Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from Molly Hashimoto’s new book, “Trees of the West: An Artist’s Guide.” The excerpt was taken from the chapter titled “Northern Coastal & Cascade Forests.”

A young girl’s leafy refuge grew into a lifetime of appreciation for trees

THE FORESTS OF the coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest are among the most beautiful in the world. Absent are grand panoramic vistas; instead, the gaze is directed heavenward to the tops of 200-foot-tall Douglas firs and western red cedars. And the view is not complete without a scan of the forest floor, littered with hundreds of fallen trees, rotting logs, fungi, lichens, mosses and sword ferns.

These forests are known as temperate rainforests, but a more apt term would be moist forests, because a tropical rainforest gets rain all year, whereas our Northwest forests experience a rainy season in winter and a dry season in summer. Some coastal forests contain greater biomass than tropical rainforests, due to the immense height and girth of the giant trees that thrive here. Both types of forest gather nutrients through mycorrhizal underground networks, but the two ecosystems diverge in many ways, including the number of species present in each zone.

In Olympic National Park, for example, there are as few as 12 tree species. In a comparable acreage in the tropics, there might be as many as 120 types of trees. It also takes much longer for the fallen trees in a Northwest forest to decompose because of the cooler temperatures, so there is a lot more litter on their floors than is found in tropical forests.

The dry summers of the Pacific Northwest favor conifers. The leaves of deciduous trees, with their large surface area, suffer without adequate summer moisture. The wax-coated conifer needles are protected from the dry conditions by going somewhat dormant in summer; they become active again during autumn and spring, and even in winter, if temperatures are above freezing, as they maintain their foliage year-round. Because they lose only a small fraction of their oldest needles during fall, they don’t require as many nutrients to produce fresh growth as a deciduous tree does, as it must leaf out fully each spring.


There is a spare beauty to the temperate rainforests because of the uniformity of species, something I appreciate greatly as an artist. These forests have been compared countless times to cathedrals, and with good reason. The immense tree trunks are like the piers supporting the ceiling vaults of a Gothic church; when you walk on a trail, or sit and sketch a forest where there are a number of old-growth trees together, it is much like experiencing the calm you might feel processing down the nave of a cathedral.

Among the loveliest companion species found in the coastal forests is Pacific rhododendron. The first time I saw one in the Oregon Cascades, I was stunned — feeling, as I often do in the wild, that there is nothing in a garden to compare to the effect of seeing a garden favorite growing wild. Trillium is another favorite here, beautiful in all seasons but especially in spring, when its three-part white flowers carpet the forest floor. Old-man’s beard lichen is completely surprising, too, draped from tree branches in the moistest forests. Douglas squirrels, with their richly colored gold-orange bellies, are also common and quite distinct from the common gray squirrels of urban areas.

Western red cedar (Thuja plicata)
THIS COLONNADE OF CEDARS grows just outside Newhalem, in North Cascades National Park. I have visited them many times on the Trail of the Cedars, sometimes on my own, and at other times with students from the North Cascades Institute so that they can sketch and appreciate them with me. During the wildfires of 2015, the flames leapt down the ridge all the way to the trail, and it was closed for a time. Fortunately, the fire never reached the cedars, but above them you can still see the blackened forest as it extends up to the ridgetop.

The colonnade reminded me of the extensive arcades that I saw in Bologna, Italy. The entire city is filled with beautiful archways and pillars and covered porticos. These cedars grew so regularly because they started their lives as seedlings on a nurse log and found conditions so ideal that they all matured relatively at the same time. When I admire something in nature this much, I am often tempted to try to represent them again and again in different media.

As timber, western red cedars always have been highly valued because of their rot resistance and fragrance. Lewis and Clark knew they needed to find a tree large enough to build watercraft for their westward journey downriver to the Pacific, and they were fortunate to discover the cedar in Idaho, where they created four large pirogues, plus a smaller one for scouting.

Author events

Molly Hashimoto will have a book signing at Secret Garden Books, 2214 N.W. Market St., from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 22. She will also demonstrate block printing at the Seward Park Audubon Center from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Dec. 18. For more information on that event: sewardpark.audubon.org/events/molly-hashimoto-block-printing-demonstration.


While American Indians used these trees extensively, they did not fell many because they were able to cut planks and harvest the bark and the roots without substantively injuring the trees. Baskets, ropes and mats were made from the stringy bark. Native people in south central Washington used the cedar roots for coil-style baskets, once the outer covering, or “skin” as they called it, was stripped. They separated the roots into three bundles: the skin to be dyed for decoration, the rougher pieces for the coil foundation and the long smooth pieces for the stitching materials.

I saw these beautiful living trees and the fallen cedar at Ohanapecosh, site of the famous old-growth Grove of the Patriarchs within Mount Rainier National Park.

Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis)
THE SITKA SPRUCE is present in all coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest and is the dominant tree species along the Oregon coast. Everywhere are enormous, buttressed trunks, clothed in a rough-textured bark without furrow or grooves. The color ranges from gray violet to maroon and cinnamon, hues often overtaken by the bright chartreuse of mosses and other epiphytes.

In young trees, the branches reach up toward the sky, uplifted in a herringbone pattern, but in much older individuals, many branches have been weighed down, so that they jut out at nearly a 45-degree angle.

Artists look for underlying patterns, setting aside the extraneous to penetrate to the fundamental order in a landscape. In the coastal forest, with such limited numbers of tree species, the organization is obvious. The landscape is remarkably uncluttered and simple because of the dominance of the spruce — it punctuates all the vertical and horizontal space like a musical score, tall trunks and perpendicular branches at regular intervals.

Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
IN MOUNT RAINIER National Park’s Grove of the Patriarchs, there are trees that have survived more than 1,000 years. Among the most notable are twin Douglas firs, which I sketched in honor of my twin sister, Jane. The grove, situated on an island in the Ohanapecosh River, survived numerous catastrophic fires in the area because the water protected it from the encroaching flames.


There are two varieties of Douglas fir: the taller and faster-growing coastal Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii) and the shorter, slower-growing and more cold-tolerant inland or Rocky Mountain Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca). Habitats can change the growth habits of these trees, though, and you might find a wind-exposed coastal tree that is stunted, and an inland tree in a wet ravine that is very tall.

The bark of a young Douglas fir is smooth and gray, but after decades, the bark becomes very thick. Trees that are more than 100 years old have deeply furrowed, cinnamon-gray-brown bark. Often they are covered with beautiful lichens in many different colors, depending on the location. The tallest living Douglas fir, the Doerner Fir in Coos County, Oregon, is 327 feet tall. Some of the largest specimens have trunk diameters of more than 12 feet.

Spotted owls and red tree voles live in old Douglas fir trees, as does the marbled murrelet. Mule deer browse the lower branches in winter, causing the trees to look as if they have been pruned.

Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)
AS ITS NAME suggests, the bigleaf maple has enormous leaves, sometimes as wide as 12 inches and up to 10 inches long. Leaves turn a rich gold in autumn. In spring, the male and female flowers hang in drooping clusters from the ends of the twigs, and the seeds, known as samaras and popularly referred to as helicopters, are 1 to 1½ inches long. Their aerodynamic shape helps them drift down. The dispersal methods of trees and plants inspired some early airplanes and other aircraft — the Museum of Flight in Seattle has a plane from the World War I era that has samaralike wings. Northwest Coast Indians used the wood of this maple for canoe paddles.

The bigleaf maple is beautiful in all seasons, and there are many places to see them, both in the wild and in city parks. There is a spectacularly large one on the loop trail at Discovery Park in Seattle.

A mature bigleaf maple in winter in the Pacific Northwest looks like a giant sponge, with mosses growing on anything even close to a ledgelike surface. This tree in Olympic National Park presides over other much smaller trees and ferns. You can’t walk past it without admiring its girth and height and the mosses and epiphytes brightening its dark, almost Gothic presence.


Vine maple (Acer circinatum)
THIS SMALL, ELEGANT tree grows from southwestern British Columbia to as far south as Northern California. Height can be up to 25 feet, with a trunk diameter of up to 8 inches, but for the most part, all the branches and trunks are thin, reminding me of the hybrids in a Japanese garden.

Colors are remarkable in all seasons. In early spring, the bright chartreuse of their new growth is startling. In autumn, they range from gold to orange to scarlet and crimson.

Vine maples grow in moist areas along streams and in the shade of conifers, and also are found in avalanche chutes on mountainsides, where they can appear to be flowing down like flames. Two places where I have seen that phenomenon are Mount Rainier National Park and Tumwater Canyon along the Wenatchee River just west of Leavenworth.

I painted this watercolor of a lone vine maple growing beside Diablo Lake because I was so taken with the complementary hues of the maple and the lake. In order to create those very thin branches, I used a rigger brush, which is so named because it was used by artists to paint the very thin lines of a ship’s rigging. I painted the twigs after the wash that I had laid for the lake was dry. You can paint directly on top of a previous wash if the color is darker and the wash is completely dry.

On another visit to the North Cascades, I saw vine maples alternating with birches and alders in deep forest. I made a quick sketch of it with my class, and then later used that sketch to create an etching. The etching is done with a mixture of ultramarine blue and soft black ink, which creates the blue-black color of the trunk and leaf outlines. Then when the ink is dry, I hand-tint with watercolor, beginning with the brightest lightest yellows and golds.

Black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera)
BLACK COTTONWOODS CAN grow up to 150 feet tall, especially where there is adequate moisture, as in the Columbia River drainage. They are most successful on moist or gravelly soils in valleys, stream banks and floodplains, so strictly speaking, they are riparian (wetland) trees rather than coastal forest or montane trees.


On young trees, the bark is smooth and gray or sometimes a brownish-yellow. Reddish-purple male and female catkins (flowering spikes that hang down on many trees, like willows, hazels and alders, as well as cottonwoods) form on separate trees in springtime, and the fruits are borne in capsules that break open in early summer. Often a trail or sidewalk will collect large drifts of the “cotton,” looking exactly like snow.

Throughout the West, cottonwoods are in their glory in fall. There is nothing to compare to the sight of them beaming their golden light alongside riverbanks or playing against the cool-hued conifers on western slopes, as seen in my watercolor of the lone cottonwood on the Wenatchee River. On the east slopes of the Cascades, the gold illuminates the more olive-hued pines and desert landscapes.

Red alder (Alnus rubra)
ALDERS ARE HAPPY in a wide variety of locations, including the Cascades. In many foothills and lowland forests of the Pacific Northwest, alders are the first trees to return after fire or logging.

I like alders best in winter, when the understory has mostly gone dormant, and all you see are the endless columns of the alder trunks, lichen-dappled, moss-dressed, sometimes even brighter than the sky when it is dark and overcast. On a December day in the foothills near Seattle, walking into the sun southward and nearly blinded, all you can see are penumbras of emerald-green moss along the vertical edges of the trunks. Hiking north, the trunks are almost as pale as birches, even though more texture is visible; in fact, they are members of the same family, Betulaceae.

Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
THE MADRONE, or madrona, is an evergreen tree that grows up to 125 feet tall. When mature, this extremely striking tree has reddish-brown bark that darkens before peeling off in scales to reveal the golden, smooth bark beneath; the young branches are a rich red with graceful curves. Small white flowers shaped like bells appear in early spring and are followed in autumn by orange-red berrylike fruits up to half an inch in diameter.

The madrone is common in Seattle, where I live, and, when I first moved here, my Seattle-native friends gave me the grand tour of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods. That included Magnolia Bluff, perched above Puget Sound northwest of downtown. Madrones grow all along the bluff, but when settlers first saw them, they misidentified them as magnolias.


One of my favorite places to see the trees is in the San Juan Islands. I’ve painted them on Lopez Island in the North Sound and closer to the mainland at Deception Pass State Park. The contrast between their rich orange trunks and the Prussian blue hue of the Sound sets up a complementary vibration of color that has brought me back to these places over and over again so that I can re-experience that sensation.

Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)
THE 19TH-CENTURY British poet John Clare called the birch the “most beautiful of forest trees — the Lady of the Woods.” Paper birch is also known as white birch, or canoe birch, as American Indians used the bark for their canoes.

Although mature trunks are a lustrous white, the trunks of saplings are dark. The trees can grow to a height of 50 to 70 feet, with diameters from 1 to 2 feet. Male flowers are yellowish and hang down as catkins. The female flowers grow on the same twigs as upright catkins, and small cones mature in the autumn. Fall foliage color is a light yellow. The birch requires moist soils and is happy in locations like the one I painted here, perched on an embankment above Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park.