Pioneers of The Coastal Forest: Shore Pine

Tenacious Shore pine in Roche Cove Regional Park, Sooke, BC
(can you spot the Kingfisher on the tree?)
The sun-loving Shore pine Pinus contorta var. contorta is one of the smaller members of the coastal rain forest tree community, but it is one of the most important. 10,000 years ago as the last glaciers receded, it was the varieties of Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) that were the first trees to move in. Shore pine pioneered the coastal forest.

The pines are successful pioneer trees because they are able to live in extreme habitats that are unfavorable to other potentially competitive species.

On infertile soils, Lodgepole pine is often the only tree species that will grow. Scraggly, stunted stands can survive on bare gravel, while adventurous individuals can even scrape by on a rock.

Shore pine is one of four varieties of the species Lodgepole pine. Lodgepole pine has the widest range of environmental tolerance of any conifer in North America. Inland varieties of Lodgepole pine are found from 490 to 3660 m (1,600 to 12,000 ft), while the Shore pine is found from ocean-side up to the sub-alpine zone at 610 m/2,000 ft.

Under ideal conditions Shore pine reach 6-15 m (20-50 ft) in height, while their twisted trunks can measure up to 15-50 cm (6-20 in) in diameter. What it lacks in size, it makes up in tenacity and character.

Lone pine has nice view
Shore pine's range is in a narrow band along the coast, where it toughs out gale force winds with Western hemlock and Sitka spruce. Like the Sitka spruce, Shore pine can survive the strong, salt-laden spray blowing off the ocean. Shore pine is also a major component of coastal boggy areas.

Shore pine is a two-needled tree with inch-thick, deeply grooved, dark reddish-brown bark. Small trees can still be old, with their age shown in the fractured bark and gnarly bonsai appearance. In extreme cases 70-year-old trees can be only 1.2 m (4 ft) in height or less, and as small as 2.5 cm (1 in) or smaller in diameter.

In mixed stands, Shore pine may form scrubby thickets or sparse to dense groves of twisted, contorted trees. Sometimes they go it alone, toughing it out on a rock in scenic oceanfront locations. Due to their challenging locations, Shore pine are not long-lived trees like some of their relatives, managing only a century at best.

The Shore pine's heritage makes it uniquely suited for tough jobs, like breaking a rock down, or being the first tree to move in to a new location. From foggy oceanfront to high in the clouds on rocky peaks at almost 4000 m (12,000 ft), the varieties of Lodgepole pine are certifiably tough trees.

The Shore pine were pioneers, preparing the way for the coastal forest's giant species that followed in their root steps.


Old Man's Beard Weather Station

Old Man's Beard lichen indicating a WNW 40 knot gale, 8 on the Beaufort Scale
I don't need the weather person to tell me which way the wind is blowing. I have long, straggly bunches of lichen hanging from an old Douglas-fir in the front yard for that.

Usnea, a common type of lichen, also called Old Man's Beard, grows on tree branches. It is made up of a fungus and an algae in a perfectly cooperative, sustainable relationship that humans would be wise to emulate.

The main body that the partners form is called the lichen's thallus, which is the part we can see. Old Man's Beard has a long, threaded thallus that gives the coastal rain forest a classic, drippy look whether it is raining or not.

Old Man's Beard hangs on a calm day
Usnea is edible (with caution), and has been used medicinally for a thousand years for its anti-bacterial properties, but that is not why I like it. I like it for its use as a 100% natural, accurate, weather station.

When I look out at the storm-twisted Douglas-fir in the yard, and the great strands of greenish-grey lichen hanging from its sweeping branches, I can get all the weather information I need.

Here is what the Old Man's Beard weather station tells me:
  • If thallus is hanging down - calm weather prevails
  • If thallus is blowing horizontally - gale force winds
  • If thalus is wet - raining
  • If thalus is dry - no rain
  • If thalus has light on it - sunny
  • If thalus dies - poor air quality


Province Saves Trees, But Loses The Forest

Avatar Grove ancient trees placed in expanded Old Growth Management Area by province
Port Renfrew's Avatar Grove has been saved - for now, sort of. The rare old growth forest will be included in an expanded Old Growth Management Area (OGMA), which means no logging or mining. However, it is one step short of the legislated protection of full park designation.

Surrey-based Teal-Jones Group, which had surveyed and taped the Avatar trees for destruction when Ancient Forest Alliance members discovered them two years ago, will be compensated with an equal area of... what? That's right - old growth trees. And where will they come from? A different OGMA. Net savings of old growth - zero.

At the same time as Forests Minister Steve Thomson was announcing the quasi-protection of this rare group of trees including some over 1000 years old, the provincial Auditor General was slamming the province for losing their grip on the province's forestry resources.

Ancient mossy cedar in Avatar Grove
John Doyle's report titled An Audit of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations’ Management of Timber, revealed that things are not as rosy in timberland as the government would like you to think.

While the province may have saved the Avatar Grove trees, they have lost control of the province's forests.
“The audit concludes the B.C. government failed to properly monitor and maintain B.C.’s timber supply and hasn’t properly replanted the forests.
The report concludes the provincial government failed to halt the drop in timber supply and the loss of species diversity.
Doyle says the government has done very limited replanting, even though many areas of B.C.’s forests have been damaged by wildfires and pine beetles.
He concludes that the government has a small window of time in which to turn the province’s forestry future around.” - CBC
Our forests, globally, are being decimated for immediate profit with absolutely no regard for future generations and their needs, and BC is a prime exploiter. What Doyle's audit means is that pine beetle-damaged areas and clear cuts are likely to remain Not Satisfactorily Restocked. We are in danger of 'running out' of healthy, functioning forests.

There is no long term plan for BC's spectacular ancient forests, except to exploit them to extinction, then hope for the best. We need to make immediate changes toward ecosystem-based, sustainable forestry that balances the needs of people with the needs of the forest and its glorious biodiversity.

Avatar forest with old growth Western red-cedar, Grand Fir, and Douglas-fir
Tell the government you do not want them to squander BC's ecological wonders - its mighty forests. Tell them you want, "Forests For The Future!"


Grand Fir Trail - Francis/King Regional Park

Francis/King's Grand Fir Trail on a winter day
In Vancouver Island's temperate rain forest there are a number of species of trees that can grow very large and tall. The Grand fir (Abies grandis) is one such tree. Along with scattered Western red-cedar, Grand fir can be found with its companion tree, the Douglas-fir, in the dryer forests of eastern Vancouver Island. Francis/King Regional Park, 20 minutes from downtown Victoria, BC, is one such place.

The genus Abies includes 48 or more species of firs. Grand fir are the tallest species, and some of the loftiest can be found on Vancouver Island. Historically these trees grew to 90 meters (295 ft) (Tudge, 2006), with trunks up to 2-4 meters (6-12 ft) in diameter. They are the shortest-lived of all the conifers in the coastal rain forest, living for 'only' about 250 years, and up to 500 years in extreme cases.

What the Grand fir lacks in longevity it makes up for in rapid growth. In some settings, such as open areas along rivers, it is the fastest growing tree in the forest (1.2m/4ft per yr). Grand fir like all the other firs, grows in a classic conic 'Christmas tree' shape. They have thin, grey plate-like bark when older, and are climax trees in the forest.

Grand fir in the Upper Chilliwack River Ecological Reserve

Grand fir foilage smells like
citrus when crushed
The tallest known Grand fir, listed in British Columbia's Big Tree Registry, is 75 m (247 ft) tall. It is growing in Ecological Reserve #98 of the Upper Chilliwack River on the mainland near Vancouver.

Although none of the Abies grandis along Francis/King Park's Grand Fir Trail are record breakers, there are still some impressive neck-straining specimens.

A route along this beautiful, fern-covered hike takes the tree enthusiast through a rain forest setting that feels far from civilization. It is green and grey, rainy and dripping, misty and wonderful. This is a special zone that contains some of the biggest trees in the region.

The best way to start the hike is to carefully cross Munn Road and descend into the impressive Heritage Grove. Here there are 500 year old massive Douglas-firs, one that tops 75 meters (245 ft), and another with an arm-stretching 9.5 meter (31 ft) circumference.

Ancient Douglas-fir along the trail with debris pile building up around it
There are several routes that one can take, so consult with the park map before you start your hike. Grand Fir Trail creates a pleasant and level loop that roughly parallels Munn Road on either side. There is signage along the way to assist with route-finding.

Watch for the grey-barked Grand fir trees as you hike. They are mostly smaller than the larger Douglas-fir that they share the forest with, although a couple are massive. Douglas-fir bark is much more deeply furrowed, and is darker in colour.

Along with the old growth trees you will also experience the variety of life that is part of this forest ecosystem. Here you can discover Pacific tree frogs, Garter snakes, Great Horned Owls, Steller's Jays and Winter Wrens, as well as plants such as Shooting star and White fawn lily, Indian plum, Oregon grape, and Salal. Other trees in this forest include Big leaf maple, Garry oak, Arbutus, Red alder, and Western red-cedar.

This Grand fir in Francis/King Regional Park is, well, rather grand

Getting There

To get to Francis/King Park follow the Trans-Canada Highway from Victoria, and take the Helmcken Road exit. Turn left on Burnside Road West, then right on Prospect Lake Road. Turn left on Munn Road, which leads to the park entrance on the right. Allow approximately 20 minutes driving time from Victoria.

The park has parking, wheelchair accessible Elsie King Trail, toilets, Nature House, picnic tables, and giant trees. Enjoy.

There is plenty of hiking to do in the park - Heritage Grove has the biggest Douglas-fir
while Grand Fir Trail passes by some of the tallest, largest Grand Fir.


Drift Logs And Beaches

Large drift log being buried by cobble beach near Sooke, BC
The forest is not the only place to see trees. Beaches often are the final resting place for whole big trees and giant drift logs.

When big trees of the coastal rain forest tumble and make their way to the Pacific Ocean, they begin their new life as a drift log. This woody debris, and serious navigational hazard, can drift for months far out at sea. A friend, a fisheries inspector, saw a whole tree floating perfectly upright in the waves 100 km off Vancouver Island.

Logging activity adds a lot of drift logs to local waters and beaches

 Many drift logs end up on beaches. Some stay for a while before being washed out to sea again, and others become permanent features.

The form and shape of beaches in the Pacific Northwest are greatly affected by the thousands and thousands of drift logs constantly spewing from coastal forest waterways from both human-related, and natural activities.

Drift logs pile up at the back of beaches, but large storms can still move them,
French Beach, Sooke, BC
Drift logs make their own horizontal, jumbled forest along thousands of kilometers of sand and cobble beaches. Over the years, great piles of grey sun-bleached logs can pile up at the back of beaches, under the boughs of their still-living comrades at the ocean/forest interface.

Many drift logs become completely buried, turning 1500 year old trees into fossils over tens of thousands of years.

Driftwood buried by beach gravel

There are ancient Pacific coast beaches that have been lifted high by tectonic activity onto the slopes of coastal mountains. Digging on these terraces at elevation in Oregon, USA revealed 100,000 year old drift logs buried in the sand.

Drift logs are influenced by high tides, gales, and winter storms. Recent peregian spring tides, which are the highest of the year, have moved beach drift logs around. During winter storms the Sooke river disgorges, at irregular intervals, all kinds of woody debris, including some very large logs and trees.

If you haven't been to your local beach for a while, now is a good time to visit to see if the drift log collection has changed.


Muir Creek Root-Covered Nurse Stump

Muir Creek forest nurse stump
Everything is growing on everything in the richness of the Pacific coastal rain forest. Water is a requirement for life, and there is a lot of water here that enables plants to thrive in a green profusion.

Sometimes trees don't even need to fall before other trees are growing on them. Often ancient old growth trees have large trees growing on their thick, debris-covered branches.

When trees fall, they can become nurse logs, providing nutrients for a new generation of trees. Sometimes the seeds don't wait until dead trees fall.

Serious roots reaching for the forest floor
These photographs show the roots of a Western hemlock growing on a tall stump in the Muir Creek old growth forest. The stump looks like the remains of an old Douglas-fir, and it was probably wind-snapped.

Eventually the stump will decay entirely leaving the hemlock on a cylinder of root stilts 10 meters high.

If the hemlock lives long enough, other trees may grow on its thick, upper branches.


Saving An Ancient Crofton Arbutus

Can this ancient Crofton Arbutus get some much-deserved lovin'?
I always answer emails regarding VIBT with hope, anticipating information and photos of big trees around Vancouver Island. I was not disappointed when I opened an email sent by a tree enthusiast from Crofton, 75km (45 miles) up the east coast from Victoria.

Inside was a message from Charronne, who expressed concern for the well being of this massive, ancient Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) growing on the coast by the Crofton ferry terminal. Along with the information were several photos highlighting the beauty of this imperilled tree literally living on the edge.

Beautiful branching pattern
How long has this unique tree battled the ocean in this exposed location? How much longer can it hang in there? And how can it be protected from the pavement and development that now surrounds it?

Hoping that we may elicit a response from the tree community, Charronne agreed to letting me share the email, as well as the attached photos of this amazing Vancouver Island big tree.

"I am writing from Crofton.
There is a massive arbutus tree by the waterfront here. Unlike the usual bent and twisted trunks, this old tree looks more like an oak or maple tree that might be found on some of the great British estates. 
I have never seen an arbutus with such thick trunk and compact form. It is possible that the 2 trunks might have been separate trees at one point, and have since grown together, or it could have been one that split when it was young. Even the bark is a little different in appearance from the average.

It would be wonderful to find someone who could estimate an age for this tree.

I also frequently wonder if this is what all arbutus trees may have looked like before logging changed the forest growth patterns.

My immediate concern is that it hangs at the edge of the embankment to the waterfront by the boat launch and ferry terminal in Crofton, with roots now protruding into the air on one side. Heavy rains, and storm surges at high tide, could in a few years undercut the tree and topple it. People picking at the bark doesn't help either."

Arbutus trees only live in the Coastal Douglas-fir zone, the smallest of 14 eco-zones in BC. They are found in low elevations along southeastern Vancouver Island, from Bowser to the Victoria area, the Gulf Islands south of Cortes Island, and a narrow strip along the Sunshine Coast near Halfmoon Bay. Like the Crofton Arbutus shown here, all Arbutus are in danger.

Arbutus are delicately rooted trees that do not endure disturbance well. In addition to development, Arbutus are endangered by fire protection strategies (usually fire keeps Douglas-fir from taking over the rocky, coastal exposures where Arbutus like to grow), and attack by fungi (Arbutus is host to more than 21 varieties of fungi, and usually larger, older trees are most susceptible to infection).

If you are able to help age the Crofton Arbutus (they can live up to 500 years), or if you have any information that would help protect this beautiful heritage tree, please contact us (info on the side bar).

Tree enthusiasts everywhere would be grateful. Thanks to Charronne for bringing this beautiful tree to our attention, and for the great photographs.

I need your help!