Knowing one tree from another adds fun to family hikes and helps you with gardening decisions. Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), known as Doug fir to those who live in its territory, and yellow pine (Pinus ponderosa) are two good choices to get you started building your personal tree encyclopedia. Living an average of 150 years and up to 600 years in the case of yellow pine, and growing to majestic heights, both trees are awe-inspiring.
Climate and Culture
Native to Western North America, yellow pine, also called ponderosa pine, grows in at elevations from 4,000 to 8,500 feet in U.S Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 7. Native from southwestern British Columbia to western central California, Douglas fir grows from 250 feet in elevation, up to 5,500 feet, in USDA zones 4 through 6. Both trees thrive in full sun and prefer well-draining, somewhat moist soil. They are also both invasive in Hawaii, crowding out native species.
Were it not for early logging in the West, Douglas firs would rank as the world's tallest tree, above coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), that grow in USDA zones 8 through 10. Douglas fir grows up to 160 feet, with the tallest recorded tree at 393 feet. You can recognize Douglas fir by its conical shape and 1/2-inch, blue-green to dark-green needles that have a flat shape and grow all around the stem.
With its 5- to 10-inch long, yellow-green needles growing in tufts at the ends of branches, a yellow pine is easy to distinguish from a Douglas fir. The state tree of Montana, yellow pine grows up to 125 feet tall. You'll see the trees spaced somewhat separately from one another, a result of growing with frequent ground fires. Like Douglas firs, yellow pines have a conical shape.
Few people plant Douglas fir in their yards, because the tree is just too large, and it is grown primarily for timber. Contemporary distillers are beginning to use an infusion of the branch tips for commercial alcohol. Yellow pine also produces timber, from the knotty-pine panels of the 1950s made from young trees to contemporary, pale yellow heartwood from mature trees. It is planted frequently in urban settings or in homes with large yards.