Ecosystems In Peril: The Coastal Douglas-fir forests of British Columbia

Guest post by Vijay Somalinga

Forests in British Columbia appear to stretch forever. To someone who is seeing these forests for the first time, it seems like they have remained untouched since the beginning of time. But, even the remotest stands of pristine old growth forests have been logged, and only  scattered patches of protected old-growth forests remain today. Even these remnant old-growth forests face intense logging and development pressures.

Coastal Douglas-fir Ecosystem

Douglas-fir and Arbutus Forest
Mixed Douglas-fir and arbutus forest in Esquimalt, British Columbia.
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga

A little more than a year ago, I hiked through a beautiful forest in the suburbs of Victoria, British Columbia with a very good friend of mine. I wandered through that forest in awe without realizing that I am in one of the last remnants of an unique ecosystem known as the Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystem. These forests are found as narrow band in the southeastern Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands and in the mainland along Georgia Strait.

This unique forest is a result of a milder climate that exists due to the rain-shadow effect of the Olympic mountains. The dominant tree in this forest is the majestic Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). Other trees in these forest include the Western red-cedar (Thuja plicata) found in the wetter areas, the beautiful Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) and the gnarly Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) found in  the much drier, mineral rich rocky outcrops.

Every spring, the understory of the Coastal Douglas-fir forests comes alive with a beautiful carpet of wild flowers. The spectacular display of wild flowers is short lived but the sheer number and the diversity of this floral display is mind-boggling.

Flowers of the Coastal Douglas-fir forest

Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)
Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanus)
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga
Pink Fawn Lily (Erythronium revolutum)
Pink Fawn Lily (Erythronium revolutum)
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga
White Fawn Lily (Erythronium oregonum)
White Fawn Lily (Erythronium oregonum)
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga

Flowering season starts early in this part of the world. As early as in February, in the soggy wet areas of the forest, skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) begin flowering with their unmistakable odour and bright yellow flowers. All over the forest floor, Western trilliums (Trillium ovatum) and fawn lilies (Erythronium sp.) put up a dazzling display sometimes covering the whole forest floor with milky white flowers.

Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum)
Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum)
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga

These forests are also home to an amazing variety of delicate orchids such as the Coralroots (Corallorhiza sp.), Goodyera (Goodyera sp.), Lady’s tresses (Spiranthes), Rein orchids (Piperia sp.) to name a few. One of the striking orchids of these forests are the diminutive calypso orchids (Calypso bulbosa). These beautiful pink orchids are found in shaded and undisturbed areas of the forest. Since these orchids are very sensitive to any disturbance, they have been classified as a vulnerable species.

Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)
Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga
Phantom orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae)
Phantom orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae)
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga

The coastal douglas fir forests is also home for one of the rarest orchids in the Pacific northwest. Phantom orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae) is a pure white, strikingly beautiful orchid that are found only in mature, old growth forests. These orchids have no chlorophyll and depend on the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi for its nutrition. Phantom orchids are extremely rare and are a red listed species in Canada.

Columbia lily (Lilium columbinum)
Columbia lily (Lilium columbinum)
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga
Sitka columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
Sitka columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga
Violet sp.
Violet sp.
Photo © Vijayakumar Somalinga

Throughout spring and summer various wild flowers carpet these forests. Sitka columbine (Aquilegia formosa) and Columbia lily (Lilium columbinum) can be seen growing on the moist and shaded areas of the forest. Wetter areas and stream banks are lined with violets (Viola sp.) and different species of ferns.

Threats to Douglas fir forests

Nearly 95% of the original Douglas-fir ecosystem in British Columbia has been lost to development and logging. The remaining forests still face intense development pressures and have been highly fragmented. Some of the best examples of the coastal Douglas-fir ecosystem can be seen at the Royal Roads University near Victoria, the MacMilan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove) forests near Port Alberni and the East Sooke Regional Park in Sooke.

Useful Links and Further reading

About the Contributor

A microbiologist by profession, wildlife and nature has been a life long passion for Vijay Somalinga. He started taking photography seriously a few years ago and has authored a self-published photography book called “Backyard Bugs.” His images depict wild life in their natural environment and create awareness about endangered species and regions of the world. Visit his blog Mountains to Mudflats to see more of his photographs.

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