“Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. Plants provide food, medicine, shelter, dyes, fibers, oils, resins, gums, soaps, waxes, latex, tannins, and even contribute to the air we breathe. Many native peoples also use plants in ceremonial or spiritual rituals.” U.S Forest Service
Here in Washington, we are fortunate enough to live in an area that has a diverse range of ecosystems resulting in a diversity of native plants. I’ll be discussing some of the more common flora species that one might encounter while getting their “daily dose of nature.” This list of native plant species will help you identify PNW trees through key characteristics of the bark, leaves, fruiting body, and cones. You will also find ethnobotanical uses of Coast Salish people of the PNW.
PNW Native Plants
Western Redcedar/Thuja plicata
- May grow to 200 ft and live for over 1,000 years.
- Bark is grey to reddish-brown tearing off in long fibrous strips.
- Leaves are glossy yellowish-green, flat, scale-like, and strongly aromatic.
- Cones are egg-shaped about ⅛ in. long.
- Known as the “Tree of Life” and has been the cornerstone of Coast Salish Nations.
- Edible: Use needles as a tea to speed up the healing of acute respiratory or urinary tract infections.
- Regarded to have healing and spiritual powers.
- Rot-resistant wood is used to make cultural items such as dugout canoes, house planks, totem poles, ceremonial drug logs, and paddles.
Douglas Fir/ Pseudotsuga menziesii
- May grow up to 260 ft. in height and live over 500 years.
- Bark is brown, bark is thick, ridged and rough.
- Needles are flat yellowish-green about an inch long with two white bands called stomata on the underside.
- Cones are reddish-brown, 1-4 in. with 3 forked bracts extending beyond the scales.
- Edible: Spring needle tips may be eaten fresh or steeped as a tea, they are high in Vitamin C.
- Coast Salish Nations would use the pitch to make a medicinal salve for wounds and skin irritations.
Despite its true name, it is not a true fir, genus Albies. The genus Pseudotsuga means “false hemlock”
Red Alder/Alnus rubra
- May grow up to 80 ft. in height and live for over 100 years.
- Bark is thin, grey, and smooth often found with light colored lichen patches.
- Leaves are 2-6 in. long, alternate, broadly elliptical, and have coarse or blunt teeth around edges.
- Cones come in brownish clusters up to 2 cm long that remain on trees through winter.
- Edible: Some Coast Salish Nations would dry the bark of the tree to steep as a tea or used as a tincture.
- An ingredient found in the bark, similar to aspirin, reduces pain and inflammation both externally and throughout the digestive tract.
Western Sword Fern/Polystichum munitum
- May grow up to 3-5 ft. in height.
- Fronds (leaves) are dry-scaly and blade lance shaped (hence the name sword fern).
- Spores (reproducing seed) are located on the underside of the fronds.
- Edible Not recommended; however, several First Nations would peel and eat the rhizomes in time of food shortages.
- The Cowichan Nation used the sword fern to counteract a stinging nettle rash. Simply by rubbing the spore side of the leaf against the infected area.
- The Lummi Nation have chewed the leaves during childbirth.
Polystichum translates to many rows, describing the yellow spore cases found on the underside of the fronds. Munitum translates to armed with teeth.
This serves as a brief taste into best PNW medicinal plants, and how to identify them. There are hundreds of native plants that cover this beautiful state.
While learning about these PNW native plants out on the trail, we encourage everyone to practice Leave No Trace. It is recommended when harvesting wild plants and berries to leave at least half of what is there.
If you want to learn more about PNW plant identification you can come join one of our experiences on Native Plants/Ethnobotany!
Reference for this blog: Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: by Pojar & Mackinnon.
The City of Bellingham is situated on the ancestral and traditional homelands of the Coast Salish Peoples, whose tribal treaty rights we support and for whose enduring care of the lands and waters we are deeply grateful.
Todd Elsworth is one of the many “Mossy-haired lunatics roaming the dripping peninsulas”, described in “I’m Here for the Weather” by Tom Robbins. As executive director, he works to fulfill our mission to teach the health benefits of nature, promote outdoor recreation, and steward the places where we play.