The legacy of the Willamette Valley has a seemingly endless trunk and gently drooping branches. When left to a steady and preferred diet of ancient soils and oft-damp weather, it can grow to 250 feet in height and live well past a millennium. The prairie has its bison herds, the Rocky Mountains have their mile-high peaks and the Pacific Northwest has its skyline of gorgeous Douglas Firs.
Long before wine, there was timber. At one time, wood was practically currency, used for everything from heat and housing to vital tools, wheels and horse-drawn wagons. Early settlers were awestruck by the dense green horizons of Pacific Northwest forests. Among the most astonished was David Douglas, 19th Century explorer, naturalist and soul behind the tree’s name (although it’s a shared distinction, with the latin name “Pseudotsuga menziesii” owing to fellow botanist Archibald Menzies).
Douglas was a botanist born in 1799. First fascinated by the Highlands of his native Scotland, Douglas went on to investigate the ecological wealth of relatively untouched places like North America and the Hawaiian Islands. He could not get enough of the Columbia River and surrounding country, it seemed, returning multiple times on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society.
He documented scores of plant species, introducing many of them to the Old World. Some 80 plants bear some semblance of the Douglas name. By 1827, the Douglas Fir was officially under cultivation. Woodworkers were exceedingly drawn to the hardiness of the Doug Fir, believed to be more durable than stone. Commercially, its timber yield was exceptionally high. These were some of the tallest conifers on the planet, after all. And aesthetically, the wood was easy on the eye, kissed with a signature and subtle blush of red.
It’s said that the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest dubbed Douglas the “man of grass.” They watched as he collected samples and looked after tester rows of specific plants. He journaled about the many things we take for granted today, from enormous sturgeon and salmon to towering trees. When he first encountered a sugar pine, about the only West Coast tree larger than the Douglas Fir, he described it in his journal as “most beautiful and immensely grand.” Too tall to climb, Douglas resorted to firing his weapon at the dangling cones high up in the canopy, hoping to fetch samples.
The cone of the Douglas Fir is especially unique and the subject of much folklore. The most common tale involves mice fleeing a wildfire and finding refuge in the tree’s cones (hence, the small tail and foot-shaped strands that extend from the core of the cone). Native Americans used to pitch from the tree to seal canoes and found medicinal uses for other parts, such as the especially antiseptic resin.
Some of the biggest Douglas Firs are true elder statesmen and they look it as well, wearing their customary wrinkled and rugged coat of bark. They pepper the valley from the verdant topography of Junction City to the west hills of Portland; from the vines of Antiquum Farm to the tasting room of Boedecker Cellars. Some were saplings during the driest days of Prohibition. Others are old enough to recall Oregon’s statehood in 1859 or even the birthday of the United States. True stoics, they quietly remind us of the rugged region that existed prior to our arrival.
The days of timber barons and sawdust clouds are mostly over. The images of crews wielding automobile-sized saws are black and white and covered in dust. At one point, Doug Firs made up the vast majority of American timber, accounting for at least three-quarters of the whole. It remains a lauded and logged tree but holds a meaning above and beyond mere utility to most these days, especially Oregonians.
It’s fitting that Douglas the man first visited the Willamette Valley in late September almost two centuries ago. The landscape has undoubtedly changed since but there’s still a visceral connection for anybody who’s meandered through wine country right as autumn unfolds. The same travelers who venture out to vineyards and tasting rooms just as the leaves begin to change and grapes arrive on crush pads are experiencing—even if just a dose—of what Douglas did in 1826.
Of course, fall doesn’t hugely affect the Douglas Fir, which wears its brilliant green coat of spiraling pine needles year round. These trees stand as towering lookouts, observing their deciduous and perennial peers as they change and yield. They are rustic statues of the Willamette Valley and beyond.
This special region has long captivated the masses. Douglas the botanist revealed hundreds of plant and animal species to eager Brits in the 19th Century. Outsiders feel a similar sense of discovery today when they open a bottle of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay produced in these parts, whether they’re in Los Angeles, London or elsewhere. These great exports tell a larger story of the region and its particular feel and flavor.
We covet old growth and associate it with deep roots and burly, moss-covered trunks and vines. The largest and oldest trees in the northwest are the subject of much debate but the type of tree is not—it’s almost always a Doug Fir. Sipping an Adelsheim Pinot Noir from vines planted in 1972 is not only a means of treating your palate, but a form of time travel that transports you straight to classic rock guitar solos and Atari. The same can be said for a colossal old Doug Fir. Just being in its company feels instinctive, natural, prehistoric even.
The footprints of the Doug Fir remain sizable today, as large or larger than those of Bigfoot, Wy’East, or Paul Bunyan. It shares its name with area high schools and Portland music venues and is represented in city flags. Just as it impressed a young and intrepid David Douglas years ago, the tree continues to do so.
And while it’s given up some of the regional spotlight of late to vineyard rows and sought-after wines, the iconic tree is and always will be Oregon’s tallest and most recognizable ambassador.
By Mark A. Stock | markastock.com
Photo of Alexana Winery by Julia Burke
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon who spent a healthy stretch in the Dundee Hills making, selling and drinking wine. He’s written for Willamette Week, Oregon Wine Press, Travel Oregon, Sip Northwest, SevenFifty and more. Fly-fishing, Icelandic soccer and The Simpsons are among his favorite distractions.