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For the love of conifers  RSS feed

 
Ben Zumeta
Posts: 167
Location: Redwood Country, Zone 9, 60" rain/yr,
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I write this out of love for conifers, which I believe are all too often not fully appreciated for their permacultural value. Conifers hold the land together and keep it out of the water in the NW winter, and shade us in the dry summer. Here in the far NW of California we had 10" of rain in less than 36hrs last Wednesday (6days ago). This included the 9th wettest day on record. Yet today I went to the Smith River, which received this storm water, and it is an ideal "fishy green."

On top of the fact it is undammed, this clarity even after storms is because much of the original conifer forests remain or are in somewhat advanced second growth. In the Pacific NW, the bottom layer of an old growth coniferous forest is a salmon and/or trout stream. Conifers are the most important symbiotic organism for cold water anadromous fish. This is in part due to their water level stabilization, as Old-growth conifers can absorb upwards of 75% of rain before it hits the ground, and do so in even the winter when most of the NW rains fall and deciduous trees are far less effective when bare. NW conifers generally grow just as fast in January as in June due to their conical shape that catches low winter sun, and in doing so keep pumping sugar into the soil an fungi, which stay active because underneath coniferous forests it is 20°F warmer. How many times do permies talk about getting winter productivity?

On top of this, conifer's nurse logs (here they can be over 20ft thick), are the original hugelkultur beds. In the summer these can hold 75% of the ecosystem's water. These reroute and absorb large amounts of water and creates vast soil deposits with the most nitrogen efficient composting possible, though it is slow for larger trees. They may have relatively few native vascular plant companions compared to tropical forests, but a large percentage of plants in coniferous forests are edible and abundant much of the year. The diversity largely lies in the soil, which is one of the world's most diverse with over 1500 invertebrate animal species in a single square meter. The soil has speciated to solve the biggest challenge with the biggest payoff, to break down the worlds most abundant terrestrial food source, conifer wood, which amasses at at up to 1300metric tons/hectare (10x tropical deciduous forests total biomass). Now this can take as long as the tree took to grow to fully break down in redwoods and cedars, but while doing so it loses less nitrogen than any other form of decomposition, and performs many functions that lead to more food and life. These include forming inevitably off-contour hugel beds with their nurse logs, as when trees fall on hills they will always roll unevenly and lie diagonally, slowing water and depositing soil. In addition, many edible mushrooms are all associated with douglas fir and spruce forests.

All this is to say, our old-growth coniferous forests have immense food production potential and advanced second-growth can as well if managed well.  This can and must be integrated with more deciduous food forests and gardens in strategic places below and around conifers at the core. As the Northwest ultimately wants to become the great conifer forest it once was, I am trying to design gardens and deciduous food forest around my existing conifers in south facing horseshoes with ponds, rhodies and other shade loving ornamentals and mushroom production on the north sides. This is analogous what the Tolowa did in managing these forests successfully for 10,000 years. Ultimately, if I can't succeed alongside forest succession, I don't deserve to.
 
Travis Johnson
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I like conifers myself. I live on the East Coast so the variety here...even if they have a similar name, are quite different. For instance our Fir, the Balsam Fir is quite different then your Douglas Fir, though both are Firs. The waters further get mucked up because in the old days the old duffers called White Pine fir, so when you read the old books and note their notations you have no idea if they were taking about Balsam Fir or White Pine.

That being said, the conifers on this side of the nation do have a lot of homestead uses and many including food or drink. Take the Black Spruce. I have planted my share on my own farm, and their needles can be boiled in water and makes for a Spruce Beer if sweetened with molasses. Buy hey, this is New England...everything goes with molasses. This should not come as a surprise to those in Quebec, they call Black Spruce "Beer Spruce" in French.

The White Pine, while not edible itself, does provide habitat for Gooseberry Shrubs and Currant Bushes. They are against the law to have on a property because they act as a host for White Pine Blister Rust, but Gooseberries and Currants can be used to make sauces and teas that are pretty tasty. And the Wod Ant that often burrows its way into a damaged White Pine can, and often was eaten by the old loggers who often chopped the old trees down and found hollow-hearted trees in their wake. Often done in the winter, these ants fell out in clumps, were kind of dingy from the cold, and taste like cranberries.

White Spruce produces candy called Spruce Gum. It comes from long ago injuries on trees, but the resulting damage results in this sap gum that is very tasty. Collected and steamed, it turns clear and never loses its chewiness. Until synthetic sugared gum came to the market, Spruce Gum was sold to kids commercially.

But Black Spruce twigs can also be refined and steamed into essential oils that are known for medicinal use.  Natural decongestants and pain mitigation are a few of the claims, and while I cannot substantiate those claims, a reader has to remember that I cannot make the claim the Spruce Beer tastes good either!

Balsam Fir has some unique properties as well. When properly collected, kept below 70 degrees, and steamed and filtered, it makes a natural epoxy that is absolutely clear; so clear it was used in World War Two for glue optics together for bombers in the War Effort.

White Cedar is another handy conifer for the homesteader back east. It never rots, so we use it for boards and fence posts, and of course cedar shingles. My own home is covered in them, and my family has a shingle mill. Since fleas and ticks will not tolerate cedar oil, stuffing a pets beds with cedar boughs keeps the fleas and ticks at bay, and I have dumped cedar tops in my dog kennel to help as well. Deer prefer cedar tops in the winter too rather than any other conifer twig, and every once and awhile I will cut a cedar down in the winter for those gracefully running animals. (In the spring I will use the tree itself for a cedar post or something so it is not wasted.)

Better than White Cedar is Hackmatack...that stuff NEVER rots...ever. Since it never checks, it was once used...and still could be...for waterlines. It also makes parts for wooden boats and they use it a lot here for piles used in the brackish waters on the coast...piles being the posts that hold up docks. As I said, it never rots. It also burns incredibly hot so for the poor New Englander that never got his firewood in...or not enough...hackmatack (or its close brother Eastern hemlock) can keep them toasty until Spring.

And finally there is Eastern Hemlock. I like Hemlock though no one else seems too. That is why I sell my Spruce for income and saw almost worthless Eastern Hemlock into boards for myself. It makes good lumber, the properties of such that after the wood dries, you cannot remove a nail...the wood will spinter around it first. The only reason it is not used commercially is because carpenters do not want its heavy weight while putting up rafters and such. The trees are massive here though, some 3-4 feet in diameter, 100 feet high. I built a 30 x 50 foot barn last year with just 15 trees, but they are full of other uses though. Like a compass. A Eastern Hemlock is called such because the topmost leader always tips over to the East, and but a look at the top of a tree and a lost woodsman can find their way home. But it can also be used for tanning. Prior to 1880, there was 120 hemlock bark tannery mills in Maine alone, the last one closing down in 1955. Now for homesteaders who tan hides, but dislike the idea of chemicals, the bark of the Eastern Hemlock is just for you. It is also used as a red dye for clothing and other uses. In fact, for years it was only used for its bark because it is so heavy, it won't float and thus could not be river-drived to a sawmill.

So yes, I love conifers too. So many uses (including food) for the homesteader!


 
William Bronson
Posts: 1264
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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Thank you both for sharing your insights on conifers!
I have in the past dismissed them as not terribly useful.
There are not a lot of obvious ways to extract calories,and my experience of them here is only in rather sterile farms.
You have me thinking of them as the coral in a reef,supporting a huge variety of life while they live and in death.
Even the aforementioned tree farms are probably teeming with high quality chicken feed....
 
Kim Goodwin
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Yay!  It's so funny, I made a small post recently on the pluses of a fir forest.I've lived most of my life in Oregon, on 20 acres of land that was logged about 80 years ago, and allowed to come back naturally.  One of the very few pieces of land like this, in a patchwork quilt of douglas fir plantation and clearcuts.

Our land has huge, mossy big leaf maples, towering red cedars and doug fir, graceful hemlocks and yew, cascara with it's nice berries (yes, some people like them...heh) and some large old alder.  Plus all sorts of native understory, like acres of Oregon grape, large patches of devil's club, and red huckleberries growing out of every stump.  And mushrooms, though almost entirely ones that grow out of wood.

I would take walks on adjacent forestland, clearcuts that were replanted entirely in douglas fir so close together the ground had only fir needles beneath them.  The roads through these forest were havens for Himalayan blackberry, re-nitrogenizing scotch broom (which bees sure love, btw) and also the only place in the area I could find poison oak - which is not native to the region I lived in Oregon.  Plants brought in on trucks, skidders, and loaders.

One day I got up the gumption to learn how to harvest chantrelles.  It occurred to me that I'd never seen any on my property - they didn't grow there!  My neighbors, however, found massive patches in their previously clearcut, doug fir replant.  And I learned that's where you find the most chantrelles typically, anyways.

Obviously, those doug fir plantations are incredibly damaging to the ecosystem.  But I learned something about succession by observing them more closely and comparing to my own land.

As an aside, the young, green tips of the doug fir tree in spring - when they are a bright yellow-green, soft and droopy - are used medicinally in teas, salves, and other preparations.  They contain high amounts of vitamin C, and are quite tasty.  In salve, they will help it keep longer, too.
 
Ben Zumeta
Posts: 167
Location: Redwood Country, Zone 9, 60" rain/yr,
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Thank you Travis, William, and Kim for your thoughts! It's amazing how many analogues there are between east and west coast trees and their uses. It seems the NW and NE had some strong similarities in their longhouse cultures that also had complex trade, legal and philosophical traditions.

Here in NW CA, the understory of old-growth redwood-doug fir forests would be burned at about the rate one would replace an orchard (30-50yrs). This maintained a brighter forest floor as the smaller, shade loving western hemlocks, with the highest photosynthetic area to footprint ratio of any north american tree and therefore the densest shade, would burn while the redwoods and doug firs 12" thick bark resisted virtually any fire. This light and nutrient recharge would make the perfect environment for hazelnuts, tanoak (acorns), wild huckleberries and more large game that could be hunted far more easily. In the past 90yrs since state and national parks have taken over management of remaining old growth, the understory has filled in many places that were historically burned regularly, and current land managers lack the knowledge and guts to trust the native ways which produced the greatest forest on earth after 10,000yrs of human inhabitation.

People worry about conifers effect on Ph, but I urge you to go test an old-growth stream's ph. It is almost always in salmon's happy zone (6-7.5), despite the wood and needles being far lower. This is due to healthy soil with the highest biodiversity on earth.
 
Devin Lavign
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I just noticed this thread, and figured I would post the comment I made on the thread comparing Doug firs to weeds on this thread as it seems like it would help expand this thread a bit more and possibly help dispel some of the problems people have with conifers.

Devin Lavign wrote:Here is a good article on Doug Fir ecology that is well worth reading http://and.lternet.edu/lter/pubs/pdf/pub34.pdf especially worth noting is how it discusses a diverse and well rounded ecosystem in old growth Doug Fir forests. In fact this diversity is being put forward as needed to be clasified as a legit old growth Doug Fir forest.

I think the issues of diversity deserts in Doug Fir and other conifer forests have a lot to do with human intervention rather than the true nature of these trees.

#1 issue likely is wild fire suppression. A lot of these forests evolved with regular fires running through them. We humans have really messed up much of the conifer forests due to trying to prevent and stop wild fires from doing what many of these forests actually need to happen.

#2 the devastation of massive logging in the past. A lot of the conifer forests were completely stripped. This utterly changed how the forests regrew. Fire does not strip entire mountain ranges of all it's forests typically. But we humans did exactly that, removing entire forests from all hills and mountains in our greed to take the lumber. The regrowth since then has been nature trying to bounce back from a massive disaster. This alone could be a big part of what knocked out a big part of the diversity that is cited as a problem with conifers. The under story would have been wiped out as collateral damage by the initial logging. While those loggers might have thought to replant some conifers, did they think to also plant in the understory plants? Modern logging you don't see understory planting along side of the tree replanting, so it is doubtful the old loggers thought to replant the understory either.

#3 human replanting. When humans replant they tend not to replant diversely. They also tend not to replant with succession in mind. They just plant the trees they want to log in the future.

The whole "natives burned out Doug Firs to favor oaks" seems like our culture killing off dandelions to preserve lawns. The natives valued a specific plant and so inhibited other plants from replacing them. But is this Doug Firs being invasive or natives artificially selecting what should grow in an area? To me this sounds like human intervention in succession rather than a problem with an invasive.

 
Roberto pokachinni
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I agree with Devin that Firs are not weeds, and should not be considered a problem.  They are a solution to the problem of humans messing with the landscape.  They are natural species who are doing their job in the ecosystem as best they can, considering that we have massively screwed up the system with logging, fire prevention, and other forestry practices. 

A note in regard to forest plantations... most of the under story would recover just fine (being tenacious woody perennials), if the logging was done better (selectively... or smaller cut blocks), and/or if the planting was done in stages so that the canopy did not completely close (this intense shade kills off the other smaller species).  

The inner bark of many conifers can be eaten.  Of course some are better than others.  Pine is one that was favored by some indigenous groups.here's a fun article about it

Thanks for starting this thread.  Conifers are more than just fuel in the stove, and are certainly underappreciated in many regards.

Hi Kim
One day I got up the gumption to learn how to harvest chantrelles.  It occurred to me that I'd never seen any on my property - they didn't grow there!  My neighbors, however, found massive patches in their previously clearcut, doug fir replant.  And I learned that's where you find the most chantrelles typically, anyways. 
  From what I understand (I harvested these commercially for a few seasons), it is not the fact that the forest is a second growth plantation that it produces chantrelles; it's because all of that forest is of the right age (70 to 150 years) to have the symbiotic relationship with the chantrelle fungi.  After the forest passes this age spectrum, then other mychorizal fungi slowly take over the niche, and there will be no chantrelles at all.  In your naturally regenerated forest, which is more advanced in diversity of ages and species, you will find a more diverse selection of mychorizal partners in the system, and though you might not have chantrelles in quantity, there might be a few hidden here and there, and a whole bunch of other fungi as well. 

 
Devin Lavign
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Something I forgot to mention in my previous post

With logging replanting you don't get the varied ages in the forest trees that would be in the natural old growth forest. Having an entire forest with trees of the same age is very seldom natural. This generally only happens up in boreal forests where entire forests go through fire regrowth death cycles in big patches. Most conifer forests will naturally have a variety of ages all growing in the area rather than a homogeneous forest that was all planted at the same time.

This can serious effect the way a forest interacts with the rest of the ecosystem. Large old trees fall and open up canopy to let light down to the forest floor, providing new ground for life to colonize. But if everything is the same age you don't get these random ancients falling and creating openings.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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This generally only happens up in boreal forests where entire forests go through fire regrowth death cycles in big patches. 
  This is not just a boreal occurrence, but is relatively common in many forest ecosystems outside of true old growth systems, and even within them.  It is only the ancient old growth systems (which are in patches of old growth) that are fire free.  The vast majority of forest fires are not complete burns, even in the boreal.  The pattern of a regular fire is called a mosaic for the uneven distribution of heat and totality of burn.  Some fires are so intense that there are few dead standing trees in a large area, and everything is reduced to ash, but this is rare.  Sometimes even the massive fires leave all kinds of islands of intact forest. 

I completely agree with the rest of what you said, though Devin. 

Besides forest fires, the only other times I've seen natural single age tree stands were 1.) a 200 year old forest that followed a Tsunami on Haida Gwaii; it was just a small 50 acre section of beach front including a tongue extending into the old growth.  2.)if a farmer abandons a potato patch or field and it grows in with seeds spread from nearby spruce or fir.  I've seen this a number of times at abandoned farms. 

Even with natural regeneration after a clearcut, the majority of trees are often growing in the same or similar age zone, and, even in old growth and ancient old growth conditions, it takes about 300 years before it even begins to look like an old growth system(but true forest biologists can see the missing links), and it is speculated that it will take 500 to a 1000 years to really gain all of the old growth characteristics, and even then they expect that the system wont show all of it's speciation unless the clearcut was really small; hence the need to preserve these systems. 

Other factors effecting these system's regenerating effectively are the destabilized water tables (some wet forests turn to swamps without trees holding all their water), erosion due to rapid rain run off (since trees greatly reduce impact, absorb water on themselves and into their bodies and within their symbiotic microbial populations), loss of biomass (the foundation of the system) through gross export or slash burning, the intense burning of waste wood in small location slash piles (so the forest companies do not have to pay for the stumpage on trees they are not milling), the mechanical brushing or herbicidal intervention upon  'competing' species (which actually nurse conifers in natural regeneration, just in a slower fashion then the forest companies want), the devastated hydrological patterns due to the road building and heavy machine work without an eye for true geography (which takes many generations of trees falling on it to begin to approximate old growth forest structure).         
 
Ben Zumeta
Posts: 167
Location: Redwood Country, Zone 9, 60" rain/yr,
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Good points all! I used to lead a forest lesson called "Trees take us back in time," here are some fun facts on the trees of the same age...

Next time you are in a forest:

- Look for trees of the same age (using size) that form lines, these often grew on the same nurse logs, or in the case of redwoods they are likely the same tree coming up as reiterations off a fallen tree. This can allow a tree to move over 300' to spread and find more ideal locations!

- Look for other patterns of trees the same age (circles, lines on contour such as on an embankment or natural riverside terrace). With western hemlocks, you can date and measure floods decades or centuries past by the lines of trees the same age that all were deposited on the same high water line. Alders do this too but don't live as long. In general, terraces along undammed rivers (like the Hoh, Bogachiel, and Smith) have trees that will tell you how long ago floods deposited their soil and seeds. We know from trees that the Bogachiel river totally reroutes itself every 900yrs or so.

- Doug firs need 6hrs of direct light on a branch to grow, and drop anything that gets shaded too much, which helps with fire prevention as well. If you see an old doug fir in deep shade, you know that at its sprouting that tree was in sun and something must have caused a disturbance before hand. On the other hand, western hemlocks are a sign that fire hasn't been around to any significant extent during their lifetime. Both species can give you insights into events going back over 1000yrs!
 
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