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Scott Williams

Questions about Ethnobotany?

Scott Clay-Poole, PhD

Ethnobotany - Conifers


Chamaecyparis nootkatensis (Yellow cedar)
Larix occidentalis (Western larch)
Picea sitchensis (Sitka spruce)
Pinus spp. (Pine species)


Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas-fir)
Taxus brevifolia (Western yew)
Thuja plicata (Western red cedar)
Tsuga heterophylla (Western hemlock)

By Scott Clay-Poole, PhD

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis - Yellow Cedar trees
Yellow Cedar bark
Yellow cedar leaves

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis - Yellow-Cedar,
Yellow-Cypress, Alaska-Cedar
Cupressaceae (Cypress Family)

A shaggy tree growing up to 80 feet in Washington (to 150' elsewhere), with an often slightly twisted trunk, the tip droops at the top, the flattened branches tend to hang vertically and appear limp; the bark is dirty white to greyish-brown, in vertical strips but not tearing off very long. The leaves are opposite, scale-like in 4 rows, 3-6 mm long, bluish-green, with sharp-pointed, spreading tips (prickly to the touch when stroked "against" the grain). The pollen cones are about 4 mm long; seed cones beginning as round, bumpy, light-green 'berries' covered with a white waxy powder, less than 1 cm long, ripening (September/October) to brownish cones with 4-6 woody, mushroom-shaped scales; seeds are winged. If you do not have cones to fully identify this tree relative to the western redcedar, expose the inner bark; if it is yellowish and smells like raw potatoes, the tree is yellow-cedar. 

Habitat: In moist to wet sites; often in rocky areas, avalanche chutes, rocky ridge tops, to timberline; at middle to high elevations, southern limit is Mt. Adams northward above the Canadian border.

Use:  The tough straight-grained wood of yellow-cedar was used to make implements by virtually all northwest coast peoples. Yellow-cedar bows were popular and were common trading items. Also paddles and carved masks as well as dishes, fishing net hoops digging sticks, and adze handles were made from the wood. One tribe made a tea from the branch tips to treat insanity and boiled them with spruce roots to make a drink for curing kidney ailments. For a contraceptive, some women chewed the green cones and swallowed the juice. Yellow-cedar was used with a sweatbath as a cure for rheumatism or to 'scare away' a disease.

Preparation of the bark was used especially for weaving and blanket making. The bark had to be soaked and boiled to remove the pitch, then pounded until it was soft. Often it was interwoven with duck down or mountain-goat wool, or it was trimmed with these materials. Woven robes, hats and capes made from the fine, soft yellow-cedar bark repelled water and protected people from the rain. They used shredded bark as bandages, washcloths and towels.

In areas with more open area and access to the new more pliable roots, they removed the outer root bark and split it lengthwise in preparation for weaving baskets and cradles. These coiled cedar-root baskets, of a wide variety of shapes and sizes and often beautifully decorated with geometric patterns of reed-canary-grass stems and natural-colored and black-dyed bark of bitter cherry, are still made.

[Hickcock & Cronquist, 1990; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994]


Larix occidentalis - Western Larch, Tamarack, Hackmatack trees
Western Larch - leaves
Western Larch - Cones

Larix occidentalis - Western Larch, Tamarack, Hackmatack
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

A tall forest tree, up to 230' high, with flaky, brownish bark and long, straight trunks. The needle-like leaves are pale green, 1 - 1.8" long, triangular* in cross-section, without resin ducts*, and borne in dense clusters of 15-30. The needles, unlike those of most conifers, are deciduous, turning golden yellow in fall an dropping. The pollen cones are small and yellowish, the seed cones up to 1.6" long, at first purplish-red, later reddish-brown. The thick bark of mature western larch and its habit of shedding lower branches make this species resistant to fire.

Habitat: Western larch usually grows in mixed forests but can occasionally be found in pure groups of trees after a severe wildfire. It demands full sunlight and grows well on fire-blackened soil. Fire releases nutrients which it uses to grow faster than its companion species. Generally east of the Cascades and occurring most frequently in the Mountain Forest zone of northeastern Washington. Also in the Blue Mountains. Altitudinal range approximately 2,000' - 4,500'.

Low temperatures limit the distribution of western larch. It is quite sensitive to frost damage because it continues to grow from bud-burst in spring through to September; most evergreen conifers stop growing in mid-July.

Use: Most First Peoples know this tree as tamarack. Larch sap, when it runs out of the tree and hardens, can be eaten like candy. It is sweet and is available at any time of the year. The stumps of burned or fallen trees yield good gum for eating. Some First Peoples placed pieces of larch gum in baskets and dissolved them with hot rocks and water, skimming off conifer needles and other extraneous matter, to make a syrup.

From the ages of 9 to 16, Northern Okanogan girls covered their faces with red paint. This was made with either red earth or pigment from larch trees. A "lump" of pitch was taken from the tree, heated in the fire, then rubbed with a stone until it became a fine powder. A mortar and pestle could be used to grind it down. The powder was mixed with grease and smeared on the face. Its purpose was to hide a girl's face from men and also to improve her complexion. Larch paint for other purposes was made by mixing the powder with the sticky resin from cottonwood buds.

[Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Turner et al., 1980]

*Larix lyallii (Alpine Larch) not discussed here, has quadrangular needles in cross-section, and bears 2 resin ducts on those needles.


Picea sitchensis - Sitka Spruce needles


Sitka Spruce - Cones


Sitka Spruce - Bark

Picea sitchensis - Sitka Spruce
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Sitka spruce is a large tree up to 200 feet in height. The bark is thin, silvery-grey or brownish, with characteristic long deciduous scales about 2" across. The needles are yellowish-green or bluish-green, sharp-pointed, stiff, diamond-shaped in cross-section (4-sided and flattish), and tend to project from all sides of the twigs. The needles also bear 2 white lines of stomata on the upper surface, and usually 2 narrower lines on the lower surface. The male cones bearing the pollen are reddish. The female cones bearing the seeds are reddish-brown becoming brown, with thin, wavy, irregularly toothed scales hang down from the branches and are cylindrical. The female cones are generally up to 2" long.

Habitat: In pure or mixed stands, often on moist, well-drained sites such as alluvial floodplains, marine terraces, headlands, recent glacial outwash, avalanche tracks; also on old logs or mounds on boggy sites and typically at low to middle elevations (<2000') in western Washington.

Use: The sharp needles of spruce were believed to give it special powers for protection against evil thoughts. Some tribes used the boughs in winter dance ceremonies to protect the dancers and to 'scare' spectators. Among other First Peoples the inner bark (cambium) was eaten fresh or dried into cakes and eaten with berries. Some were said to eat the young shoots raw; these would have been an excellent source of vitamin C. The inner bark was eaten fresh as a laxative by others. The pitch was often chewed for pleasure and was also used as medicine for burns, boils, slivers and other skin irritations. Sitka spruce pitch was also used as a medicine for colds, sore throats, internal swellings, rheumatism and toothaches. The roots of Sitka spruce were used to make beautifully twined water-tight hats and baskets. The roots were carefully pulled out from sandy ground in the early summer, briefly 'cooked' in the fire to prevent them from turning brown, then peeled, split and bundled for later use.

[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994]


Pinus albicaulis - Whitebark Pine
P. albicaulis needles
Whitebark Pine - Cone
P. albicaulis cone
P.Contorta - Tree
P. contorta tree
P. contorta - Cone
P. contorta cone
P. monticola - needles
P. monticola needles
P. monticola - Cone
P. monticola cone
P. ponderosa - Needles
P.ponderosa needle
P. ponderosa - Cone
P. ponderosa cone
Pinus albicaulis (Whitebark Pine)
Pinus contorta (Lodgepole Pine/Shore Pine)
Pinus monticola (Western White Pine)
Pinus ponderosa (Yellow Pine)

P. albicaulis: A small, often gnarled, tree or sprawling shrub seldom over 30' high, with thin, light-gray bark and yellow-green needles up to 3" long (upper right-hand corner here), in clusters of 5. The seed cones are oval, up to 3" long, deep red, purplish, to gray, and often very pitchy. They tend to remain closed, shedding seeds slowly, and seldom falling from the tree intact. The seeds are large (8-12mm long), brown, and wingless, containing a large, ovoid kernel.

Habitat: A timberline tree growing in rocky exposed situations - the only pine in Washington which can be found at elevations above 5,000' in the Cascade Mountains.

Use: The seeds were gathered in the late summer and fall from local mountain ridges, and were regarded as a special treat. The cones were picked intact, by people climbing the trees, or the seeds were obtained by shaking the branches until the cones fell apart and seeds and scales dropped. Intact cones were dried slightly by spreading them out in the sun, or were roasted in the coals of a fire or overnight in cooking pits, then pounded until they broke apart and the seeds could be extracted. The seeds were occasionally eaten fresh and raw. Preferably, they were roasted, then stored in bags or underground caches for winter use. Sometimes they were crushed and combined with dried Saskatoon berries or some other fruit, or were dried/roasted, pounded to a fine flour with a mortar and pestle, then mixed with water or sometimes animal fat to form a mush. The seeds were a common trading item, often traded for hazelnuts.

P. contorta
A medium-sized tree, up to 100' tall, with thin limbs often confined to the top third of the tree when it is growing in a dense stand. There are two varieties of this species: shore pine (var. contorta) a smaller tree, of more scrubby growth, usually with twisted, much forked branches; and lodgepole pine (var. latifolia), with taller, straight, relatively slender trunk. Both varieties have thin, scaly, reddish brown to grayish brown bark, needles in pairs (2), usually <3 inches long, and cones up to 2 in. long, which remain closed for many years, sometimes opening only after a fire. The thick cone scales are often spiny tipped.

Habitat: Highly adaptable, tolerant of low-nutrient conditions; found from dunes and bogs to rocky hilltops and exposed outer-coast shorelines. At low to middle elevations, occasionally to upper montane/subalpine.

Use: The pitch was chewed for pleasure, to waterproof canoes and baskets, and to fasten arrowheads onto shafts and as a glue to provide a protective coating for Indian-hemp fishing nets. The seeds were eaten too. Some First Peoples ate the young shoots of the branches when at the bud stage; these were said to be very sweet. Some groups also made a tea by boiling the needles* (Turner et al., 1990).

The most important food derived from lodgepole pine was the inner bark, including the cambium and secondary phloem tissues (cambium is tissue that produces more phloem; phloem transports photosynthate/sugars from sites of photosynthesis [needles] to other sites requiring the sugar's energy for growth/metabolism). The edible tissue is said to be at its prime for harvesting only for a very limited time in spring (May/June), the exact interval being determined by elevation and local weather conditions. This is about the time when the new needles are expanding and the pollen cones are in full production.

For harvesting, the bark is removed and the ripe cambium tissues scraped off the exposed wood in long, fleshy ribbons about 1" wide and up to 2 feet or more long. Special prying implements were used to remove the bark and scrapers, traditionally made of caribou antler, deer ulna or rib, or shoulder blade of deer or bear, were used to harvest the edible tissue. A basket or container placed at the bottom of the tree was often used to "catch" the edible ribbons, or "pine noodles" as they fell. The practice of harvesting inner bark has been discouraged by forestry management officials, and few First Peoples still use this food.

The edible tissue was usually eaten fresh, as it was gathered, or shortly afterwards. When freshly harvested, it is reportedly sweet, juicy, and somewhat resinous, but when left it is said to discolor quickly and "go sour." Sometimes, it was dried for winter, when it would be soaked in water before use. Some people like to add sugar to this food, making it even sweeter.

P. monticola
Medium-sized tree, beautifully symmetrical, occasionally to 120'; bark initially smooth, sometimes with resin blisters, becoming scaly, dark grey to nearly black, cinnamon-colored underneath. Needles in bundles of 5, light bluish-green, slender and flexible, 2-4" long. Pollen cones yellow, to 1/2" long; seed cones cylindrical when closed, 4-10" long, yellow-green to purple when young, becoming reddish-brown and woody, scales without prickles.

Habitat: Moist valleys to fairly open and dry slopes, from near sea level to subalpine.

Use: A tea from the bark was made for stomach disorders, and to purify the blood, and it was applied externally on cuts and sores. The pitch was used for stomach aches, coughs and sores, for waterproofing and as a cleansing agent. Its gum was chewed to give women fertility. Sheets of the bark was used to make baskets and small canoes.

P. ponderosa
A medium to large forest tree, occasionally exceeding 100' in height, with thick, splendid cinnamon-colored scaly bark that smells of vanilla in the hot sun and long needles, often over 10" long, in clusters of 3. The seed cones are broadly ovoid, up to 6" long, reddish purple when young and brown at maturity. When ripe, after two years, the prickle-tipped scales open to release prominently winged seeds (6-7mm long).

Habitat: Most common tree in the lowest forested part of central and eastern Washington. Usually between elevations of 1500' - 3500'. Often extends into the Bunchgrass Zone as scattered individuals. West of the Cascades, it occurs in a few local places on dry gravelly soils.

Use: The inner bark (cambium and secondary phloem tissue) was harvested in similar manner as P. contorta (see above). Also the seeds were harvested and eaten in similar manner.

Dried ponderosa pine needles were used in food processing, for drying berries on or lining the bottom of a cooking pit and interspersing between the layers of food being cooked (Turner et al., 1990).

Ponderosa pine needles and branches may cause abortions and stillbirths in pregnant cows browsing them, and a tea of needles is reputed to cause miscarriages in pregnant women (Turner et al., 1980).

[Kuhnlein and Turner, 1991; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994]


Pseudotsugs menziesii - Douglas-fir
Pseudotsuga menziesii - Douglas-fir
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Tall, straight, symmetrical tree with a dense cylindrical or conical shape to 180' tall. Older trees have a branch-free trunk. Smooth, grey-brown bark with gummy resin-filled blisters when young, the bark becomes very thick with age and deeply grooved, with dark reddish-brown ridges. The needles are flat with a pointed tip. The upper surface is bright yellowish-green with a single groove down the center; the lower surface is paler, bearing two parallel white bands of stomata. The needles appear to stand out around the twig. Cones are 5-11 cm long, turning from green to grey as they mature. Between each scale, long three-pronged bracts are easily seen (look for the 'mice' hiding in the cones - the bracts are their hind feet and tail). Seeds are winged at the tip.

Habitat: Douglas-fir is a widespread forest tree, from extremely dry, low elevation sites to moist, well-drained montane sites.

Use: Douglas-fir wood and bark was thought by most of the coastal groups to be an excellent fuel, but it had the reputation of throwing sparks and giving slivers to those handling it. The wood was also used to make items such as spear handles, harpoon shafts, spoons, dip-net poles, harpoon barbs, fire tongs, salmon weirs, caskets and halibut and cod hooks. Its pitch was used for sealing joints of implements such as harpoon heads, gaffs and fishhooks, and for caulking canoes and water vessels. The pitch, like that of many coniferous trees, was used to make a medicinal salve for wounds and skin irritations. One tribe prepared dogfish by stuffing it with rotten, powdered Douglas-fir and burying the fish in a pit lined with the same material and roasting.

The small, pitchy seeds were occasionally eaten, especially when they could be located in rodent caches. A beverage tea was made from the needles and twigs. Some tribes chewed the pitch as gum.

The most intriguing food use of this tree, however, was of a type of white, crystalline sugar, called "Douglas-fir sugar" or "wild sugar," which was gathered from the branches of certain individual trees and was formerly a popular confection and sweetener. This substance is described in detail in an article by John Davidson (1919) and was also mentioned by early ethnographers such as James Teit and George Dawson. The sugar was produced from the branch tips of certain fir trees having abundant exposure to the sun and good soil moisture during the hottest days of midsummer. It appears as white, frost-like globules on the branches, and is composed of sucrose and reducing sugars, and over 50% by weight of a rare trisaccharide sugar, melezitose (Davidson, 1919). The sugar was gathered and eaten immediately as a confection, or, if enough could be obtained, taken home in a container and used as a sweetener for other foods such as black tree lichen and balsamroot seeds. (Davidson, J. 1919. Douglas-fir sugar. The Canadian Field Naturalist 33:6-9 (April).

Because the Douglas-fir is not a true fir, the common name is hyphenated. It was named after David Douglas, the Scottish botanist who introduced many of British Columbia's native conifers to Europe.

[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1990; Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991


Taxus brevifolia - Pacific Yew, Western Yew
Taxus brevifolia - bark
Taxus brevifolia - Pacific Yew,  Western Yew
Taxaceae (Yew Family)

Evergreen shrub to small tree, to 45 feet in height, with drooping branches and a twisted and fluted trunk; bark is reddish, papery, scaly to shreddy. Needles are flat, up to just over an inch long, dull green above, striped below with stomata; needles end abruptly to a fine point, arranged in 2 rows in flat sprays. Pollen is released from inconspicuous male cones (bearing a stalked cluster of 4-8 stamens) from a male tree to a female tree's cones where the seed ripens in two seasons in September. The yew is a conifer but it produces a single bony seed almost completely surrounded by a bright red, fleshy cup (aril) that looks like a large red huckleberry with a hole in the end (poisonous). Since the seed is not completely enclosed by the red aril the tree is classified as a conifer or gymnosperm (gymno=naked, sperm=seed).

Habitat: Moist mature forest at low to middle elevations often with Douglas-fir and western hemlock in productive old-growth forests as a small understorey tree. Grows from sea-level to near 5,000' in Cascades and mountains of northeast Washington. Although very widespread as scattered individuals its optimum range is west of the Cascades.

Use: The hard wood is ideal for carving and takes on a high polish. Many implements were made from yew wood, including bows, wedges, clubs, paddles, digging sticks, adze handles, harpoon shafts, spears, mat-sewing needles, awls, dip-net frames, knives, dishes, spoons, boxes, dowels and pegs, drum frames, snowshoe frames, canoe-spreaders, bark scrapers, fire tongs and combs.

The needles are chewed and put onto wounds to promote healing. Peeled bark is made into a tea for the lungs and for internal pains.

Western yew seeds are poisonous and humans should avoid the fleshy 'berries', although a wide variety of birds consume them and disperse the seeds.

A new, potent and apparently very promising anti-cancer drug, taxol, has been identified in the bark and other parts of this tree. It is being tested against a variety of types of cancer, including ovarian, breast and kidney cancers. There are, however, concerns that the slow-growing western yew may be endangered by overharvesting of this tree for this purpose.

[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1990; Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994


Thuja plicata - Western Red Cedar
Thuja plicata - Western Redcedar bark
Thuja plicata - Western Redcedar
Cupressaceae (Cypress Family)

Large tree up to 185 feet high, with drooping top, with branches tending to droop or spread slightly and then turn upwards (J-shape); the branchlets are flattened horizontally; the bark is grey to reddish brown, tearing off in long fibrous strips; wood is aromatic. Leaves are scale-like, opposite pairs in 4 rows, the leaves in one pair folded, the leaves in the other not, closely pressed to stem in overlapping shingled arrangement that looks like a flattened braid; glossy yellowish-green. Pollen cones small, numerous, reddish; seed cones with 8-12 scales, egg-shaped, about 1 cm long, in loose clusters, at first green then turning brown, woody and turning upwards; seeds are winged.

Habitat: Western redcedar grows best in moist to wet soils, with lots of nutrients. It is tolerant of shade and long-lived, sometimes over 1,000 years. It frequently grows with western hemlock and Douglas-fir. The forest redcedar grows typically in a lush layer of ferns, huckleberries, and Devil's club, with a thick carpet of mosses on the forest floor.

Use: The western redcedar has been called "the cornerstone of Northwest Coast aboriginal culture," and has great spiritual significance. Coastal people used all parts of the tree. They used the wood for dugout canoes, house planks, bentwood boxes, clothing, and many tools such as arrow shafts, masks, paddles, dishes, arrow shafts, harpoon shafts, spear poles, barbecue sticks, fish spreaders and hangers, dip-net hooks, fish clubs, masks, rattles, benches, cradles, coffins, herring rakes, canoe bailers, ceremonial drum logs, bombs, fishing floats, berry-drying racks, fish weirs, and spirit whistles (to mentiona a few). The wood is an excellent fuel, especially for drying fish, because it burns with little smoke. The inner bark made rope, clothing, and baskets. The long arching branches were twisted into rope and baskets. It was also used for many medicines.

The bark of the redcedar was an integral item for the First Peoples. To strip the bark from the tree, a horizontal cut was made in the bark, a meter or more from the ground, for a third of the circumference of the tree. A large wedge was used to pry up the bark, then pulled upward and outward until it came free of the tree, leaving a long scar in the shape of an inverted V. The strip pulled from the tree might be as long as nine meters. The bark was hung upt to dry, then beaten until it separated into layers ready for the making of articles such as baskets, rope or mats.

[Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1991


Tsuga heterophylla tree
Tsuga heterophylla needles
Tsuga heterophylla cones
Tsuga heterophylla bark
Tsuga heterophylla - Western Hemlock
Pinaceae (Pine Family)

Evergreen tree, to 180 feet in height with a narrow crown bearing a conspicuous drooping leader. Bark is rough, reddish-brown, scaly, thick and furrowed in old trees; twigs slender, roughened by the peg-like bases whose needles have fallen. Needles are short, flat, blunt, widely and irregularly spaced, of unequal length, producing feathery flat sprays, yellowish-green on top, whitish with 2 fine lines of stomata beneath, twisted at the base to appear 2-ranked. Pollen cones numerous, small. Seed cones numerous, oblong, 2 cm long, purplish-green when young light brown when mature.

Habitat: Fairly dry to wet sites; well adapted to grow on humus and decaying wood, also found on mineral soil; shade-tolerant; very common from low to middle elevations (to 4000') in western Washington. Also occurs on moist east slopes of Cascades from 2,000 - 4,500' elevation and in northeastern Washington. Western hemlock usually grows with Douglas-fir, red cedar, and Sitka spruce.

Use: Western hemlock bark has a high tannin content and was used as a tanning agent, pigment and cleansing solution. Some First Peoples used a hemlock-bark solution for tanning hides and soaking spruce-root baskets to make them water tight. A red dye made from hemlock was used as a facial cosmetic and hair remover. One group steeped the bark in urine to make a black dye, and others used the bark steeped in water to color fish nets brown, making them invisible to fish. A yellow-orange paint was prepared from mashed hemlock bark mixed with salmon eggs; this was used to color dip-nets and paddles.

Western hemlock wood is moderately heavy and durable and fairly easy to carve. It was carved into implements such as spoons, roasting spits, dip-net poles, combs, spearshafts, wedges, children's bows and elderberry picking hooks. Halibut and cod hooks were fashioned from the circular grain of the trunk which surrounds the limbs, or from the dense knots. Large feast bowls were made from the wood of bent hemlock trunks.

Hemlock branches were considered an excellent bedding material. During herring spawning season, from March to June, the boughs of hemlock were tied in bundles and lowered into the ocean near river estuaries. Later the spawn was collected by scraping it off the boughs, to be eaten fresh or dried. Some First Peoples threaded eulachon and herring on hemlock boughs for drying, and used the boughs for lining steaming pits. Some tribe dancers wore skirts, headdresses, and head-bands of hemlock boughs, and young women lived in hemlock-bough huts for four days after their first menstruation.

Hemlock pitch was applied topically for poultices, made into linaments placed on the chest for colds, and when mixed with deer tallow as a salve to prevent sunburn. The inner bark (cambium & secondary phloem) is also edible.

[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1990; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994