Getting to know Whistler's trees

Natural history is as important to Whistler's heritage as any individual, activity or Olympic bid. After all, the valley's natural attributes brought people here in the first place.

Because of their admiration of the valley's beauty, many of Whistler's early pioneers were avid naturalists. These days, many people are still drawn to the Whistler area to admire its spectacular scenery and take in a few breaths of fresh air.

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However, it seems that an understanding of Whistler's environment is often eclipsed by the bustle of the Village and the thrill of high adrenaline sports. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the great diversity of species we have in Whistler - in particular, our many tree species.

To many, one coniferous tree looks very much like any other. Some people will dub any tree that is evergreen and pointy a "Christmas tree" or a "pine tree." Whistler's forests are not composed solely of pine trees, but rather a multitude of species - in large part western hemlock, western red cedar, Douglas fir and a hybrid spruce that is unique to Whistler, aptly dubbed the "Whistler spruce."

The Whistler spruce hybrid is indicative of Whistler's geographic position -we're not quite coastal, but not quite interior. It's a hybrid of the interior Engelmann spruce and the coastal Sitka spruce. The Sitka spruce towers over B.C.'s coasts, distributed from Northern California to Alaska. The Engelmann spruce, on the other hand, prefers dryer inland climates.

These Whistler spruce trees are certainly not pine trees, and are only Christmas trees for brave souls who don't mind being punctured when they try to decorate their tree.

The western red cedar is hugely important to B.C.'s history, as it had many uses in the province's indigenous societies. The cedar's sinewy bark was used to create ropes, baskets and clothing.

I have heard (although I can't confirm) that Captain Cook was so impressed with the strength of cedar rope that he had much of the rigging on HMS Resolution replaced with cedar ropes. Its wood, too, had many purposes, and was used for houses, masks, totem poles and canoes. Some excellent western red cedar specimens can be found on Cougar Mountain, where some of the trees are over 600 years old.

Two varieties of hemlock are commonly found in Whistler: mountain hemlock and western hemlock. Mountain hemlock (as the name would suggest) is more commonly found at high altitudes, while many of the hemlocks found at lower altitudes and in the valley are western hemlocks.

The mighty Douglas fir is another tree you might bump into while strolling the Valley Trail. If you call this one a Christmas tree, you may actually have it right (if you like a budget-friendly Charlie Brown tree, you've probably had a Douglas fir). From their scrawny beginnings, they grow to be impressive, thick-barked evergreens.

There are, of course, numerous tree species in Whistler, and they're not always easy to distinguish from one another. If you're interested in better acquainting yourself with Whistler's biodiversity, pop by the museum or get in touch with the Whistler Naturalists Society.

Robyn Goldsmith is the summer programs coordinator at the Whistler Museum.

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