Vancouver Island Trees
A guide to identifying common native trees on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
This guide will help you identify some of the most common native trees found on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. I've also focused on the larger varieties of tree and included some information on the biggest trees, as well as some further resources, near the end of the page.
Common Trees on Vancouver Island
Evergreen Conifer Trees
Douglas Fir - Pseudotsuga menziesii
Douglas Fir trees are one of the most common trees on Vancouver Island, especially in the central and southeast regions. They have flat needles with pointed ends which grow in a "bottle brush" configuration. They also have distinctive cones with three-pointed papery tabs, often said to resemble "rat tails".
Vancouver Island is specifically home to Pseudotsuga menziesii spp. menziesii variety, or "Coastal" Douglas Fir. However, the Douglas Fir is not actually a true "fir" tree.
Douglas Fir trees establish relatively quickly after fires, and their thick bark makes them resistant to smaller fires. This thick bark starts to exhibit deep and wide furrows as the tree matures.
The crowns of Douglas Fir trees can be quite irregular as far as conifers go. Some branches point up, some down, and some twist and tangle with each other, making sharp angles and knots.
Douglas Fir forests are associated with many types of mushrooms, but they're an especially good place to look for chanterelles.
A forest of young Douglas Fir trees with salal bushes
The thick, furrowed bark of a mature Douglas Fir
The crown of a large Douglas Fir tree
The crowded, chaotic branching pattern of a Douglas Fir
Western Red Cedar - Thuja plicata
The Western Red Cedar is British Columbia's iconic tree and quite common on Vancouver Island. Not only is their straight-grained and rot resistant wood renowned for its quality, but various products from the tree have been used for thousands of years. One of these has to do with one of the Western Red Cedar's defining features, its long strips of bark. These were harvested and used to make clothes and weave baskets.
Apart from the distinctive ribbons peeling away from the trunk, Western Red Cedar's have thin, dropping branches, covered in flat scaly fronds.
Western Red Cedars also prefer to grow in low-lying areas with lots of water.
Similar species: The Yellow Cedar is rarer, but quite common at higher elevations. Its bark is thinner, not forming neat ribbons.
The thin papery bark of a Yellow Cedar
Scaly fronds of a Western Red Cedar
Western Hemlock - Tsuga heterophylla
The Western Hemlock (so called because they were said to smell like the poisonous European hemlock plant) is a common sight in the under-story of most Vancouver Island forests. Their delicate, soft and blunt needles are also quite recognisable, along with the gently drooping limbs and small round cones.
However, when the western Hemlock matures and grows to full hight, they can be quite unassuming and easily missed among other trees of similar size.
To identify a Western Hemlock tree, look for relatively fine-grained bark with vertically arranged scales and shallow cracks, as well as the dark round "dots" of their cones in the upper branches.
Similar species: The Mountain Hemlock has bluish needles with a more splayed pattern compared to the flatter arrangement of the Western Hemlock's needles. Mountain Hemlocks are also less shade tolerant, often growing at higher elevations, but with a range that significantly overlaps with the low-lying cousins.
Fine-grained bark with vertical scales
A young Western Hemlock
Bluish, splayed needles of a Mountain Hemlock
Grand Fir - Abies grandis
Grand Fir trees are found mostly along the eastern side of Vancouver Island. They grow tall and straight.
Grand Fir needles are long and flat, with rounded and notched ends, and two stripes underneath. There are two distinctive identifying features of Grand Fir needles:
Their arrangement into two flat rows on either side of a branch (see left)
Their strong citrus smell
Because of the evenly spread and flat folliage, forests of young Grand Fir trees can be quite dark.
When young, Grand Fir bark is smooth and grey with sap bubbles, becoming furrowed with age, especially near the base. The trunks of mature Grand Firs resemble those of younger Douglas Fir trees, but are more pale (with almost-white sections) and smoothing towards the top.
Branches and pitch have a nice smell and both were used by first nations people in various rites and rituals.
Similar Species: The Amabilis Fir is shorter, with smoother bark, and has small forward-pointing needles growing from the tops branches in addition to the flat rows on either side.
A young Christmas tree-shaped Grand Fir
Mature Grand Fir tree bark
Young Grand Fir tree bark
Sitka Spruce - Picea sitchensis
Sitka Spruce are coastal trees, meaning they're found throughout most of Vancouver Island at lower elevations. However, because of their size and growth next to water, many were logged in the past and now your best chance of seeing a large Sitka Spruce is in a protected area.
Sitka Spruce needles are really like needles, hard and with sharp points. Their undersides are bluish, giving the boughs a greenish-blue appearance. In some specimens, they droop down in long hanging fronds, almost like weeping willows.
The buds of young needles are soft and can be eaten.
Sitka Spruce bark forms large, thick scales which often fall away to reveal smooth reddish-brown wood underneath. The scales themselves are light brown, sometimes with a faint hint of purple.
The cones of Sitka Spruce trees are similar to Douglas Fir, but with irregular edges on the scales and no "rat tails" dangling out.
Sitka Spruce trees have many potential uses. For example, their roots were used for weaving.
Sitka Spruce needles showing bluish hue
A coastal forest of Sitka Spruce trees (ft. a toilet)
Two Sitkas, one with long dropping fronds (front right), the other not
Rough scales of Sitka Spruce bark
Western Yew - Taxus brevifolia
Also known as the Pacific Yew, the Western Yew tree typically appears isolated in the understory of Vancouver Island's protected or old-growth forests.
The Western Yew has a canopy which spreads out in more messy or chaotic way than most conifers, with twigs sprouting from the tree seemingly at random. Yew tree needles are flat, similar to hemlocks, but with fine pointed ends.
Pacific Yew trees are very slow growing, producing a hard and highly sought-after wood for tools and bows. The bark of Pacific Yew trees is reddish brown, becoming papery with fine scales as they mature.
Yews also produce soft red berries which contain a single poisonous seed. While the seed is poisonous, there are varying reports on the edibility of the berry.
Needles growing from the trunk of a small yew tree
Hemlock needles (left) vs yew needles (right)
The chaotic arrangement of yew tree needles
Shore Pine - Pinus contorta
Deciduous & Hardwood Trees
Red Alder - Alnus rubra
The Red Alder is a common sight along rivers and creek beds on Vancouver Island. These fast-growing deciduous trees are vital to local ecosystems because they capture atmospheric nitrogen and return it to the soil, making it available to other plants and trees.
The bark of Red Alder trees is typically smooth and greyish-brown, forming white blotches than can almost completely cover their surface. Leaves are generally oval shaped and serated, with deep grooves along their surface.
Alder flowers are long, hanging, and cylindrical, appearing early in the spring. Cones are small and stay on the tree through winter.
Dead Alders are great place to look for oyster mushrooms in the fall and especially in the spring.
The smooth, and blotched bark of a Red Alder tree
A stand of mid-sized Red Alder trees
Big Leaf Maple - Acer macrophyllum
The common name of this tree is well-suited. If you see a tree with giant maple leaves, it's a Big Leaf Maple.
Big Leaf Maple bark is smooth when young, becoming grey-brown and furrowed with age. The furrows or cracks are similar to those of the Black Cottonwood (although not as deep), often forming a "chicken wire" pattern.
Young Big Leaf Maples can be tapped for their sap, which can then be used to make maple syrup. The sugar content of the sap is much lower than the traditionally used Sugar Maple (found in eastern Canada), so a lot has to be collected to make even a small amount of syrup.
When given space, Big Leaf Maples grow large, rounded canopies with leaves facing in every direction. In forests, they grow tall winding trunks with narrow canopies that glow a bright green when hit by the sun.
Mature Big Leaf Maple trees can become overgrown with thick moss and even ferns growing on their branches. Scientists recently discovered that Big Leaf Maple trees can draw nutrients from these tree gardens.
The Vine Maple and Douglas Maple are two other maple trees found on Vancouver Island. However, both are much smaller than the Big Leaf Maple, growing to barely a third of their size. Even as young saplings, the leaves of Big Leaf Maples will be bigger than related varieties.
A stand of large Big Leaf Maple trees
Bunches of large Big Leaf Maple seeds, or "keys"
The trunk and bark of mature Big Leaf Maples
Canopy of Big Leaf Maple leaves glowing bright green in the sun
Garry Oak - Quercus garryana
Also known as the Oregon white oak, the Garry oak has a very limited range in British Columbia and on Vancouver Island. They are typically restricted to the far south in dry grassy habitats known as Garry oak meadows.
Garry oak bark is light-brown, cracked and rough. Garry oak leaves are dark green, smooth on top, and lobed.
Garry oak acorns are edible. However, they need to be harvested at the right time, graded, cleaned, their shells and caps removed, tannins extracted, and roasted.
Branches of a Garry Oak tree
Garry Oak canopy
Above: The bright papery bark of an Arbutus tree
Arbutus - Arbutus menziesii
The Arbutus tree, sometimes called the "Pacific Madrone", is Canada's only native broadleaf evergreen tree and an iconic feature of Vancouver Island's shores.
Restricted to the coastal regions of southwestern British Columbia, the Arbutus tree typically grows in rocky, dry, and exposed areas. Their leaves are broad, rounded, and leathery, although sometimes pointed and serrated when young.
In the spring, Arbutus trees develop thick bunches of small white flowers, becoming small, round red berries in the summer. Apparently the berries are edible, although not recommended.
Arbutus bark appears in the three layers. First, a grey to red-brown outer bark that's rough and scaly, then a thin red layer than peels away in papery scrolls, and finally a smooth under surface which gradually bleaches from red to an almost golden tan colour.
Arbutus trees can grow quite tall, with thick twisting branches reaching out from the forest edge towards the sun.
A young Arbutus tree reaching for the sun
Smooth rounded leaves
Pointed serrated leaves
Black Cottonwood - Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa
The Black Cottonwood is an impressive tree, often growing in stands of 2-4 specimens in areas with lots of water.
The bark of Black Cottonwood trees is grey to light-brown and deeply furrowed in a "chicken-wire" pattern when mature.
Leaves are heart-shaped, pale underneath, and new growth buds are fragrant and sticky.
Cottonwoods get their name from the cottony hairs which cover their seeds. When the seed covering splits, these hairs get carried off in the wind and can swirl around in the air in large numbers.
Similar species: The Trembling Aspen (P. tremuloides) is smaller, with flat leaf stalks that allow them to flutter and shimmer in the wind.
Leaves and trunk of a cottonwood tree
A canopy of towering cottonwood trees
Pacific Dogwood - Cornus nuttallii
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Frequently Asked Questions About Vancouver Island Trees
What is the most common tree on Vancouver Island?
Douglas Fir trees are the most common tree in Vancouver Island's south eastern areas, but candidates for the most common overall include the Amabilis Fir, Western Red Cedar, and Western Hemlock trees.
Where are the giant trees on Vancouver Island?
Most of Vancouver Island's biggest trees are found along the central western coast, due to the wet climate and rugged terrain making the area more difficult to log. Port Renfrew is a great base from which to visit the various protected groves and parks that are home to some of Vancouver Island's biggest and oldest identified trees.
The biggest trees on Vancouver Island are:
The Cheewhat Giant - A Western Red Cedar, said to be the largest of its kind in the world and Canada's largest tree overall. Located near Cheewhat Lake almost 30 kilometres directly northwest of Port Renfrew
The Red Creek Fir - The largest known Douglas Fir tree in the world, located east of Port Renfrew and 12 kilometres off Pacific Marine Road.
The San Juan Spruce - The largest Sitka Spruce in Canada and the second largest in the world. This tree can be found just 5 kilometres off Pacific Marine Road, on the way to the Red Creek fir
Other great places to find giant old growth trees on Vancouver Island include: Cathedral Grove, Avatar Grove, Eden Grove, Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, Harris Creek Recreational Site, and the Fairy Creek Old Growth Forest a short distance north of Port Renfrew.
The University of British Columbia also maintains a registry of big trees in British Columbia.
The Cheewhat Giant, Canada's Largest Tree
Where are the old growth trees on Vancouver Island?
Most of Vancouver Island's remaining old growth trees are located along its western coast, especially around the Brooks Peninsula Provincial Park, Clayoquot Sound, and through the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.
Despite ongoing protection efforts, less than 9% of Vancouver Island's original productive old growth forests remain, and much of it is under continued threat from logging.
See more information here.
Where is Canada's biggest tree?
Canada's biggest tree is located near Cheewhat Lake within Vancouver Island's Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Known as the Cheewhat Giant, Canada's largest tree is also the largest Western Redcedar specimen in the world.
While approximately 30 kilometres northwest of Port Renfrew, the tree is more easily accessible from the north via the Cowichan Valley.
The Cheewhat Giant itself is accessible along a remote forest service road. Make sure your car is up to the task, especially in wet weather, and organize your map/GPS data beforehand because the trailhead is very difficult to spot.
Trailhead to the Cheewhat Giant, a handwidth gap in the roadside foliage
Are pine trees native to Vancouver Island?
There are two species of pine tree native to Vancouver Island, the Western White Pine (Pinus monticola) and Shore Pine (Pinus contorta).
The Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia) is similar to the Shore Pine (growing taller and straighter, hence the name), but is found east of British Columbia's mainland coast.
Do birch trees grow on Vancouver Island?
There are no species of birch tree that commonly grow wild on Vancouver Island. However, the range of the Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) extends right up to the western coast of mainland British Columbia, so it's possible that some might find a way to hop across to the eastern shores of Vancouver Island. Also, the Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata), which looks similar to a birch tree, does grow on Vancouver Island, and various kinds of birch tree are grown for ornamental reasons on the island as well.
Why are trees on Vancouver Island so big?
The trees on Vancouver Island are big because the sea fog along its western coast provides extra moisture and its rugged slopes provide both sunlight and protection from logging. Protection from logging gives the trees the most important ingredient for growing large: time.
Additional factors include nutrient rich soil, and the healthy functioning of the entire ecosystem on which they depend.