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When is a fir tree not really a fir tree?

Where I come from, an item titled 'Oregon tree names keep people guessing' - which I received earlier this month from the Oregon State University Extension Service - would be really big news.

See, I come from a family of major tree lovers. We grew up on the Oregon coast, and my old man spent about three decades as a logger, lugging a heavy McCulloch chainsaw up and down those steep canyons and cutting down big trees.

My first real job (taxes withheld and all) was with the U.S. Forest Service, as a B3 forest worker. Mostly, I planted trees, but in the summer we did slash burns and even fought a few forest fires. It paid a whopping $2.39 per hour, which, in 1966, was not bad.

My mom, being a lover of all kinds of trees, was our adviser when, as kids, my brother and I got into 4-H forestry - which really just consisted of us studying and talking about trees and shrubs, pressing and labeling leaves and completing various assignments in our workbooks. We did that for three or four years.

When we went on trips, say, to Eastern Oregon, my mom would make us identify the trees along the way and to pay special attention as the landscape changed with the elevation. It's true, we were a family of tree geeks.

So, I perked up considerably when I got a release from OSU's Judy Scott stating: 'Many people are aware that, despite its name, Douglas fir is not a true fir. It's also not a pine, not a spruce and not a hemlock. Outside of the United States, it is often called Oregon pine, also a misnomer.'

Whoa, I thought, this would have been an excellent discussion topic for one of our family trips.

'What is a Douglas fir, then?' posed Scott. 'It's a unique species, in a class by itself, according to the newly revised Oregon State University publication, 'Understanding Names of Oregon Trees,' (EC 1502). The publication is available only online at http://bit.ly/OSUESec1502.'

The Douglas fir, you see, is Oregon's official state tree, and we really need to understand it better. It grows in such abundance in the Pacific Northwest, it covers the Coast Range and the Cascades too. Only when you go down the east flank of the Cascades do you find it being replaced by the Ponderosa pine, the king of conifers east of the mountains.

According to a website devoted to state trees and related topics (statesymbolsusa.org), 'Oregon designated the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) as the official state tree in 1939.' This, of course, was the same year the University of Oregon Tall Firs won the very first college men's basketball championship.

'Named after a Scottish botanist who traveled through Oregon in the 1820s,' the website continues, 'the Douglas fir can grow to a height of 325 feet and have a 15-foot diameter trunk (averaging 200 feet in height and 6 feet in diameter). The timber from Douglas firs is said to be stronger than concrete.'

That's pretty awesome, but what's all this about a Douglas fir not being a fir?

'It's little wonder that people are confused by tree names,' Scott quoted author Scott Leavengood, director of the Oregon Wood Innovation Center at OSU, as saying, 'Foresters often name trees by physical appearance, while the wood products industry may name trees based on characteristics of the wood. Botanists name trees based on anatomical characteristics and evolutionary relationships to other trees.'

The publication goes on to outline quirky naming devices, said Judy Scott. For example, you can usually distinguish a 'true tree' if its names are not hyphenated or run together. For example, Atlas cedar is a 'true cedar' whereas western redcedar and Port-Orford-cedar are 'false cedars.'

And that is about as clear as when the sports announcers talk about somebody being a 'true freshman.'

I'm already confused, and we haven't even started on Latin names yet.

'Scientists use Latin names to avoid confusion,' wrote OSU's Judy Scott. ' 'The first word in the scientific name refers to the genus and the second is the species.' '

Then she hands it over to Leavengood again: ' 'Trees in the same genus are closely related and have similar characteristics,' Leavengood said. Trees of the same species can be interbred.

' 'If you want to know if a tree is a fir, pine, cedar or other type of tree, check the genus name,' Leavengood suggested. 'For example, unless a tree is in the genus Abies, it is not a true fir, and unless a tree is in the genus Cedrus, it is not a true cedar.'

Scott concluded with this helpful bit: 'Oregon does have six native, true firs: white fir, California red fir, grand fir, Pacific silver fir, noble fir and subalpine fir.'

And, she added, you can check out the OSU publication for more information on Oregon trees, such as cedars, western juniper, mountain-mahoganies, poplar and myrtlewood.

Don't even think about raising your hand. Every bit of this could be on the test.

Former editor of the Lake Oswego Review and managing editor of the Beaverton Valley Times and The Times, Kelly is now chief of the central editing and design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune, and he contributes a regular column.