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Rare and Endemic Conifers of Northwest California

By Michael Kauffmann

Northwest California, quite simply, is a botanical wonderland. At around the size of Virginia, the region holds 3,540 vascular plant taxa—to the species, subspecies, or variation level of distinction (Sawyer). The southern Appalachian Mountains are the only other region of the United States to which this diversity is comparable. While there are many endemic plants in northwest California, the endemic and relict conifers are of particular interest and importance because there is so much diversity in such a small area. As many as 38 species of conifers, depending on where one delineates northwest California, can be found. This diversity exists because of the interactions of a variety of factors that have remained “consistent” for millions of years.

This geological jumble with a consonant climactic character is a museum, hiding relicts of epochs gone by, called paleoendemics, and fostering the growth of new species, called neoendemics, in unusual nooks created by complex climate and soils. These small microclimates, linked with isolation in space and time, create this unique setting. On a grand scale, the area is comfortable for plant growth compared to other areas of the West—the climate being relatively moderate. It seems that because of this stability, extinctions have been less common in this knot of rivers and mountains. Northwest California is also an ancient meeting ground—having a central location and continuity with other mountain ranges as well as a proximity to the Pacific Ocean. This landscape fosters one of the most diverse temperate coniferous forests on earth.

common juniper (Juniperus communis var. jackii) common juniper (Juniperus communis var. jackii)
This unusually prostrate conifer is locally common on the serpentine outcrops of extreme northwest California but rare elsewhere in the state. -Photo from the Siskiyou Mountains.
Siskiyou cypress (Callitropsis bakeri ssp. matthewsi) Siskiyou cypress (Callitropsis bakeri ssp. matthewsi)
One of the rarest conifers in the state, it is locally common on isolated serpentine outcrops, mostly in the Siskiyou Mountains. –Photo from the Red Buttes Wilderness
Mendocino cypress (Callitropsis pygmeae) Mendocino cypress (Callitropsis pygmeae)
Growing only in northwest Mendocino County, the pygmy cypress is a neoendemic. On certain impenetrable marine beach terraces, rain has leached nutrients from the porous soil—providing the needed habitat. –Photo from Van Damme State Park
Alaska yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) Alaska yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis)
Reaching the southern extent of its range in the Siskiyou Mountains, only a handful of populations thrive in north facing cirques carved by ancient glaciers. –Photo from the Bear Lake Botanical Area, Siskiyou Wilderness
Port Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) Port Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)
This species is restricted to a damp coastal fog belt from Horse Mountain to Coos Bay, Oregon with several inland populations in the Scott Mountains. Having the most beautiful foliage of any North American conifer, an exceptional number of cultivars have been developed from this restricted and threatened beauty. –Photo from the Siskiyou Wilderness
western redcedar (Thuja plicata) western redcedar (Thuja plicata)
This signature tree of the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforests reaches the southern extent of its range in coastal northwest California; where it is problematic to find—being literally overshadowed by the redwoods. –Photo from Russ Park, Ferndale, CA
Bishop pine (Pinus murricata) Bishop pine (Pinus murricata)
This species prefers coastal habitats for the soil type and fog—where it stands out from other conifers because of its complex, twisting, and airy crowns. –Photo from Patricks Point State Park
foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana var. balfouriana) foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana var. balfouriana)
This California endemic survives only in the “sky islands” of the Klamath Mountains and in the southern Sierra Nevada (var. austrina). In northwest California it out-competes other conifers on harsh, south-facing, serpentine outcrops above 6,500 feet. –Photo from Eagle Peak, Trinity Alps Wilderness
Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana) Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana)
Surely one of the exceptional conifers on Earth, this Arcto-Tertiary relict has retreated—over the past 15 million year—to the temperate climate of the Klamath Mountains. Here it survives most commonly on ridgelines picturesquely dangling its pendulous branches over precipitous cliffs. –Photo from the Marble Mountains
Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii)
This is another of California’s rarest conifers, only growing in drainages in the vicinity of Russian Peak in the Russian Wilderness, in several drainages just outside of the wilderness, and in an isolated stand in Shasta County. –Photo from Russian Wilderness
Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis)
This is northwest California’s rarest conifer. Thriving in fewer than five discovered locations, this inimitable tree prefers north-facing mountains that have remained fire-free. –Photo from the Marble Mountain Wilderness
subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa)

subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa)
Found in only a few spots in the Klamath Mountain—along the igneous moraines of the eastern Salmon Mountains— it survives at the head of high watersheds, above 6000 feet, in open areas such as meadows or around lakes. –Photo from the Marble Mountain Wilderness


Earle, Christopher J. “The Gymnosperm Database”,

Lanner, R.M. 1999. Conifers of California. Cachuma Press, Los Olivos, California.

Sawyer, John O. 2006. Northwest California. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

“The Jepson Herbarium.” 19 September 2007. Second Edition of The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California. University of California, Berkeley.

About the Photographer

MICHAEL KAUFFMANN is a wilderness-loving-plant-explorer whose fascination with conifers was nurtured in the Appalachian Mountains—where he earned a degree in Biology from Virginia Tech in 1996. His love of the outdoors eventually brought him to California where he taught environmental education for many years; spending his summers exploring the mountains of the southwest. Currently living in Eureka, California, life’s vacation is spent either with 7th graders or in the local mountains with his lovely wife—where the botanical wonderland that is northwest California fascinates them to no end.

To learn more about northwest California and its conifers or to contact Michael please visit his website (

Photos and text © Michael Kauffmann. All rights reserved.




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