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What Are Hardwood Trees?

All trees are pretty hard, right? It may then be a bit confusing to hear the term “hardwood tree.” What are hardwood trees? If you want to know the difference between hardwood trees and other types of trees found in the Pacific Northwest, read on. You may have a few hardwood trees in your own backyard.

What Distinguishes Hardwood Trees?

What Are Hardwood Trees?Sensibly, hardwood trees are most often contrasted with softwood trees. The technical difference between hardwood and softwood trees is that hardwood trees are angiosperms and softwood trees are gymnosperms. Angiosperm is a scientific way of describing trees that are born from flowers (gymnosperms propagate through seeds). Hardwood is a big category. If you’ve learned to spot deciduous trees, for instance, you’ve also learned to spot a lot of hardwood trees.

Hardwood trees have broad leaves that change color and fall to the ground in the autumn. If you’ve ever taken a drive to look at the blazing red, yellow, and orange leaves in October or November, you’ve been treated to a view created by hardwoods. Broadleaf maple trees, Oregon ash, red alder, and tanoak trees dot our landscape.

Hardwood trees are a bit more complicated in their vasculature and size than softwood trees and, consequently, they grow more slowly. Most hardwood trees aren’t considered mature until they’ve reached 90 percent of their maximum height. With some hardwood trees growing up to 80 feet or so, you can imagine how long it might take for a hardwood tree to finish growing! Large-leafed and tall, hardwood trees provide a lot of our shade in the summer months. If you’ve got a favorite shady spot in your yard, it’s probably under a hardwood tree.

Hardwood Trees Promote a Healthy Ecosystem

Hardwoods help support a broader spectrum of wildlife than we’d have with softwood trees only. According to researchers at Oregon State University, hardwood trees promote the growth of certain other grasses, herbs, and shrubs. As their leaves, fruit or flowers fall to the ground, that nutrition provides a benefit to other, nearby vegetation. Moreover, that vegetation is of a kind that has trouble surviving when it’s not near its hardwood friend. That’s the beauty of biodiversity. Hardwoods contribute to the flora and fauna of your whole garden. In fact, some wildlife species are completely dependent on hardwood trees and could never survive in a land full of softwood trees.

What Are Hardwood Trees Used For?

Hardwood trees are highly valued for their sturdiness (“hardwood” is not a misnomer). With certain exceptions, the wood from hardwoods is actually stronger than that of softwood trees. We use them for homes, furniture, and other building materials. In the Pacific Northwest, the most important hardwood, by far, is the red alder. This tree has supported the bulk of the area’s lumber industry due to its fast growth and high yield.

Less common hardwoods, however, are still of great importance to the area. The black cottonwood tree, Washington’s only cottonwood, is sometimes used as wood veneer but is most important as soil and stream protection. Hardwoods’ complicated vasculature and large root systems provide a great deal of protection against erosion.

Additionally, since many hardwoods are deciduous and fruit-bearing, they also help feed animal and human populations. If you’ve got hardwood trees in your yard, you may have noticed deer, squirrels, and other creatures visiting your home for a quick bite to eat. Fruit trees support game animal populations, farming, cider production, and other small, local industries. So they’re vitally important to the Pacific Northwest’s economy as well.

Where Do Hardwood Trees Grow?

This area, with its mountains, foothills, and craggy coastlines, offers a wide variety of soils, climates, and elevations. Hardwoods, for the most part, will be found in the low and middle elevations. Next time you’re on a drive or a hike, notice the large, leafy trees giving way to the spruces, pines, and other evergreens as the elevation increases. You may also notice that, while there are a lot of leafy trees at low and middle elevations, there isn’t a huge variety. For the most part, the Northwest produces few species of hardwood trees but at great volume.

This volume can lead to a paradox. Hardwood trees, crucial to our ecosystem and our economy, can sometimes be considered a nuisance. Washington state, for example, has two species of maple trees. One of these, the vine maple, tends to form dense thickets. In a yard, it can choke other vegetation. In the city, it can strangle power lines and create sidewalk hazards. In forests, it can compete with more desirable conifers. Forest management specialists want to promote hardwoods in Oregon, Washington, and California but admit that certain species have their drawbacks. For homeowners, the choice is more straightforward. If you have a tree taking over your yard, there’s a good chance that it’s a hardwood tree. Frequent trimming or even removal may be the right choice for you.

Adding Hardwoods to Your Yard

If you’re looking to add a hardwood tree to your yard, experts recommend certain species for residential growth. These are the Oregon white oak, the Pacific madrone, the Pacific crabapple, and our old standby, the red alder.

The Oregon white oak will drop tiny acorns, a favorite food of native chipmunks and squirrels. The Pacific madrone produces orange berries, which can be made into cider, and its leaves can be used for tea. The Pacific crabapple is smaller in scale but attracts a huge number of birds, like cedar waxwings and finches, which visit its fragrant flowers in the spring. The red alder is a low-maintenance favorite that grows quickly enough to provide both shade and plentiful firewood.

At home, if you need help dealing with an overzealous maple tree or you just need advice on how to incorporate trees into your yard, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact Mr. Tree.