The Trees of Yellow Point

Welcome to the Yellow Point Trees.

Yellow Point/Cedar area on Vancouver Island is a beautiful and diverse area within the Coastal Douglas‐Fir (CDF) ecosystem.
It lies between Nanaimo and Ladysmith, with Highway 1 forming a logical boundary to the west and the coast to the east.. 
There are coastal, riparian, forested and urban/agricultural habitats, interspersed with rocky outcrops and bluffs, so typical and unique to this part of the world.

We hope this webpage will provide the reader with useful pointers for seeing and recognizing the trees found here, without going into too much (botanical) detail. For those who are interested, there are links for more information. 

In a forest with big trees, sometimes all you can see is the trunks! It is helpful to recognize the bark, but not all bark is easily distinguished. In that case, look down on the ground. You will find tell-tale signs of the tree above: cones/fruit, a broken branch with needles/leaves, or last year’s leaves.

Knowing the seasons of the trees will help too, each tree has its time to shine.

This webpage is a work in progress – starting with the 10 more common big trees, more will be added over time…


Arbutus menziesii

SIZE: up to 30m
AGE: 250-400 yrs

Ericaceae (Heath family)

This is an eye-catching tree, with its colourful and whimsical trunk and limbs, especially against the backdrop of the serious and upright conifers! It is Canada’s only native evergreen broadleaved tree. It is  very much part of the CDF ecosystem.

The arbutus has a tortuous growth as it looks for light, for it cannot tolerate shade. 

HABITAT:  Dry and sunny, on rocky, well drained sites, open forests, clearings, rocky bluffs and along the coast. Yellow Point Park entrance has some lovely specimens.

FEATURES:  Its most remarkable feature is the bark, revealing a seasonal change of yellow/golden/green to fiery cinnamon which peels in autumn. As the tree gets older, the bark remains on the trunk, especially where shaded and it becomes brown and scaly. 

The leathery leaves are shiny green above and pale whitish below.

The seed germinates readily, but browsing by deer can prevent a seedling from growing into a tree. By caging them, the seedlings/young trees on your property will have a chance to grow !

back to top

Bigleaf maple

Acer macrophyllum

SIZE: up to 35m
AGE: 200 yrs
Aceraceae (Maple family)

The bigleaf maple gives the forest a mystical appearance with its tall, often multi-stemmed trunks all covered in moss, lichen and liquorice ferns!

HABITAT: They grow best in rich moist soils, but they do tolerate drier conditions as well. As they need light to grow, you’ll find them along stream banks, in clearings or edges, logged areas. They have solved their conundrum of wanting to live in the forest, but needing the sun to grow, by being able to grow very quickly when young (up to 3m/year) and by having big leaves, that they keep horizontal to catch more light.

FEATURES: The bigleaf maple is a large deciduous spreading tree. As its common name suggests, it has large maple leaves with 5-lobes. In fall they turn a rich yellow.
In spring, the yellow-green flowers hang in big clusters and appear before or with the leaves.  Their 2-winged seeds are joined at the base (called a samara) that whirl in the air  when they drop – the following spring you can find the forest floor covered in little seedlings!

The most distinctive feature of the bigleaf maple is the trunk, actually what grows on the trunk! The rough bark with longitudinal ridges is calcium-rich and encourages the growth of mosses, lichen and liquorice fern. It can support more epiphytes than any other tree in the Pacific NorthWest (the biomass can be up to 4x the foliar weight of the host tree). When the epiphyte load is thick enough, the bigleaf (and the vine maple and a few other tree species) are then able to produce canopy roots into this biomass to extract water and nutrients.

back to top

Black cottonwood

Populus balsamifera ssp trichocarpa

SIZE: 25-50m
AGE: 200-300 yrs
Salicaceae (Willow family)

The iconic tree of the wetlands. The black cottonwood is a tall deciduous tree, that can grow up to 2m/year. Morden Colliery Trail has a few old giants.

HABITAT: They tolerate standing water and can grow abundantly on floodplains. They are often found along rivers and streams and in freshwater marshes.
They need rich soils and lots of sunshine.

 FEATURES: Older trees have a long branch-free trunk, with a thick and deeply furrowed bark.
Black knots on the trunk are not unusual and are caused by a fungus. The bark on young trees is smooth and greenish.

Leaves are shiny green above and a pale silvery below, heart-shaped/triangular leaves 6-12 cm long with a pointed tip. The leaves are slightly toothed, and the veins curve upwards. The leafstalk (petiole) is long and not flattened, like its little sister, the trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), so you can roll it between your fingers. The leaves turn a beautiful yellow in the fall.

In spring it disperses its seed in white fluffs that float through the air like wisps of cotton.

Black cottonwood is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are borne on separate trees

The buds contain a waxy resin with anti-infectant properties still used in many modern natural health ointments. Bees collect it and use it to seal off intruders.

back to top

Coastal Douglas-fir

Pseudotsuga menziesii spp menziesii

SIZE: up to 70m
AGE: 1000+ yrs
Pinaceae (Pine family)

The coastal Douglas-fir is the most common tree in our area and is the   backbone of the CDF  ecosystem. It is a large stately evergreen tree.

Douglas-fir is hyphenated, because it is not a true fir. True firs belong to the genus Abies, whereas Douglas-firs belong to the genus Pseudotsuga (which means ‘resembling hemlock’).

HABITAT: It has very adaptable growing requirements, from dry poor rocky soils to moist rich soils (it does not however do well in poorly drained wet soils). They are somewhat shade tolerant, but do much better with light.

FEATURES: Their most distinguishing feature are the cones. They have three-pronged bracts and are 5-10cm long and hang down from the branches in the upper crown or the tree. They fall on the ground intact, you can always find them on the ground for identification. (Unlike those of the true firs, that disintegrate on the tree).
Younger trees might not have cones yet, then look at the way the flat green needles are arranged all around the twigs. The needles are 2 cm long and not sharp to touch.

Older trees have a long branch-free trunk. The very thick bark has deep vertical fissures.

New studies on the underground life of trees has revealed an incredible network of cooperation between the roots and mycorrhizae – this can be seen above ground in the ‘living stumps’, where a stump has healed over and is thus able to offer its established network of roots to surrounding trees!

back to top

Garry oak

Quercus garryana

SIZE: up to 25m
AGE: 250-500 yrs
Fagaceae (Beech family)

The Garry oak is our one and only native oak in BC – a lovely gnarly tree, often found with coastal Douglas-fir and arbutus. With good soils, it can grow into a medium sized tree; on dry shallow sites it remains small.

The Garry Oak Meadows are a beautiful, but threatened habitat, with their showy display of spring flowers like camas, white fawn lily, western buttercup and shootingstar. The entrance of the Yellow Point Park is a remnant of a Garry oak meadow, it has all the flowers, and a Garry oak.

Garry oak hiding in plain sight

HABITAT: Dry rocky slopes, bluffs or open meadows, shallow to deep rich, well-drained soil, the key being that they get enough sunlight, as they don’t like shade (or competition for that matter).

 FEATURES: We can recognize them by their gnarly growth habit and their deeply round-lobed oak leaves (up to 12cm long), glossy bright green above, and hairy below. The leaves turn brown in fall and can remain on the tree.

The grey bark has thick scaly ridges.

The Garry oak only starts producing acorns after 20-25 yrs. The acorns are 2-3 cm long and drop to the ground when ripe. They only remain viable for one season. The Garry oaks can also sprout or grow from underground rhizomes

back to top

Grand fir

Abies grandis

SIZE: up to 80m
AGE: 300 yrs
Pinaceae  (Pine family)

The grand fir is a fast growing tree and can grow very tall. In our CDF-ecosystem, it is more commonly an understory tree, forming about 10% of the tree community.

HABITAT: It prefers deep, rich moist soils along streams and mountain slopes, but it also tolerates our drier rain-shadow coastal forests.
It is shade tolerant. 

FEATURES: It is easiest recognized by the flat, glossy dark green needles, that are arranged in two flat comb-like rows. The entire branch appears flattened. The needles are a pale green below, due to the two longitudinal white lines (stomata). They are not sharp to touch and release a citrus scent when crushed.

Cones are hard to find, as they are borne in the top of the tree and disintegrate on tree when mature (as all in the genus Abies do). They sit upright on the branches.

The bark is smooth and greyish-brown with white spots and blisters filled with gummy resin when young.
The bark becomes furrowed and scaly with age.

Like all true firs, the needles are soft,
flat (can’t be rolled between fingers)
and do not ‘pull-a-tag’ when removed.
Spruce trees have needles that are
prickly, square (can be rolled) and pull
a tag when removed.

back to top

Pacific dogwood

Cornus nuttallii

SIZE: 10-20m
AGE: 150 yrs
Cornaceae (Dogwood family)

Our Queen of Forest! This beautiful, medium sized, deciduous tree grows in the Douglas-fir forests, together with the western redcedar, grand fir and western hemlock.

In spring she is adorned with fabulous white blossoms, making this the best time of year to find her.

HABITAT: The Pacific dogwood prefers deep, rich soils on moist well-drained sites, but it can tolerate slightly drier conditions too. It is found as an understory tree in fairly open, mixed forests or at the forest’s edges and openings. The Pacific dogwood likes to keep its trunk shaded.

FEATURES: Showy white ‘flowers’ facing up towards the sun, that appear from mid April: be on the look-out while you are driving and you’ll see her poking her pretty head out of the woods!

The green leaves grow opposite to each other, are oval with a pointed tip and have the typical dogwood-pattern with curving parallel veins. When the summer hasn’t been too dry, the leaves turn a beautiful orange-red in fall.

In September/October the happy cackling of the northern flicker or the pileated woodpecker will remind you, that the Pacific dogwood is in fruit with bright red drupes arranged in clumps.

Here you can see all branches are directed to the sun. The trunk will be shaded by its own foliage. The bark can look like the bark of the  red alder, grey and blotchy (in winter, the absence of small woody cones make it more likely to be a Pacific dogwood)

The leaves and twigs are favoured by the deer and young seedlings stand no chance with high deer pressure! One can recognize a young pacific dogwood by the way the twigs are arranged along the main stem: opposite in 4’s, very symmetrical in appearance and the bright green leaves growing at their ends. Caging them until they grow out of reach is a very rewarding effort!

back to top

Red alder

Alnus rubra

SIZE: 15-25m
AGE: <100 yrs
Betulaceae (Birch family)

The Pioneer! A fast-growing, medium sized deciduous tree. When it sees an opportunity, it will colonize and form an attractive stand – there is beauty in singularity.

HABITAT: It prefers sunny, moist to wet sites and is found along marshes, floodplains and stream banks, but also clearings or disturbed sites (seeds need light and mineral soil to germinate).

FEATURES: They are generally found in stands, rarely are they by themselves. 
Catkins appear before the leaves early spring. Male flowers are in long, drooping, reddish catkins and female flowers are shorter.

After the leaves have fallen, the red alder is easily identified by the woody cone-like fruit, that remain on the tree all winter.
The bright green leaves have toothed edge and straight lateral veins, with a ‘pleated’ appearance.
The bark is pale and thin with patches of moss or lichen growing on them.


The red alder is an excellent pioneer species for re-establishing woodlands on disturbed and difficult sites, disused farmland etc. It is a fast growing and wind resistant tree, that will quickly provide sheltered conditions to allow more permanent woodland trees to become established. It enriches the soil by fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Their extensive root system make it suitable for controlling erosion along the banks of rivers. Alder trees also have a heavy leaf canopy and when the leaves fall in the autumn they help to build up the humus content of the soil. Alder seedlings do not compete well in shady woodland conditions and so this species gradually dies out as the other trees become established.

back to top

Western hemlock

Tsuga heterophylla

SIZE: 50-60m
AGE: 1200 yrs
Pinaceae (Pine family)

A most graceful large coniferous tree, the third most common tree in the Pacific Northwest.

HABITAT: A true forest dweller, it can grow in deep shade. You will often see it growing on an old stump, or decaying wood and nursery logs.
It prefers moist to very moist sites, but is does well here in our slightly drier CDF forests too, probably with help of the mycorrhizae.

 FEATURES: It has an obvious drooping leader (especially when young) and drooping tips of lateral branchlets with flat sprays of dull mid-dark green needles. 
The small, woody cones are usually less than an inch (2.5cm) long.

The green needles are soft, short and flat and of unequal length (as the species name heterophylla implies), forming flat sprays. 
Looking underneath, the needles appear almost white, because of two broad bands of white stomata with only a narrow green midrib between the bands. No needles grow downward.

The needles of the grand fir (Abies grandis) are arranged in a similar way, but the needles are a glossy yellowy-green, longer and underneath appear less white, because the green midrib between the stomata is broader.

bark of western hemlock

back to top

Western redcedar

Thuja plicata

SIZE: 50-60m
AGE: 1200 yrs
Cupressceae (Cypress family)

The co-dominant conifer in the CDF ecosystem, it is a large and magnificent tree, in all aspects.
It is the provincial tree of British Columbia.
It is also referred to as arborvitae, the Tree of Life .

It is not a true cedar; that name belongs to the old world genus Cedrus.

HABITAT: It is a very adaptable tree tolerating most soil types. It prefers shady, cool, moist habitats. It is most abundant along streams, seeps, bogs, and wet bottomlands and usually grows in mixed conifer stands. With our mild wet winters and coastal summers and with the help of mycorrhizae, it has done well in our rain-shadow CDF forests.

FEATURES: It is easily distinguished from the other evergreens in Yellow Point/Cedar by its leaves and its bark.
It has no needles. The leaves are scale-like and compressed tightly to the stem, looking like fine braids and forming graceful yellowy-green sprays that droop down along the swooping branches that turn up at tip.

Small seedcases appear in loose clusters and become woody and remain on the tree through winter.

The bark is grey to reddish brown, fibrous, appearing like long vertical lines. The trunk becomes buttressed with age.


Older trees produce a chemical called
thujaplicin. It is a natural fungicide,
making the wood rot-resistant.
Its aromatic oils deter moths and carpet beetles.

back to top

Author: yellowpointecologicalsociety

We are a non-profit society. We work to understand, appreciate, protect and restore the ecosystems and watersheds in the Yellow Point area of Vancouver Island and to inspire and support local residents and visitors to do the same.

One thought on “The Trees of Yellow Point”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: