The Other BC Trees - West Wind Hardwood

Trees can be choosy needing certain amounts of moisture, nutrients and sunlight.  Some are more demanding growing only in certain parts of the province.  For example, Pacific arbutus (madrone) occurs only in southern coastal areas within a few kilometres of the ocean where the winter climate is moderate and summers warm.  It likes dry areas; especially prone to rocky outcrops and plenty of sunlight.

Because trees vary in their ability to tolerate environmental conditions, British Columbia sees a variety of ecosystems throughout the province, from lush coastal rain forests to dry, open grasslands and subalpine areas.  But time shifts everything and ecosystems are constantly changing.  Disturbances, whether caused by nature or people, will affect plant communities over time. Who knows what the future holds for the diversity of our forests.

For the now, I wanted to identify four of the more commonly used indigenous hardwood species we see at West Wind Hardwood.  Not all are commercially logged; often we see leftovers from logging cleanup or perhaps trees cleared from agriculturally designated land.

While softwoods are generally known for their structural applications, hardwoods are generally seen in the interiors of our homes.   They have long been used in the production of cabinetry, furniture and flooring for their durability, beauty and warmth.

 BIG LEAF MAPLE – acer macrophyllum

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Big leaf maple, more commonly known as pacific coast maple or western maple, is the largest maple in Canada. It grows exclusively in the southwest corner of British Columbia preferring wet feet and can be found near rivers, lakes and other areas with seepage.  It commonly mixes well with red alder, black cottonwood, Douglas-fir and Western red cedar.  Apparently it plays well in the sand box.

Coastal peoples used the big leaf maple to make dishes and pipes; using the inner bark for baskets and rope.  Many groups made paddles out of the wood calling this the Paddle Tree.  It is a hard, close grained wood that’s generally used for higher value, appearance-grade products, such as flooring and furniture, as well as turnings, musical instruments and interior millwork. We see much in the way of highly-figured and thicker live-edged boards.

Maple does have its drawbacks. It can be temperamental, particularly when finishing. It tends to absorb stain unevenly which leads to a blotchy look. By pre-sealing the wood, you can even out the colour absorption. Making sure that your maple is well-seasoned and properly acclimatized to your environment will make a big difference in how your maple woodworking projects turn out, and how they hold up over time. Because maple is such a hard wood, be certain that your tools, blades and bits are particularly clean and sharp. Working with sharp tools on hard woods is not only going to product better results, but it is actually safer than if they are a bit dull, simply because the tools will cut cleaner (and be less prone to tearing through the wood).

live-edge-maple live-edge-maple charcuterie

Outside the wood workers’ shop, the leaves are prized by many for their size and autumn colours.  Great for making place mats with a 5-year old by ironing leaves between two big sheets of wax paper!  And maple flowers are said to be sweet and edible; used in salads.  Do let me know!  And as a child, who hasn’t played whirligig with the winged seeds in the springtime.

Bigleaf MapleBigleafMaple 3158“. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Although maple is perhaps best known for maple syrup, the big leaf maple doesn’t have the same kind of product as its eastern cousins.  Because the sap has low sugar content; it takes a large quantity of sap to make a small amount of syrup but there is a small growing cottage industry for it.

RED ALDER alnus rubra

Red AlderAlnus rubra 9853” by Walter SiegmundOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as Western or Oregon Alder, the name red alder comes from the fact that the inner bark turns orange-red with exposed to air.

While all other alders are only shrubs, the red alder is a large coastal tree.  It is one the most plentiful hardwoods on the coast of British Columbia, though hardwoods make up only 5.4% of the province’s total growing stock.  Often considered a weed species, not tolerating shade it grows quickly after a site has been logged – especially on and along roads where the soil has been disturbed.  It likes to keep company with shrubby plants like salmonberry and red elderberry.  Shading out conifers as Douglas-fir, foresters often cut back the alder but on the plus side, it puts nitrogen back into the soil. While an alder tree may not be as valuable as a Douglas-fir, with an average lifespan of 40-60 years, a stand of alder can be harvested twice in the time it takes Douglas-fir to mature.  The benefits of such diversity Alder grilling planksare not lost on the forest companies.

Red alder is increasing in popularity for use in furniture, flooring, cabinets, turnery, decorative veneer, and other home decor.  It’s an even coloured tan, nice and light – both in weight and colour tone. If you like the light colour of cherry before it darkens up, alder is your wood. The surface is closed up tight so the sanding and finishing processes are quick.  Being low in pitch, it is also used in craft products such as domestic woodenware and toys. I like it as chips for smoking salmon; as well as for our grilling planks for the bar-b-que.  Traditionally, the bark was used for dying, whether basket material, fish nets or ornamentation of hair, feathers and skins.  Some coastal groups used the inner bark for food. And as in current times, the wood was used for bowls, spoons and platters.

PACIFIC ARBUTUS – ericaceae arbutus menziesii

**some photos provided by

arbutus bark

Another common name is madrone, a Spanish word for the strawberry tree, of which arbutus is a close relative. The Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies first collected specimens in 1792 and described it as the oriental strawberry tree.

The Pacific arbutus tree is one of the largest of about 14 species of Arbutus in the world, and one of the two Arbutus species in North America. It ranges along a narrow coastal corridor from San Diego, CA to the north end of Vancouver Island.  It is a broadleaved evergreen tree and a member of the heath family. It is distinguished by its smooth trunk, orange-red deciduous bark, white flowers and red berries


Have you ever seen the birds feasting on the ‘fermented’ berries?  Quite a drunken hoot!

Although arbutus has the potential to grow clear and straight under good conditions, this rarely seems to evolve.  Multiple stems, root burls and well twisted, forked and crooked j-shapes appear as the norm.

Not harvested commercially, little effort has been made to regenerate arbutus from planted seedlings and commercial seedling production methods have not been developed.  Mortality rates have been high in trial field transplanting to date.

Arbutus is a hard, heavy wood with a fine grain and little texture. The sapwood is white or cream-coloured with a pinkish tinge; the heartwood is a light reddish-brown. It has good strength properties and exceptional resistance to breakage.  Kiln drying requires special care as it has a higher shrinkage value than more other woods; resulting in increased warping and because the tree does not always grow straight, tension wood sometimes forms, which will contribute to non-uniform shrinkage. In its more common applications – flooring, furniture and turnings – its resistance to indentation and abrasion is a plus. The burls are highly valued for their appearance.

Of all the hardwoods of the Pacific Northwest, arbutus ranks highest (fewest machining defects) for planing, shaping, boring, and turning. Really hard with a very smooth grain, it polishes to a very fine finish. It colours best with dyes or transparent stains and it can be successfully ebonized. Heavily pigmented stains tend to be muddy in appearance.

Ode To My Favourite Tree – by Ron Bazar

arbutus tree flowers

Arbutus Tree,

You have magic about thee.

On bluffy heights and craggy spires

Your twisted shapes inspire me!
Winter and summer laden with leaves,

You reach for the sun yet ride storms with ease.

Bark so smooth you glisten in rain,

You shed your bark again and again!
Arbutus Tree,

Overlooking the sea,

Your blossoms exude scent divine,

Your cycles amaze every time!


Your red berries – a deer delicacy,

Your exquisite wood – a mystery,

Arbutus, you are my favourite tree,

You have truly blessed me!

Campbell Bay, Mayne Island Salt Spring Island

(left) Campbell Bay, Mayne Island, (Right) Salt Spring Island

Garry Oak – quercus garryana

Also known as Oregon White oak, Garry’s oak, Post oak and White oak.  The Garry oak was named for Nicholas Garry of the Hudson’s Bay Company and according to legend, carrying an acorn in your pocket helps preserve a youthful appearance. Oh paaaaleeeeease………tell me this ain’t true 😉

Valdes Island October in our backyard

(left) It doesn’t get more “BC” than this in the summer – Valdes Island, (right) October in our Back Yard.

It is the only native oak in BC and is found on southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands…..and because ‘us’ islanders allow it, in some isolated areas in the lower Fraser Valley.  Garry oak forms open parkland and meadows that are scattered with Douglas-fir and a lush spring display of herbs – camas, Easter lilies, western buttercups, and shooting stars.  These meadows are threatened by urban development.  This is so very true in the Greater Victoria region where they are both beautiful and endangered.  Garry oak areas are some of Canada’s most threatened ecosystems.

Garry oak was used by coastal peoples for combs and diggings sticks as well as fuel.  I can attest to the warmth it throws when burning; it condenses like charcoal and the ash left behind is dense and plentiful.  They managed the Garry oak ecosystem by under burning in order to cultivate a supply of camas bulbs.  Camas was an important food source for many of the Coastal groups.  They also ate the acorns either roasted or steamed.  I wonder if they were as good as these roasted chestnuts on a chilly winter day in Evora, Portugal?

December 2007– Roasting Chestnuts, Evora, Portugal

Today we don’t always have inventory of Garry oak.  But it’s not unusual to receive a phone call from a local farmer who has cleared some land for agricultural use; or after a November storm, a homeowner with a fallen tree to dispose of. It’s a traditional boat building species; good bending material.  It has a beautiful grain and a warm grey-green brown colour.  I love it!  Next time you visit, check out the flooring in our office

There are many choices of local hardwoods though not all are available unless you have a private backyard source.  Some are protected like the Dogwood which is BC’s Provincial flower.  Others like Pin cherry, Douglas maple, Pacific crab apple are enjoyed on walks throughout our local parks and forests.

Dogwood Blooming in April – Valdes Island

Do remember to stop and smell the ‘roses’!  Enjoy the smells; the forest critters. Enjoy the trees; and most importantly, enjoy working with wood.

1 Comment

  1. Some good news about seedlings at a commercial scale. NATS Nursery where I source some of my own nursery stock has developed a method to start and grow Arbutus from seeds in large quantities (in the 1000’s) Haley Argen discovered a method a few years ago (I do not know what they do). Thanks for the article!

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