Douglas Firs are medium-size to extremely large evergreen trees, 20–100 metres (70–330 ft) tall (although only coast Douglas Firs reach such great heights). As the trees grow taller in denser forest, they lose their lower branches, such that the foliage may start high off the ground. Douglas Firs in environments with more light may have branches much closer to the ground. Leaves are flat, soft, linear, and completely encircle the branches, which can be useful in recognizing the species.
Coast Douglas Fir typically grows in elevations that range from sea level to 5,500 feet above sea level along the coastal ranges and west of the mountain regions in the Pacific Northwest. In the Sierra Nevada and Cascades its altitudinal range is between 2,000 and 7,500 feet.
čəbidac is the Lushootseed name. Another Coast Salish name for the tree, used in the Halkomelem language, is lá:yelhp. The common name honors David Douglas, a Scottish botanist and collector who first reported the extraordinary nature and potential of the species. The common name is misleading since it is not a true fir, i.e., not a member of the genus Abies. The specific epithet menziesii is after Archibald Menzies, a Scottish physician and rival naturalist to David Douglas.
Mature or "old-growth" Douglas Fir forest is the primary habitat of the red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) and the spotted owl (Strix occidentalis). Home range requirements for breeding pairs of spotted owls are at least 400 ha (4 square kilometres, 990 acres) of old growth. Red tree voles may also be found in immature forests if Douglas Fir is a significant component. The red vole nests almost exclusively in the foliage of the trees, typically 2–50 metres (5–165 ft) above the ground, and its diet consists chiefly of Douglas Fir needles. A parasitic plant sometimes utilizing P. menziesii is Douglas Fir dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium douglasii).
The leaves are also used by the woolly conifer aphid Adelges cooleyi; this 0.5 mm long sap-sucking insect is conspicuous on the undersides of the leaves by the small white "fluff spots" of protective wax that it produces. It is often present in large numbers, and can cause the foliage to turn yellowish from the damage it causes. Exceptionally, trees may be partially defoliated by it, but the damage is rarely this severe. Among Lepidoptera, apart from some that feed on Pseudotsuga in general (see there) the gelechiid moths Chionodes abella and C. periculella as well as the cone scale-eating tortrix moth Cydia illutana have been recorded specifically on P. menziesii.
The massive mega-genome of Douglas Fir has been sequenced in 2017 by the large PineRefSeq consortium revealing a specialized photosynthetic apparatus in the light harvesting complex genes.
"A spoken language works
for about five centuries,
lifespan of a Douglas Fir;
big floods, big fires, every couple hundred years,
a human life lasts eighty,
a generation twenty."
-- Gary Snyder, Excerpt from Old Woodrat's Stinky House
Like other evergreens, fir trees are associated with protection and spirituality in many Native American tribes. Fir branches are used for purifying and warding off ghosts in some Salish and other Northwest Indian rituals. Plains Indian tribes commonly burn fir needles as incense, and northern Algonquian tribes bundled spruce and fir needles into sachets or herbal pillows to protect against illness. Fir cones, like pine cones, were used for weather magic in some Northwestern tribes, particularly in Washington state. Fir bark and resin have also been used as medicine herbs by many Native Americans. It used to be customary in the Haisla tribe for mourners to blacken their faces with silver fir pitch.
The species is extensively used in forestry as a plantation tree for softwood timber. The timber is used for joinery, veneer, flooring and construction due to its strength, hardness and durability. It is also naturalised throughout Europe, Argentina and Chile (called Pino Oregón), and in New Zealand it is considered to be an invasive species, called a wilding conifer, and subject to control measures.
The species has ornamental value in large parks and gardens. Douglas Fir has been commonly used as a Christmas tree since the 1920s, and the trees are typically grown on plantations.
The buds have been used to flavor eau de vie, a clear, colorless fruit brandy. Douglas Fir pine leaves can be used to make pine-needle tea. Many different Native American groups used the bark, resin, and pine needles to make herbal treatments for various diseases.
Native Hawaiians built waʻa kaulua (double-hulled canoes) from coast Douglas Fir logs that had drifted ashore. The only wooden ships still currently in use by the United States Navy are minesweepers, made of Douglas Fir.
Long, long ago when the land was young there stood a very tall and proud Douglas Fir tree. The fir tree was so tall that its topmost branches touched the clouds. The branches spread widely and offered protection to small plants and animals below. The fir tree held many cones on the ends of its branches which stood open and contained many seeds. A little mouse lived in the protection of the tree’s spreading branches.
There was a long and cold winter where the snow was deep and the wind blew across the land. The Douglas Fir stood tall and proud through the days of bitter cold. The little mouse was protected from the bitter winds and the snow fell only softly beneath the tree. But the little mouse could find no food in those cold dark days. The Douglas Fir took pity on the mouse and said “climb up to the ends of my braches little mouse and you will find my cones. Inside the cones are many seeds which will keep hunger from you”.
The little mouse climbed onto the tree’s branches and found just as the tree had said. The little mouse feasted well on the Douglas Fir seeds. He grew fat and healthy on the generosity of the fir tree.
The other little mice looked at him and asked, “Why are you so fat and healthy while the rest of us are thin and cold”? The little mouse dared not tell the other mice where he was finding the lovely seeds. He was afraid that the other mice would come and eat all that the Douglas Fir had to offer.
He waited until the other mice were sleeping before he snuck away to climb and eat. But not all were asleep and one mouse saw where the little mouse had gone. He watched the little mouse eating seeds from the Douglas Fir and he woke all the other mice. He told them what he had seen. All the others mice ran for the fir tree and climbed up to the cones. They climbed inside the open cones to get to the plentiful seed. This invasion angered the Douglas Fir. The fir snapped shut all its cones, trapping the little mice inside.
To this day when you look at a Douglas Fir cone you can see the little back legs and tails of the mice sticking out of the cones where they are trapped.
Was David Douglas trampled by a wild bull, or lured into a trap? Read about the mysterious death of the namesake of the Douglas Fir.
by Cecil Bødker
The urge to be a squirrel rises unexpected
before this mast of the woods, this trunk
rising from the ground steep to the sky
by a will more erect and more
striving than I am used to
to the earth’s skin.
My eye jumps frolicking, neck-breakingly
up there, upward.
The urge to be a squirrel makes my behind
my tailbone strangely more noticeable, something
is sprouting, erupting, my nails stretching
longer, slightly folding, curling,
hungry for the bark’s coarse crust,
useful decayed antiquity
wrapped ‘round the wood like a tall
far above full of sleeves –
stretched towards the wind’s many corners.
The urge to be a squirrel carries upward
carries eartufts topmost
carries fur and hindmost the tail
flight’s airy banner-hung joy-stick.
– not wings
not the bird’s talent-bearer –
glide-flight’s unparallelled tool
into the side of the neighboring tree.
The urge to be a squirrel darts upward again,
jeers, whines, scolds shrilly
down at someone’s empty
abandoned boots below
by the trunk.
By Cecil Bødker, “Douglasgran” ©1991
Translated from Danish by Michael Goldman