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How to Identify Western Washington Trees

fir tree branch image by Christopher Hall from

One of the joys of being outdoors is enjoying the variety of textures, shades and colors of the plants around you. Once you know the characteristics that mark each species, you'll find even more details to appreciate. In Western Washington, trees are a predominant part of the landscape. Native trees are often both part of an existing garden and excellent options for further planting, and you have the advantage of being able to see mature specimens in their native habitat.

Examine a twig of the tree and decide whether it is a conifer, an evergreen with needlelike or scalelike leaves. If it is not, go on to the step 3. If it is a conifer, decide whether the leaves are needles or scales. If scales, you have a red cedar.

If your twig has needles and there is more than one needle attached at the same place, you have a pine. Two kinds of pine are found in Western Washington: the shore pine, with two needles to a bundle, and the western white pine, with five.

If there is only one at the attachment point, look at the bud at the end of the twig. If it is pointed, you have a Douglas fir. If the needles are of differing lengths, you have a western hemlock.

Feel the area of the twig where needles have fallen off. If it is rough with tiny protrusions where the needle sat, you have a spruce, either the Sitka spruce or the coast spruce. If the twig is smooth, you have a fir: grand fir in the lowlands and alpine or noble fir the mountains.

Decide whether your broadleaved tree is evergreen, with leaves lasting through winter, or deciduous, losing its leaves in winter. If deciduous, go on to the next step. If evergreen, you have a Pacific Madrone, a large tree with reddish, peeling bark.

Look at the shape of the leaves. If they are hand shaped, with pointed lobes, you have a maple. Very large leaves are those of the big-leaf maple. Small ones belong to the vine maple. The fruit of both is a seed with wings jutting out to the sides.

Oval leaves with serrated edges belong to the red alder. Smooth oval leaves with prominent veins that curve around to meet at the tip belong to the western dogwood.

Somewhat heart-shaped leaves, broad at the base and pointed at the tip, belong to the poplar or black cottonwood. If the leaves are divided into narrow leaflets, six or eight to a stalk, you have an Oregon ash.

Leaves with lobed edges are oaks, and the Garry oak is only one native to this area.


Consult the Resources section for details on smaller, less common trees that often look like shrubs. These include willows, black hawthorn, western yew, cascara and bitter cherry.


Don't try this identification guide in areas where you might find cultivated varieties of trees. The number of species you could encounter is huge.

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