Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rocky Mountain Tree Identification: Douglas Fir Tree (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca)

Douglas Firs are one of the most common trees found in the Rocky Mountains. Beautiful, majestic and long-lived, they have been known to survive for as long as 1,300 years. Douglas Fir grows on foothills, montane and subalpine slopes from central British Columbia and Alberta all the way down to New Mexico.

Douglas Fir FACTS:

Bushcraft Uses- The green boughs make excellent bedding material. The sap can be used as an antisceptic treatment for wounds (easily accessed by piercing the resin blisters on young trees). Douglas Fir needles are high in Vitamin C and you can drink them as a tea to prevent scurvy or to boost the immune system. The wood is quite strong for an evergreen tree, and makes for a stout shelter, can be used for a bow saw stave, or for making arrows. Douglas Fir produces the most flammable resin of all the evergreen trees in North America, so it produces the most potent and wonderfully fragrant pitchwood for firemaking, though it can be difficult to find. As firewood, Douglas Fir burns as hot as Elm due to its flammable resins, but it pops and sparks a lot while it burns, so use caution if sleeping close to a fire when burning it. Douglas Firs have long been popular to use as Christmas trees.


Douglas Fir trees look very similar to Spruce trees, but there are a couple of easy ways to tell them apart while in the field. The easiest way is look at their cones. Douglas Fir cones are small and very distinctive, and this is most easily seen by the little "streamers" that stick out of them:

(click to enlarge)

Douglas Firs usually litter the ground with their cones, so even if you don't see them on the boughs, a quick check around the base of the tree usually gives a positive identification.

The second way is to feel the needles with your hand. Fir tree needles are soft and do not hurt or poke at your skin, unlike Spruce trees, which have stiff and pointy needles that might hurt when you grab them.

A third method of identification is by the distinctive citrus odor that Douglas Firs give off when freshly cut..


Saplings/Young Trees

 Bark on a young tree:

Closeup of the young bark's resin blisters, which, if pierced, are a good source for an anti-bacterial wound topping:

Young Adult Trees

Mature Trees

Finding Pitchwood in Douglas Firs

Douglas Fir produces the highest quality pitchwood for fire-starting, but it is rather difficult to find, since it only forms inside of dead logs, dead roots or sometimes at the base of dead branches. Occasionally, it can be found in stump form, similar to how pitchwood forms in dead Yellow Pine stumps, but having examined hundreds of dead Douglas Fir stumps, I've only found one that contained an appreciable amount of quality pitchwood.

Douglas Fir pitchwood is most often found while cutting open a dead log to process it for firewood:

Red variety (Thanks to Old Philosopher at Bushcraft USA for taking these two photos. This Douglas Fir pitchwood was harvested in the Montana Rockies)
(click to enlarge)

In dead roots:

About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft, and the author of Edible & Medicinal Survival Plants of the Rocky Mountains Pocket Guides. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ hotmail.com (without spaces)


  1. Awesome. I am terrible at tree identification, thank you for the this one.

  2. Thanks Al, glad it helps. We'll be posting more of these in the coming weeks.

  3. That is quite the bit of info on Douglas Fir trees.  I don't come across them too often here in OK but I'll keep a better eye out for them now.  I haven't tried tea from their needles yet.  Sounds better than pine. 

  4. Great information!!  I really enjoy reading about the applications of the tree and how to identify.  I'll be on the look out for more tree identification postings.

  5. Hey Brandon, thanks for the comment. Not sure if they can be found in your area, but if you do find one, let me know!

    Cheers, Jason