If you’re like many outdoors enthusiasts, you probably love evergreen forests. But have you ever wondered about the different kinds of evergreen trees you may see clustered together in a single area? In this article, we’ll talk about how to tell the difference between Western hemlock vs Douglas Fir, two specific types of evergreen trees.
What You'll Learn Today
What is Douglas Fir?
The Douglas fir is an evergreen tree found in western parts of North America and eastern parts of Asia. These are fairly recognizable trees because they are commonly cultivated and sold as Christmas trees.
Douglas firs are called many different names, including Oregon pine and Douglas spruce. Interestingly, they are not true firs, pines, or spruces; their scientific name, pseudotsuga, actually means “false hemlock.”
These trees have beautiful blue-green or yellow-green needles completely surrounding each small branch. The needles are relatively long and leave indentations in the branches when they are removed.
Douglas firs can grow quite large; some may reach up to 250 feet tall. They are also known for their long lifespans, which commonly extend between 400 and 1,000 years.
These trees produce a strong, hard wood; as such, they are one of the most valuable trees in terms of timber production. They are harvested extensively for construction and other purposes, but they are not considered in danger of extinction because there are a lot of them in the world and they grow back easily.
Native Americans have used Douglas fir medicinally for ailments such as stomach upset, colds, headaches, and rheumatism, as well as for building and basket making.
How to Identify Douglas Fir
As mentioned above, Douglas fir trees are yellow-green to blue-green in color. Their needles are flat but pointed on the ends.
One of their most distinctive features is the way the needles emerge from the branches on all sides. This gives the branches a full, pipe cleaner-like appearance.
Douglas firs also have thick reddish-brown trunks that are deeply veined. This helps to set them apart from hemlocks and other evergreens, which have more grayish-brown trunks.
What is Western Hemlock?
Western hemlock is another type of evergreen that, like Douglas fir, is also found in parts of North America (it’s the state tree of Washington) and Asia. In fact, it often grows alongside Douglas fir trees in many of the same forests.
The scientific name for hemlock, tsuga, means “the mother of trees” in Japanese. Western hemlocks are sometimes thought to have a feminine connection, with their droopy bows suggesting a girl with her head demurely bowed and their needles and bark finding traditional uses for women’s health.
Western hemlocks have short, flat, feathery needles that emerge from the sides of the branches. Each needle comes to a point but is relatively blunt compared with other types of evergreens.
Western hemlocks are medium-sized trees, growing 50 to 100 feet on average, though some have been known to grow nearly 200 feet tall. They rarely live more than 300 to 400 years, though a few have been known to live as long as 1,200 years.
They appear to prefer cool, wet, shady conditions and thrive in areas with high amounts of yearly rainfall.
They tend to choke out trees and plants that need sun; they can grow very densely and their root systems prevent other plants and trees from establishing themselves. As such, forests where hemlocks are the dominant trees are known for being pretty bare at lower levels beneath the canopy.
Hemlock wood is hard but not as strong as other types of wood. For this reason, it isn’t as commonly used for building and construction purposes, though it is frequently used to make wood pulp used in paper and cellulose.
Hemlock had many traditional uses among Native Americans.
The inner bark and new buds are both edible and were often used for food. Various parts of the tree are also medicinal, and they have been used to treat women’s health needs as well as colds, fevers, muscle soreness, and a variety of other ailments.
How to Identify Western Hemlock
These trees have several features that make them easy to identify.
Their soft, droopy appearance is one of their most obvious identifying features as it allows them to stand out among the more strong and erect evergreens.
Their short, flat needles do not surround the branches but are arranged in neat rows down two sides of the branches. This gives each branch a feather-like appearance.
Finally, their gray-brown trunks develop deep furrows as they mature, giving the trunks of these trees an appearance similar to some deciduous trees such as oak and maple.
Check out this video to learn more:
Douglas Fir Vs. Western Hemlock: Similarities and Differences
As you can see, these trees have a number of similarities as well as their fair share of differences. Let’s take a closer look at how they compare side-by-side.
- General appearance: There’s a reason these two trees are often mistaken for each other—and not just because the Douglas fir’s scientific name means “false hemlock.” Though there are many subtle differences in their appearance, to the casual observer, Douglas fir and western hemlock look remarkably similar.
- Both conifers: Both Douglas firs and western hemlocks belong to a family of trees that produce seeds in pine cones rather than flowers. These trees are known as conifers.
- Needles: As noted, western hemlock trees have softer and smaller needles than Douglas firs, and their needle structure gives them a more feathery appearance. The needles of Douglas fir are longer and come out on all sides of the branch, giving them a more pipe-cleaner-like appearance.
- Trunk: Mature western hemlocks have a more grayish trunk than Douglas fir, and the trunk is deeply furrowed. Douglas firs have deep furrows as well, but their trunks are more of a striking reddish-brown color.
- Treetop: Douglas firs tend to stand straight and tall, while western hemlocks are known for their distinctive droop.
- Growing conditions: Both Douglas firs and western hemlocks can grow well in both sun and shade, but they appear to have different preferences. Douglas firs prefer sunnier conditions, while hemlocks prefer damp, cool, shady areas.
- Size: Generally speaking, Douglas firs can grow significantly larger than hemlocks. The largest hemlock known is about 195 feet tall, and most are significantly shorter; meanwhile, Douglas firs routinely grow up to 250 feet.
- Lifespan: Douglas firs generally live longer than western hemlocks, with lifespans averaging 400 to 1,000 years. Most hemlock trees only live for 300 to 500 years.
What Color is Western Hemlock Wood?
Mature western hemlock is usually a pale grayish-brown in color, though younger trees may have more reddish-brown wood.
Western hemlock wood produces a reddish colored dye, which has been used as a wood stain and fabric dye in the past. The wood itself is commonly used as a pulpwood, which is turned into paper and cellulose, among a variety of other uses.
Native Americans used to use western hemlock wood to make tools, cooking utensils, etc. The wood is easy to work with and fairly dense, but not particularly strong, so it isn’t the best option for building.
Still, it is a useful wood with many applications. One unique property of the wood is that it gets harder and darker as it ages, making it a popular choice for flooring and other decorative uses.
Douglas fir and western hemlock trees may look pretty similar to the casual observer, but they have a variety of differences if you know what to look for.
Some of these differences include their overall size, their needle size and patterns, the strength of their wood, and the way the hemlock’s tip droops over while the Douglas fir’s tip does not.