Montana’s Native Evergreens

by Jan Cashman

If you’re hiking around our forests with your permit, looking for the perfect Christmas tree, it might be nice to know the correct names of the evergreen trees found there. Even if you don’t go hunting for your Christmas tree in the surrounding mountains, it is good to have some knowledge of Montana’s native conifers.

Montana is a big state with different climates. The eastern part of the state is dry with alkaline soils. Rocky Mountain junipers and Eastern ponderosa pines are native there. West of the divide in the forested mountains north of Missoula, where winters are overcast with heavy snowfall, we find other conifers: white pine, white spruce, hemlock, grand fir, and western red cedar. There are even some Pacific yews in this far northwestern corner of Montana.

Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) is indigenous in almost every county in Montana, sometimes growing into a bushy shrub, sometimes growing very tall, depending upon soils and climate. Our 90-year-old friend from Culbertson, Montana, remembers cutting down these junipers or “cedar bushes” for Christmas trees when she was a child. Today, junipers are seldom used for Christmas trees-theirs is not the traditional Christmas tree look. Junipers’ wood is hard, and though gnarled, has been used for fence posts because it doesn’t rot. Selections of Rocky Mountain junipers make drought tolerant, nicely shaped evergreens for your landscape.

As far as I know, Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) is the only spruce native to Montana. It is found in the western half of the state in cool mountain canyons along streams and lakesides and at high elevations. Jerry has noticed a large stand of them south of the entrance to Big Sky. Unlike the blue-tinged Colorado spruce, Engelmann spruce’s needles are green. Their branches droop. On either side of Cashman Nursery are huge (60 foot) Engelmann spruce that were transplanted from the mountains by the original owner of the property. Colorado spruce is the spruce most often planted when a large specimen conifer is wanted in the landscape, but Engelmann spruce could also be used.

Although Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga mensiesii) is similar in many ways to firs, it is not a true fir. The genus for firs is Abies. Meriwether Lewis noted Douglas-fir in his journals. He saw it from central Montana all the way to the coast of Oregon, where some were growing as tall as 300 feet. Douglas-fir is the common Christmas tree cut from the surrounding mountains. It is also used extensively for lumber and plywood.

Alpine or subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) is a tall, narrow fir that grows at very high elevations throughout the western half of Montana and west. You see them growing beneath you as you ride the Bridger Bowl chair lift. Loggers call subalpine fir “piss fir” for the needles’ unpleasant odor. Even so, alpine fir is sought after as a Christmas tree because of its narrow shape and layered branches.

Limber, Ponderosa and lodgepole pines are all native to Montana. Limber pine (Pinus flexilis) is found mainly in southwestern Montana. Because limber pine grows in dry, harsh sites, it is often shrubby, twisted, and stunted-an interesting tree, but of little commercial value. Jerry says you can actually tie the twigs into a knot, hence the name.

Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) is the state tree of Montana. Southeastern Montana has native stands of Ponderosa from Big Timber east. Western Montana is full of them. Our daughter, who lives in Frenchtown near the Clarkfork River, has Ponderosa pines near her home that are huge- it would take 3 people to reach around them. Ponderosa pines west of the divide grow taller and bigger than those east of the divide, with longer needles, even though they are the same genus and species. There are few, if any, native Ponderosa pines in the Gallatin Valley, but they grow well here and are a beautiful, hardy pine for landscapes. We make sure the Ponderosas we sell are from an eastern source and, therefore, better adapted to our area. The big, round cones of Ponderosa pines make great seasonal decorations; I keep some in a pretty basket in the entryway to our home all year.

Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) is so named because the Indians and pioneers used the trees to build their lodges. Lodgepole pines, along with Douglas fir, make up a good part of the native forest in the western half of Montana. Fast-growing lodgepole pines are tall and slender and come up quickly after a forest fire. Though seldom used in the landscape, they grow into an attractive, full tree when not too crowded.

Native plants are hardy and drought tolerant. Xeriscaping, landscaping with drought tolerant plants, is still a trend because it conserves water and the plants fit naturally into their surrounding environment. Some new subdivisions are only allowing the planting of natives. Whether you are cutting your Christmas tree from the forest or choosing an evergreen for your yard at a nursery next spring, consider the native conifers.