measure, a guard drove by to tell us the cemetery was closing. We’d have to come back another time.
THE TREE silhouettes in Mac’s guide show the idealized form of a tree, but a tree’s appearance is dependent on all sorts of factors: How much sunlight it gets, its age, what the soil and wind are like, what’s growing around it. The needles, bark and cones are surefire ways to make a positive identification. With its sketches of those features, Mac’s guide provides strong clues.
When I shared the guide with Jacobson, he wondered why certain native species made the cut over others. (It turns out there are more native species than fit on the small, portable guide, which focuses on common native species you can easily find.)
And even with a guide, I discovered in wandering around with Jacobson that it can be difficult sometimes to distinguish a native species from a nonnative one. I thought I’d gotten good at identifying the Western red cedar, for instance, until we came across an Asian cedar species that, in passing, could be mistaken for the Western red cedar.
At the end of the day, Jacobson says, “there’s plenty of room” for the non-natives, so why not admire what’s here?
“Some people believe we should plant native plants only,” he notes. “If they had their druthers, they would prefer that nurseries only be able to sell native plants. My argument against that is, where do you draw the line? Are you only going to have a native diet, so you only eat native fish and plants? Are you going to have only native pets? So, if you want a pet, it has to be a deer, it can’t be a dog or a cat?”
In the yard at his home in Montlake, Jacobson has a towering eucalyptus tree he planted years ago. This nearly 100-foot tree, which would be more at home in tropical climates, gives a native Douglas fir a run for its money with its height and healthy condition. Jacobson believes that if a tree can grow and be healthy, it has a place here.
Mark Mead, senior urban forester for the city of Seattle, says the city nonetheless does focus on native plants. It’s working to re-establish native conditions in urban forests with the Urban Forest Management Plan, now getting an update. According to a satellite assessment of 2007, Seattle has about 23 percent canopy cover. The city’s goal is to achieve 30 percent cover by 2037.
Mead acknowledges that in a developed metropolis, restoring the native forest has limitations. Most landscapes in the city “are dry, in the sunlight and with limited soils” — not the conditions that our native plants thrive in.
While the city undertakes the laborious, decades-long process of restoring the urban forests, we can still go to the parks where a few are preserved — or just step outside our front doors in some cases — to get a glimpse of what is here right now.
CRAIG (“MAC”) MacGowan has the patient manner of a teacher. We’re sitting at the dining room table of his Eastlake home, and he’s brought out binders of Mac’s guides to show off. He’s made guides to identify trees, plants, bugs, birds, flowers, sea critters, fish and even North American dinosaurs.
MacGowan started teaching marine science at Garfield High School in the 1970s. He retired in the 1990s, but still leads class field trips occasionally. The first guide he developed was for marine invertebrates. Like many inventions, this one was born out of a practical need: His marine-science books fell apart on the beach. But laminated charts could be marked, washed clean, and used again. Eventually, the biology teacher got envious and asked for a similar chart for his curriculum, and thus were born Mac’s Field Guides.
How did he decide what tree species were native and what trees should make it onto his chart?
“We identified the ones you can see,” he said. “We picked the ones that were most common. The kids were in on all this.” The students helped decide what made the cut, and MacGowan would run the selections by experts. He did most of the illustrations himself.
MacGowan started teaching before standardized tests dictated a student’s curriculum. Experiential learning was part of his philosophy. He took students to identify shellfish on the beach, or assigned them to sit in the same grove of trees one day each month for a year and write about what they observed.
The Mountaineers caught on to the guides and partnered with him in the 1980s to publish them. The Mountaineers has more than 40 Mac’s guides in print and estimates it has sold a million of them.
As for his own favorite spots to admire native conifers, MacGowan lists Seward Park and the Washington Park Arboretum. When I ask about his favorite tree, he mentions a maple, not a conifer, in the Skagit flats on the road from La Conner to Conway.
“In the winter, of course, there are no leaves on it, and that’s when it’s my favorite. You see these branches going out on all sides, and the fields around it all low.”
When I ask for more precise directions to find it, he leans in and smiles.
“It’s up to you to find that.” Ever the teacher. I realize, at this point, that for all my time spent identifying trees, I don’t have a favorite tree, or what MacGowan calls “a place to hang your hat.”
“You need to have something to identify with,” he says. “You need to have your own tree to sit by and say, ‘Hi, guy.’ “
I WAS CERTAIN I would find a “place to hang my hat” at the Washington Park Arboretum. With 230 acres to explore, surely I’d find my tree. Armed with Mac’s guide and a granola bar, I walked around and stopped occasionally to identify trees. I walked through the Pinetum, which features a variety of conifers. According to the Arboretum, landowners in Great Britain called conifer collections pineta because it was believed that all conifers were pines. Taxonomists in the 19th century honed conifer families and reclassified species.
My stops to identify trees in the Arboretum got less frequent as I wandered and, eventually, I tucked Mac’s guide in my purse. If the tree-identification walks I enjoy in the neighborhoods are treasure hunts, the Arboretum was like a huge pot of gold coins dumped in my lap — I wanted to savor the whole picture instead of using a magnifying glass to see what year each coin was minted.
So, I still haven’t found a place to hang my hat. But there is a contender.
Near Woodland Park Zoo recently I came across an impressive grove of cluster pines that Jacobson and David Selk, the zoo’s horticulturist, encouraged me to check out, even though cluster pines aren’t native to the Northwest. I had passed by these trees hundreds of times on my way to and from work, but until they were pointed out to me, they blended into the landscape. They have pinkish bark and arched branches that drop large, round cones on the sidewalk.
I like to walk by the trees at dusk, when their towering silhouettes stand out against the evening sky. While the weather and seasons change, these trees are a fixture, a quiet anchor amid the buzz of urban life.
Didi Kader is a Seattle freelance writer. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.