Region boasts various types of conifers

Water is the determining factor for which species thrive best in Central Oregon and the Cascades

Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin /

Published Dec 21, 2009 at 04:00AM

Traditional Christmas tree species, Douglas firs and grand firs, grow tall in some of Central Oregon’s forests. But Central Oregon is not the ideal place to grow the perfect conifer for sale. Temperamental weather and springtime frosts can easily distort a tree’s shape and misshape the branch tips.

“It’s tough to grow them here, because of our frosty weather,” said Stephen Fitzgerald, forester with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Redmond. “When it comes to Christmas trees, it’s all about looks. So Christmas trees haven’t done well (in Central Oregon) and likely won’t.”

What the region does support, however, is different niches of rain and soil type that make ideal homes for a variety of conifers.

Ponderosa pines, with bark that resembles puzzle pieces, thrive in the Bend and Sisters areas.

“Historically around here, even in the mixed conifers, a lot of our stands were dominated by ponderosa pine,” said Brian Tandy, silviculturist with the Sisters Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. “They’re adapted historically to the climate we have here.”

And a big part of that revolves around water, and how much is available to the trees, he said.

Ponderosa pines are drought-tolerant and can cope with the 14 inches of rain that fall in the Sisters area. They’ve adapted so that during the hot, late summer afternoons, they can shut down some processes to avoid losing water. Big ponderosas also have thick bark that helps make them resilient to the periodic fires that historically burned through area forests.

But between Sisters and Santiam Pass, the amount of rainfall jumps dramatically, he said, from 14 inches to about 24 inches a year at Black Butte Ranch to between 80 and 100 inches on the pass.

And with that large change in rainfall comes a change in the mix of conifer species.

“If you just drove from here to the top of Santiam Pass, you can notice the changes in trees,” Tandy said.

Water-loving trees like western larch, lodgepole pines, Douglas firs, incense cedars and grand firs start to be added to the mix with more rain, including in places like the Metolius basin.

Lodgepole pine also tolerates cold weather and frost, Fitzgerald said, and can deal with a high water table, so it will grow along the wet edges of mountain meadows.

And western larch, a deciduous conifer whose needles change colors and fall off every autumn, tends to thrive in cooler, wet sites, he said, including areas in the Ochoco Mountains, where ash from Mount Mazama — now Crater Lake — is deposited.

“The Mazama ash can hold a lot of moisture, and that’s where you typically see larch,” Fitzgerald said.

Junipers have also thrived in many Central Oregon areas since people started suppressing the fires that used to keep them in check. They can guzzle 30 gallons of water a day and have expanded their range into historically pine-dominated areas, Tandy said.

Residents who want to plant native conifers in their yard have a few options, said Matt Shinderman, instructor with the natural resources program at Oregon State University-Cascades Campus.

“The list of native trees is pretty small, especially for conifers,” he said.

Ponderosa pines will grow in the Bend area with little fuss, he said, but spruce firs, hemlocks and others will need watering.

“Any conifer will do fine here if you give it enough water, he said. “The key is how much water you’re willing to put on that particular tree.”

Most conifers will do fine with a drip irrigation line, he said, adding that he’s a big fan of spruce species — which take less water than firs.

“They’re hardy, they’re attractive, and I think they’re relatively easy to establish,” he said.

It’s not easy for east-side nurseries to scale that up and grow conifers for transplanting, however.

“Very few trees are grown on this side of the mountains,” said Gary English, owner of Landsystems Nursery and president of the Central Oregon chapter of the Oregon Association of Nurseries. Oregon’s nursery industry had sales of $820 million in 2008, according to the association, although the group doesn’t have numbers about how much of that was from conifers.

The reasons why local nurseries don’t grow many conifers include a short, 90-day growing season, he said, and poor soils for the ball and burlap growing method. But the nursery does grow about 20 varieties of spruces, pines and firs, he said, which might need water but are hardy enough to survive the area’s weather.

“We have a complete palate of things that do well at this elevation and climate,” he said.

What you can find locally

Ponderosa pine The drought-tolerant tree is well adapted to Central Oregon’s dry forests, and its thick bark helps protect it from low-intensity wildfires.

Lodgepole pine Lodgepole can grow in cold, frost-prone areas, but have thin bark and are vulnerable to wildfire.

Juniper A water-guzzler, juniper are also drought-tolerant and, as people have suppressed fires, have expanded their historic range.

Douglas fir Needs more water than ponderosa pines; while it’s more common on the Coast Range, it is also found locally in areas like the Metolius basin.

Grand fir Similar to white fir, and Central Oregon actually features a hybrid cross between the two species.