With its lofty elevations, favorable climate, and four distinct seasons,
Idaho is the perfect home for "softwood" trees.
Softwoods have needles instead of the broad leaves found on hardwood trees
such as cherry, walnut, and oak. Softwoods are also known as "conifers"
or cone-bearing trees because they reproduce using seed containers called
Softwood lumber is lightweight and flexible, yet strong and easy to saw,
plane, and nail. These properties make it ideal for home construction, and
its long, strong fibers make excellent paper products.
People sometimes use the words "pine trees" when referring to
softwoods. While the Idaho softwood forest contains some species of pine
(ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, and western white pine -- Idaho's state
tree), it also is home to hemlock, western larch, western red cedar, Engelmann
spruce, Douglas-fir, subalpine fir, and grand fir.
Trees Live in Neighborhoods
More than 20 tree species live in Idaho's forests, and each has a preferred
growing range. Many factors contribute to the relative suitability of a
growing range for each species of tree. While soil composition, moisture,
slope direction, inter-species competition, microclimate, and history of
fire each play a role, elevation is the most important factor in defining
a tree's "neighborhood." As elevation increases, temperatures
decrease and moisture levels rise. Trees that require more water and can
withstand colder temperatures tend to be found higher on the slopes. Other
species that can withstand higher temperatures and drier soils grow at lower
Major Commercial Softwood Species
Of the ten major softwood species, eight are extremely important for
their commercial value. These species account for more than 85% of the timber
volume of Idaho's forestlands.
Named for the tall, slender lodgepoles used to make teepees, lodgepole pines
still provide shelter as framing or finishing lumber in our homes. Large
stands of lodgepole pine are a sure sign that a wildfire once burned the
area -- lodgepole seeds are released from their cones by the heat of fire.
Western Hemlock is found in cool, moist, shady sites throughout central
and northern Idaho. Its grain characteristics make it ideal for moulding,
baseboards, window and door components, and stair railings. Hemlocks act
as weather vanes in the forest, as their top-most branch bends away from
the direction of the prevailing wind.
Unlike most conifers, the western larch loses its needles anually, bringing
fall color to Idaho's evergreen forests. Also called the "tamarack,"
this species favors upper elevations with cool temperatures and moderate
precipitation. Western larch's reddish-brown wood is tight-grained and very
durable, making it ideal for plywood, flooring, and interior/exterior trim.
Western White Pine
Idaho's state tree was decimated by blister rust disease that was brought
over from France on ornamental shrubs in 1910. Thanks to forestry research,
blister-rust-resistant white pines have been developed, and are being planted
in Idaho's forests. The light, strong wood of the white pine is used to
make window frames, paneling, shelving, and door frames
Despite its name, the Douglas-fir is not a true fir tree, but is more closely
related to the hemlock. The exceptionally strong wood of this species has
been used extensively for structural framing lumber. Also known as "red
fir," this species often reaches heights of 100 to 130 feet.
Found in drier sites at middle to lower elevations, ponderosa pine often
grows in exclusive, single-species stands. Its fire-resistant bark enables
the ponderosa pine to survive while other species are burned out. The aromatic,
light-yellow wood of the ponderosa pine is made into boards that are used
for trim, shelving, and interior paneling.
Slow-growing, long-lived, and exceptionally resistant to decay, western
redcedar is a shade loving species. Native Americans once used western redcedar
wood to make baskets and clothing. Today, we use western redcedar in siding
and other specialty lumber products.
Often called "white fir," grand fir grows prolifically in the
mountainous regions of Idaho. Noted for its straight, even grain and long
fibers, this species is used to product dimensional lumber and plywood.