19 Common Trees of Vancouver Island + Identification Tips

Vancouver Island is home to some of the largest and oldest trees in the world.

The world’s largest known douglas fir, the Red Creek Fir, the world’s largest known redcedar, the Cheewhat Giant, and Canada’s largest known sitka spruce, San Jo’s Smiley, are all situated on Vancouver Island.

The island has about 34 native trees.

One of the most majestic conifer trees in the Pacific Northwest forest is the western redcedar, British Columbia’s provincial tree, also known as the “Tree of Life” by First Nations because of its many uses. It provides very light, aromatic, versatile and durable wood.

Other common types of trees on Vancouver Island are douglas fir, amabilis fir and western hemlock.

We’ve compiled this ‘Trees of Vancouver Island Guide’ to make it easier for you to identify different tree species. We include both evergreen and deciduous trees.

1.Sitka Spruce

sitka spruce tree identification - cone, bark and needles
Sitka Spruce | Picea Sitchensis

Sitka spruce is the largest spruce that thrives in a coastal rainforest on Vancouver Island. The mature tree commonly grows up to 70 meters. The Harris Creek Sitka Spruce near Port Renfrew measures a whopping 80 meters.

Sitkas are one of the world’s fastest-growing trees, with a life span of 700-800 years. Their needles are four-sided, bluish-green and sharp. The bark is thin and scaly.

Mature Height: 70 m

Life Expectancy: 700-800 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Four-sided, bluish-green, spiky needles with two white lines underside
  • Brown to purplish-grey, thin, scaly bark
  • reddish-brown seed cones

Benefits:

  • Strong, light and flexible wood, important for lumber
  • Paper products, firewood, construction, shipbuilding, firewood
  • Musical instruments – violins, guitars
  • Medicinal properties
  • Raw young shoots are edible and rich in vitamin C

Fun Fact: The resin from sitka was traditionally used to waterproof boats. Sitka is Alaska’s state tree.

2.Pacific Yew

pacific yew tree identification - needles, seeds, bark
Pacific Yew | Western Yew | Taxus Brevifolia

Western yew, also known as pacific yew, is a small tree with thin, reddish, papery bark and drooping branches. Western Yew is easily recognizable because it produces small, round, red berry-like seeds called arils.

Mature Height: 2-15m

Life Expectancy: 300 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Two flat rows of needles
  • Thin, reddish, papery bark
  • Red poisonous seed with a hollow end

Benefits:

  • Multiple medicinal properties
  • Wood carving
  • Traditionally used for making bows by First Nation people

Fun Fact: A chemical extracted from western yew’s bark has anti-cancer properties (Taxol).

3.Douglas Fir

douglas fir tree identification - bark, cone
Douglas Fir | Pseudotsuga Menziesii

Douglas fir trees are extremely large conifer trees that form part of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forest.

In fact, Vancouver Island boasts the world’s largest known douglas fir tree – The Red Creek Fir. This massive tree stands 74 meters tall with a circumference of 12.5 meters (41 feet) and is estimated to be 800 years old.

You can also find many old douglas firs in Cathedral Grove on the Alberni Highway 4.

Mature Height: up to 85 m

Life Expectancy: 500-1000 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Needles are flat, pointy, and spiral around the twig
  • Thick brown ridged bark
  • Bushy crown
  • Cones are unique, with three-pronged bracts protruding from beyond the scales

Benefits:

  • Highly valued for its strength and durability
  • Construction, flooring, furniture, veneer
  • Medicinal properties
  • Aromatic, used as essential oil

Fun Fact: Douglas fir is named after David Douglas, a Scottish naturalist who took this and other tree species to Europe.

4.Grand Fir

grand fir tree identification - bark, cone, needles
Grand Fir | Abies Grandis

Grand fir is the largest and fastest growing of the West Coast firs. It’s an evergreen tree characterized by a tall, straight stem. The Grand Fir tree has a distinctive and pleasant sweet citrusy aroma. This makes it a popular choice for Christmas trees and holiday wreaths.

Mature Height: up to 80m

Life Expectancy: 250-300 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Shiny flat darkgreen needles arranged in two opposite sides of the twig with two white lines on the underside.
  • Yellowish-green cones sitting upright on branches (later turn brown)
  • Young trees have smooth, gray bark with resin blisters. As they age, the bark becomes thick, ridged, and brown.

Benefits:

  • Lumber, construction
  • Medicinal properties
  • Used as a Christmas tree

Fun Fact: Natives used pitch of grand fir mixed with oil to prevent baldness.

5.Amabilis Fir

pacific silver tree identification - cones, needles, bark
Amabilis Fir | Pacific Silver Fir | Abies Amabilis

Amabilis fir, also known as Pacific silver fir, has a beautiful symmetrical shape. What makes it easy to identify are its deep purple cones that disintegrate on the tree after releasing their seeds.

Mature Height: up to 50 m

Life Expectancy: 400-500 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Tall, straight, symmetrical conifer tree
  • Deep purple erect cones
  • Dark green needles growing around the entire twig
  • Whitish-grey bark with resin blisters, scaly when mature

Benefits:

  • Furniture, sauna panelling, boxes, crates

Fun fact: ‘Amabilis’ means lovable or lovely, and the cones are the largest (up to 12cm) and heaviest of the native firs.

6.Western Hemlock

western hemlock tree identification
Western Hemlock | Tsuga Heterophylla

Western hemlock is a large coniferous tree that thrives in BC’s coastal climate. It has drooping branches and small, delicate cones. You can find giant hemlocks in Pacific Rim National Park (Florencia Bay).

Mature Height: up to 60 m

Life Expectancy: up to 500 years

Identification Tips: 

  • drooping branches
  • short, flat, soft, dark green needles with two distinctive white lines underneath.
  • crushed needles smell like grapefruit
  • reddish-brown bark with rugged ridges
  • light brown small cones

Benefits:

  • General construction, roof decking, plywood

Fun fact: Western hemlock is a state tree of Washington.

7.Mountain Hemlock

mountain hemlock tree identification
Mountain Hemlock | Tsuga Mertensiana

The main difference between western and mountain hemlock is in their cones. The mountain hemlock has brownish-purple cones that are narrow at both ends and are longer than the western hemlock. Branches also tend to slope upwards.

Similarly to western hemlock, the needles are short but stick out in all directions instead of lying flat.

Mature Height: 20-40 m

Life Expectancy: up to 800 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Bluish-green needles
  • Brownish-purple (sometimes green) cones that are narrow at both ends and are longer than the western hemlock
  • Scaly reddish-brown bark
  • Slightly drooping top

Benefits:

  • moderately strong wood
  • crates, plywood, framing, construction

Fun fact: Mountain hemlock grows in higher elevations and can withstand harsh conditions.

8.Western White Pine

Western White Pine | Pinus Monticola

Western white pine is a medium-sized symmetrical evergreen tree. It’s easily identified by its long, soft, bluish-green needles in bundles of five and large elongated cones.

Mature Height: up to 60m

Life Expectancy: 300-400 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Long bluish-green needles that grow in bundles of five (about 5-10 cm long)
  • Dark grey scaly bark when mature (young bark is greyish-green)
  • Long cones with a slight curve (first green later turn brown)

Benefits:

  • lumber, furniture, millwork

Fun fact: Another five-needle pine that grows in the Coast Mountains is white bark pine, but it has smaller cones and a twisted trunk.

9.Western Red-cedar

Western Redcedar | Thuja Plicata

Western redcedar is a signature tree not only of Vancouver Island but it’s also BC’s provincial tree. It’s a large conifer with a wide base and drooping branches. Its bark is grey to reddish-brown, fibrous, and peels off in long strips.

The Cheewhat Giant red cedar on Vancouver Island is the largest tree in the world. The tree measures 6 m in diameter and is 59m tall. You can find it within Pacific Rim National Park.

Mature Height: up to 60 m

Life Expectancy: 1000 years

Identification Tips: 

  • drooping branches
  • grey to reddish brown fibrous bark in long strips
  • tiny brown oval-shaped cones (green when immature)
  • scale-like leaves

Benefits:

  • The wood is highly resistant to decay and insects
  • Shingles, siding, sauna panelling
  • Aromatic

Fun fact: It is also known as the “Tree of Life.”

10.Pacific Madrone

Arbutus | Pacific Madrone | Arbutus Menziesii

Pacific madrone, also known as Arbutus is a unique exotically looking tree with irregular shape and twisted branches. It’s particularly known for its smooth, exfoliating red-brown bark and broad, evergreen glossy leaves.

Mature Height: up to 30m

Life Expectancy: 200-250 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Alternate oval dark green glossy leaves
  • Smooth red-brown park, peeling off (green underneath)
  • White waxy flowers in clusters
  • Red-orange berries

Benefits:

  • Hard, heavy wood
  • Traditionally used to make walking sticks
  • Firewood

Fun fact: Pacific madrone is the only native broadleaf evergreen tree in Canada. Its nickname is the “Refrigerator Tree” because its bark contains water and stays cool in the summer.

11.Garry Oak

Garry Oak | Oregon Oak | Quercus Garryana

Garry oak, also known as Oregon Oak, is the only oak native to British Columbia. This heavy-limbed tree often grows in rocky soils and can have a crooked shape. Distinct features are its acorns and alternate deeply lobed green leaves.

Mature Height: up to 20 m

Life Expectancy: 500 years

Identification Tips: 

  • The leaves are deeply lobed, shiny, deep green and alternate
  • Light grey bark with deep vertical ridges
  • Has acorns and catkins (flowers in small clusters)
  • The tree often has a crooked shape

Benefits:

  • hard and durable wood
  • furniture

Fun fact: Traditionally, acorns were eaten roasted or steamed.

12.Bigleaf Maple

Bigleaf Maple | Oregon Maple | Acer Macrophyllum

Bigleaf maple is the largest maple in Canada, and it can grow up to 35 m. It’s called bigleaf because it has exceptionally large 5-lobed leaves (up to 40cm) with long leafstalks.

Mature Height: up to 35 m

Life Expectancy: up to 300 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Leaves are the largest of any maple (up to 40 cm), deeply 5-lobed
  • Grey-brown ridged bark often has moss or lichen
  • Greenish-yellow clusters of flowers
  • V-shaped seeds

Benefits:

  • furniture, cabinetry, flooring
  • musical instruments
  • can be tapped for sap

Fun fact: Bigleaf maple flowers are quite sweet and can be used in salads. The sap is half as concentrated as sugar maple.

13.Douglas Maple

Douglas Maple | Rocky Mountain Maple | Acer Glabrum var. Douglasii

Douglas maple, also known as rocky mountain maple, is a small deciduous tree with multiple stems. It has three to five-lobed leaves. Unlike bigleaf maple, the leaves are coarsely toothed.

Mature Height: 1-7 m

Life Expectancy: 50 – 300 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Multi-stemmed
  • Three to five-lobed, coarsely-toothed leaves
  • Thin, smooth, brown bark
  • Small greenish-yellow clusters of flowers
  • V-shaped seeds (samaras)
  • Red twigs

Benefits:

  • Can be tapped to make maple syrup
  • Snowshoe frames
  • Bark can be made into twine and rope

Fun fact: Douglas maple is often used in landscaping for its attractive appearance and ability to thrive in various weather and soil conditions.

14.Pacific Crab Apple

pacific crab apple tree identification
Pacific Crab Apple | Oregon Crabapple | Malus Fusca

Pacific crab apple is a small deciduous tree shrub native to the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest, including Vancouver Island. It’s known for its fragrant white flowers, sharp thorn-like shoots, and small, tart apples.

Mature Height: up to 10 m

Life Expectancy: 100-150 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Toothed alternate oval or lance-shaped leaves
  • Brown, rough, peeling bark
  • Fragrant white to pinkish blossom
  • Yellow to reddish tiny apples, edible but tart

Benefits:

  • Hard, durable wood
  • Used for making handles for tools
  • The apples are edible, though tart, and can be used to make jellies, syrups, and cider.

Fun Fact: The tiny apples are excellent for making jelly.

15.Bitter Cherry

Bitter cherry tree identification
Bitter Cherry | Prunus Emarginata

Bitter cherry is a small tree with a thin stem. It’s easy to recognize by its grey-to-red-brown bark that peels. It has a beautiful, fragrant, small white to pinkish blossom. The flowers bloom between April and May. As its name suggests, bitter cherry has bright red bitter berries that are inedible.

Mature Height: up to 15 m

Life Expectancy: up to 80 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Alternate, oval-shaped yellowish-green leaves
  • Gray to red-brown bark that often peels horizontal strips
  • Small white to pinkish flowers
  • Red berries with a very bitter taste

Benefits:

  • The tree’s attractive flowers make it a visually appealing addition to gardens.
  • The bark was used for making baskets, mats, ropes

Fun Fact: Although the berries are too bitter for humans, birds love them.

16.Cascara

Cascara | Rhamnus Purshiana

Spanish priests named cascara ‘sagrada’ (sacred bark) because of its healing properties. Cascara is a small tree with a short life span. It’s recognizable by small greenish-yellow flowers in clusters and blue-black berries. The leaves have prominent side veins. It’s a highly adaptable tree.

Mature Height: up to 10 m

Life Expectancy: 50 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Alternate oblong glossy dark green leaves with side veins
  • Thin grey bark (scaly when mature)
  • Small greenish-yellow flowers
  • Dark berries

Benefits:

  • The wood has little commercial value
  • Bark has medicinal properties

Fun Fact: The bark was used as a laxative by Pacific Northwest First Nations.

17.Pacific Dogwood

Pacific Dogwood | Western Flowering Dogwood | Cornus Nuttallii

Pacific dogwood is a medium-sized deciduous tree with unique features. You can identify it by white bracts resembling petals and fruiting clusters of red berries. Although the bracts look like petals, they’re actually modified leaves to attract pollinators.

Mature Height: up to 20m

Life Expectancy: 80-150 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Opposite oval leaves with pointed tips and slightly toothed edges
  • White bracts surrounding green flowers
  • Bright red clusters of berries
  • Smooth grey bark

Benefits:

  • Hard and heavy wood
  • Used for cabinets, piano keys, mallet handles, golf club heads
  • Popular ornamental tree for its beautiful flowers and fall colors

Fun Fact: Pacific Dogwood is the floral emblem of British Columbia, symbolizing the province’s natural beauty.

18.Black Cottonwood / Balsam Poplar

balsam poplar and black cottonwood
Balsam Poplar | Populus Balsamifer | Black Cottonwood | Populus Trichocarpa

Black cottonwood and balsam poplar look almost identical. They have many similar features. The trees grow extremely fast. They both produce white fluffy seeds (“cotton”) in such vast quantities that they can look like snow when they fall. The abundant seeds allow the trees to spread quickly in open areas. They can grow in a variety of soils.

Mature Height: 30-60 m

Life Expectancy: up to 200 years

Identification Tips: 

  • Alternate heart-shaped leaves
  • Dark grey to grey-brown, deeply furrowed bark on mature trees
  • Short male and long female catkins on separate trees
  • White fluffy seeds

Benefits:

  • Light, bright-colored wood
  • Plywood, veneer, furniture and lumber
  • Pallets, boxes and crates
  • Paper production

Fun Fact: Bees use the sticky resin from the buds as a caulking material in their hives.

19.Red Alder

red alder tree identification
Red Alder | Alnus Rubra

Red adler is one of the most common hardwood trees on Vancouver Island. The tree is basically a natural fertilizer. It’s known to improve soil fertility by increasing soil nitrogen. For that reason, it’s a great tree for ecological forest restoration.

Its most distinctive feature is its wavy, toothed leaves with edges that are slightly rolled under.

Mature Height: up to 25 m

Life Expectancy:

Identification Tips: 

  • Thin, smooth grey bark, often with patches of white lichen
  • Long male catkins and short female catkins that grow before the leaves
  • Alternate, oval coarsely toothed leaves with pointed tips
  • Narrow rounded crown

Benefits:

  • Used for furniture, cabinets, pallets, paper
  • Improves soil fertility

Fun Fact: Red adler is considered one of the best woods to smoke fish.

FAQ about Vancouver Island Trees

What is the biggest tree on Vancouver Island?

Cheewhat Giant, also known as the Cheewhat Lake Cedar is the biggest and oldest known tree on Vancouver Island. It’s a western redcedar that measures 55.5 m (182 ft), over 4.80 metres (15.75 feet) in diameter, and is estimated to be 1500 years old! It can be found about 30km from Lake Cheewhat.

What is the most photographed tree in Vancouver Island?

Vancouver Island is home to many awe-inspiring big trees but one of the most photogenic tree is in Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew. It’s an ancient red cedar, also known as Canada’s gnarliest tree because of its unusual shape. Another famous tree is ‘Big Lonely Doug’ that became a symbol of the disappearing old-growth forests.

Where are the tallest trees on Vancouver Island?

One of the best places to find big old-growth trees on Vancouver Island are in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, Cathedral Grove, Avatar Grove and Pacific Rim National Park. Many large trees can also be found near town of Port Renfrew. After all, it’s called ‘tall trees capital of Canada’ for a reason.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *