Relict Species: Bigcone Douglas Fir

Relict, n: a remnant or survivor.

Species, n: a distinct sort or kind

Pseudotsuga macrocarpa
The Bigcone Douglas fir is a smaller relative of the more common Douglas fir, which grows on the Northwest coast of California and in the Sierra Nevadas from Yosemite north. The Bigcone distinguishes itself by being smaller, possessing a much larger cone (hence the name), and by being confined exclusively to the mountains of Southern California. It grows up to 100′ feet in height, although the largest species reached 173′ and lived up to 700 years.

This tree is considered a relict since it now occupies a much smaller native range than it formerly did. In the past, this tree was connected to the range of the common Douglas fir. As climate changed, this tree diverged from its larger cousin and adapted to drier conditions, although it likely had already adapted in the southern part of the range. Eventually, the range shrank to its current region, which ranges from the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield to the Volcan Mountains near Julian. However, the tree is never more conspicuous and ever-present than it is on the front range of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Bigcones recovering from the Station Fire

While the Douglas fir thrives in damp environments, often reaching inspiring heights alongside Coast Redwoods, the Bigcone Douglas thrives in dry environments at the middle elevations of Southern California mountains. It is commonly the first conifer to appear as one asends a mountain, and it shows up around 3,000′ of elevation. One can easily distinguish this tree due to its great size relative to surrounding trees and its wand-like limbs radiating outward in every direction.

This tree is also notable in its ability to survive and recover from fires. The thick bark of these trees protects the trunk from all but the hottest of fires. The tree will also re-sprout from buds, which remain dormant beneath the trees thick bark. When fire occurs, it stimulates growth in these buds, and new branches begin growing at the middle and upper third of the tree. This tree is one of only a few western conifers capable of post-fire regeneration. However, while the tree has evolved to survive occassionaly fires, frequent fires, which have become more common over the last 50 years, will kill the tree, since it does not possess the resources to continually re-grow.

One can often find this tree growing on north facing slopes or in canyon bottoms between 2,500′ to about 6,000′. In the San Gabriel and Los Padres mountains, it commonly occurs with Coulter pines, canyon live oaks, maples, alders, and bay trees. In San Diego, similar associations are present, although maples and bay trees do not extend south beyond the Santa Ana Mountains.

Although the tree is a relict, it is not considered endangered. It’s main threats are fire, since it typically grows in places where development cannot occur. Additionally, forest rangers have been using this tree for re-forestation for the last 50 years, and so its growth and population has tended to remain robust when it has not been wiped out by frequent fires.

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