Landscaping with Native Washington Trees

By Nancy Penrose

There are approximately 25 native tree species in the state of Washington. Some of the more well-known species include the Western hemlock, Douglas fir, Western red cedar, Sitka spruce, red alder and ponderosa pine.

The Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) is Washington’s state tree. It received its official designation in 1947. The coniferous evergreen trees with its cone shaped crown is the largest species of hemlock. It can grow almost 230 feet tall and live for hundreds of years. The tree’s diameter can reach up to 9 feet. You’ll find the Western Hemlock primarily in coastal areas, lowlands and in some mountain regions.

Western hemlocks have thin, brown bark. The tree is extremely shade tolerant with short, flat needles that have round tips. Western hemlock cones are small (usually only up to 1” inch in length) and cylinder-like.

North American Indians used the tree to treat various health conditions. Poultices were made from the tree’s pitch. Today, the Western Hemlock is primarily used for lumber and paper products. It can also be found as an ornamental in gardens.

Small wildlife will often take refuge in Western hemlocks, including some birds who use the tree for nesting. Rabbits and hares will eat the tree’s seedlings. You’ll also find browsing by elk and deer.

The Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is another coniferous evergreen and the largest species of spruce. It can grow up to 330 feet in height. The tree gets its name from the town of Sitka, Alaska. The town was founded over 10,000 years ago by the Tlingit people. The word Sitka comes from their language and means “People on the outside of Baranof Island.”

The bark of the Sitka spruce is thing and the tree’s crown cylindrical. Sitka spruce cones can grow up to 3.9 inches, with thin, bendable scales. Like the Western Hermlock, the Sitka tree can live for hundreds of years.

Medicinally, it has been chewed to remedy throat problems. The tree’s pitch has been used in the treatment of toothaches, gonorrhea and syphilis.

The tree is a haven for many different types of wildlife, but is only browsed by birds.

Today the Sitka spruce is source of lumber and paper goods. The tree’s wood is also used in the manufacture of guitars, violins, harps and pianos. In gardens, it is planted as an ornamental and as privacy trees.

The red alder (Alnus rubra) is a rapidly growing deciduous tree that can grow to up to 100 feet tall. It is the largest of its species. The tree’s pointed ovate leaves grow between 2.8 to 5.9 inches long and have serrated edges. The tree’s name comes from the bark’s reddish color after it has been scraped or bruised.

The bark of the tree was used by Native Americans to cure insect bites, poison oak and other skin ailments. An infusion was also created from the bark for lymphatic system problems.

If you want to add trees to your landscape, especially trees that are native to Washington, consult a big trees specialist or arborist with reputable tree nurserys. You’ll get expert advice that will help you chose the best tree for your home or commercial space.

Nancy Penrose is owner of Big Trees Inc. (, tree nursery Snohomish, WA, one of the largest Seattle tree nurserys (see inventory at, specializing in tree transplanting. See our video at