By Kate Moore

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, people were feeling the consequences of “nature deficit”. Canadians spend as much as 90% of our lives inside.1 A shocking 30% of adults spend less than 30 minutes outside per week. And nature-deficit affects children too.2

A study showed that young children can identify thousands of brand logos, but are unable to identify more than a handful of plant and animal species.3 Growing a deeper connection to nature and to our waters has proven to reduce stress and anxiety. We hope that by learning about various species and getting comfortable identifying them, you’ll be able to disconnect from your phone for a moment and connect with nature.

This week is part two of our Backyard Species series and we will be covering some of the most common tree species that can be identified from your backyard, balcony or around your neighborhood in the lower mainland of British Columbia. Last week we covered backyard bird species, so be sure to check it out here.

In British Columbia, we have nearly 50 species of native trees, and the city of Vancouver is fortunate to have lush pockets of urban forests, such as Stanley Park, Pacific Spirit Park, and Queen Elizabeth Park. Much of the Lower Mainland is located in the Coastal Western Hemlock biogeoclimatic zone, which means it is home to a range of trees including western hemlock, western red cedar, sitka spruce, Douglas-fir, and dogwoods. The city also is home to a variety of cultivated and naturalized urban trees such as magnolias, and ornamental cherry blossoms; all of which will be blooming in the next couple of months!

In stressful or trying times, I have always felt my most calm amongst the trees. There is an Anishinaabe proverb that describes trees as “the standing people” as they are both our relatives and our teachers. It is no wonder that I feel most comfortable walking amongst their towering branches, just as I am when surrounded by friends or family. If you are feeling extra isolated lately, I hope this week you can find some solace amongst some gentle giants known as the standing people, even if it’s from inside, your balcony, or a backyard. 

1. Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

Distinguishing Features:

  • Needles are flat, glossy and soft 
  • Needles are unequal in lengths and attached by small stems on the twig. Remember: “hems have stems”
  • Bark is dark-brown to reddish-brown becoming thick and grooved with age

Fun Fact: It takes 20-40 years for Hemlock to produce seeds in the pinecones 

Image (left): Flickr

2. Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)

Distinguishing Features:

  • Flat hanging, lacelike, green foliage 
  • Leaves appear scale-like that overlap like shingles 
  • Bark is thin, reddish-brown, fibrous

Fun Fact: In Indigenous cultures, cedar is known as the “tree of life” because it can be used as building materials, tools, clothing, baskets, medicine and more.

Image (left): Flickr

3. Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)

Distinguishing Features:

  • Needles are light green to bluish-green, sharp and stiff
  • Needles are arranged spirally along twig, and angled (roll easily between your fingers)
  • Bark is thin, and breaks into scales

Fun Fact: The wood of a sitka spruce has good acoustic properties and is often used to make musical instruments like violins and guitars

Image (left): Flickr Image (right): Flickr

4. Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

Distinguishing Features:

  • Needle attached to twig with “suction cup-like” attachment
  • Needles are flat with pointed tip, and stick out in all directions from the twig
  • Very thick bark, with reddish-brown grooves

Fun Fact: The needle tips of a Douglas-fir taste like grapefruit and can be made into a tea, rich in vitamin C.

Image (left): Flickr Image (right): Flickr

5. Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttalii)

Distinguishing Features:

  • Blooms from April to June and sometimes again in September
  • Grow to 15 metres tall as shrub or tree
  • Leaves are dark green, pointy with slightly toothed edges
  • During bloom, they have white flowers which are actually 4-6 white leaves clustered around tiny green flowers

Fun Fact: It is illegal to take any part of a pacific dogwood tree because it is the official emblem of BC.

Image: Flickr

6. Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

Distinguishing Features:

  • Blooms from April-June, large white flowers 
  • Flowers open in the morning and close at night 
  • Can grow up to 30 m tall, flowers can bloom up to 30 cm in diameter

Fun Fact: There are over 200 species of Magnolia in the world, and only a handful native to North America. This species is native to the southeastern United States and cultivated to survive in British Columbia. 

7. Ornamental Cherry Blossom 

Distinguishing Features:

  • Bloom in March and peak in April
  • All varieties produce small unpalatable fruit, or edible cherries 
  • Often with a pink or white flower, these trees garnish many streets in Vancouver, check out this guide to identify the most popular varieties in Vancouver

Fun Fact: Ornamental cherry blossoms were gifted to Vancouver Parks Board from Japan and have been cultivated to survive very well in Pacific Northwest Climate, currently, there are 54 different varieties and over 40,000 individual trees in Vancouver neighbourhoods.

If tree identification excites you, check out Plants of Coastal British Columbia, the holy grail field guide for plant identification in the Pacific Northwest. Also check out E-Flora, an electronic atlas for plants in British Columbia as well as iNaturalist, an app to help identify plants and wildlife and contribute to data collection for large-scale citizen science projects. 

Share a picture of trees from your home, window, or backyard, and see if you can identify the species! You can send us your photos on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter!


  1. Parks Canada. 2014. Connecting Canadians with Nature — An Investment in the Well-Being of our Citizens. Ottawa, ON: Parks Canada. 36 pp.
  2. Coleman Canada Outdoor Report, 2017
  3. Armitage, K. (2010). What Studying Nature Has Taught Us, The Solutions Journal, Volume 1, Issue 6, Pages 74-78

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