Identifying Conifers In the Northern States

Conifers can be easily misidentified.  They have are prone to some of the some diseases, but also have some specific to their species so it is important to know the difference.  Customers will often ask you to identifiy conifers in their lawns.  On the other hand, some will assume everyone knows them and will call you and start talking about their spruce and you will need to know what they are talking about.

Let's look at pines, spruces firs, larches and cedars. The best term to use to describe these trees are conifers. Now the word conifer is actually Latin-Greek. Anytime you see the term "ifera", "offera", "ifer" like conifer "ifer" it refers to the bearer of something. Obviously conifer refers to the bearer of cones.

Referring to the way that these trees reproduce seed, these trees all reproduce using cones instead of flowers.  Most deciduous trees that have fruit reproduce with flowers and are pollinated by insects.   In most of the species of conifers, the trees that reproduce with cones, the male pollen cones, which you can see on  Jack Pine and on Red Pine.

When the wind blows the pollen from the male pollen cones, the female cones which turn into the things we normally call pine cones are located usually at the top of the tree. The pollen from a tree does not pollinate the female cones of the same tree. So we get cross pollination.

Cross pollination getting genetic material from two parents. The advantage of cross pollination is that insures that in the next generation of pine trees there's going to be some variation. If you have variation, if everybody's a little bit different then you can have some of the trees a little better suited to live where they do than the other ones. And those are the ones live long enough to reproduce and they pass on those genes to the next generation. And you have a better adapted tree.

That's why trees are different from state to state. And even from area to area within the same state. In the conifers, it's actually at least a two year process from the time that the pollen fertilizes the eggs in the female cone. Until the cone actually matures, dries out, opens up and sheds it's seeds. So much of the culture we have in Northern Minnesota revolves around our forests and our coniferous trees.

And it really is a lot more fun to be able to walk through the woods and recognize what it is that you're looking at. Take a look at the needles. We'll take a look at the bark. Take a look at the general shape of the tree for comparison purposes.

 Let's talk about Red Pines, also known as a Norway Pine. It's very  common growing wild in the forest and in large plantations in the northern states. Look at the color of the bark. Look at the size of the needles and the shape of the tree. You can see how much this tree grew every year when it was small. You can tell the Red Pine again by the red color of the bark.

 Another real common species of evergreen in Northern Minnesota is the White PIne. Known for it's beautiful white wood used for paneling and other construction. Look at the needles on the branch of a White Pine. The one pine that you may confuse this one with is the Red Pine but the White Pine has very very soft needles as compared to the Red Pine which are much stiffer and they're bigger. If you wanted to get technical about it the White Pine the needles occur in bunches of five. Whereas on the Red Pine there's only two. The White Pine needles are also significantly smaller than Red Pine needles. White Pines also have the big cones  six, eight inches long at least. The seeds fall out of these cones in the fall. You can see as you look up the trunk how much that White Pine grew each year by the position of the nodes where the branches come out.

Jack Pine has needles are shorter than either a Red Pine or a White Pine.  The tree itself can be just about any shape. The bark is just kind of a rough.

Scotch Pine has needles that are longer and a little bit more of a blue green color than a dark green color. Technically the proper name for it is a Scots Pine. It was imported from Europe and it's planted in plantations. It's easily confused with Jack Pine. The Jack Pine has shorter needles and they're darker green. Scots Pine has longer needles and not as long as White Pine or Red Pine, but longer than a Jack Pine. The Scots Pine has shorter needles, thicker needles than the White Pine. And they're a little bit more of a bluish tinge to them than the White Pine. You can see the White Pine has much finer needles and they're greener than the Scots Pine.

The northern White Spruce. Check out the nice conical shape which is an adaptation for shedding snow. Needles will vary in length.  It all has to do with where the tree is growing. How much light it gets. How much water it gets. How crowded they are. How stressed they are. They're not all exactly the same. But they're both pokey branches. 

 Colorado Blue Spruce. Things that you'll notice right away is the needles are longer than the White Spruce and it's very definitely even pokier that White Spruce that we have around here.  Along with White Spruce and Ornamental Colorado Blue Spruce you may encounter 2 more kinds of spruce as you get around Northern Minnesota. If you were to go farther north and east of here up in let's say the Boundary Waters Canoe Area you'd find some that look darker. Those are called Black Spruce. Sometimes you see them along the sides of roads. But usually they're in plantations for Christmas trees.

Can you identify a Balsam Fir? What I would like you to notice and try to remember about a Balsam Fir, is if you see a branch where the needles are fairly flattened that's probably a Balsam. And the needles themselves are flat. And you can grab a Balsam Fir and it's nice and soft. Needles on a Balsam Fir are nice and flat. The branch is also flat and they're soft to the touch. You can run your hand over them and you feel no pain. Now for comparison, this is the Balsam Fir.

This is White Spruce. And you might notice that the White Spruce has usually... shorter needles. These needles are not flat on the surface. The needles themselves are not flat . And when you grab a White Spruce it pokes you. Balsam Fir is nice and soft, doesn't poke. White Spruce is kind of pokey. Balsam Fir on the right and White Spruce on the left. Compare the needles. Kind of an interesting note when it comes time to have a Christmas tree White Spruce makes a beautiful Christmas tree but it has a tendency to smell real bad in the house. On the other hand, Balsam is that tree that leaves that really, really nice aroma. A little hint possibly to hunters: Balsam when you smash the needles gives off that real strong Balsam smell and deer are used to smelling that. One thing that I would suggest is a good idea if you're going to walk in the woods if you drop a Balsam branch to the ground, and scrub your feet on it.It willl mask the human odor.

One interesting thing that you can see exceptionally well on Balsam Fir is you can see the growth pattern of the branches. If you look right up here, right to the tip of the branch you can see, and again this is May, you can see three brand new little branches starting to grow. Next year at this time, these three branches will look like these three branches. 

This will have two new branches and a new one there. And if you look at the whole branch, you can see that this branch is one, two, three, four, five, six, seven years old where I broke it off. And you can also see that by the fifth, sixth and seventh years it's starting to lose it's needles.

And that's why when you see a branch on a tree there are no needles next to the trunk of the older branches because they lose them after five or six years. Here's a rather interesting group of conifers. These they have a bark that's similar to a Spruce but if you look they have a really, really fine looking needle. These are actually a type of larch. This is Tamarack.

And they always grow in low swampy areas. They're tolerant of a lot of water. You can see the yellow cowslips down in the water. If you look very, very closely you can see thousands and thousands of little seed cones at the tops of these trees.

In days gone by, they used the really large Tamaracks to make railroad ties. These are kinda neat because they're the one species of conifers around here that actually drop their needles during the winter time. If we were to take this same shot in October or November these would all be yellow. And then by the middle of the winter they're bare.

They're just starting to grow new needles right now by mid-summer the needles will be about twice as big as they are right now. These are Tamarack. Take a quick look at this Tamarack branch. And you can real easily see the pollen cones of the Tamarack there. And here is the seed cone from last year.

Sometimes called Arborvitae, Northern White Cedar usually grows down in low areas that are wet, Cedar swaps, maybe you've heard that term. You might notice that the needles on this are totally different than anything we've looked at so far.

They're flat, they're not sharp, they're soft.  A favorite winter forage for deer. Ok, here's a nice example of Northern White Cedar. If you look at the bark on the trunk you can see that it's a finer bark than most of the actual pines and spruces and it'll pull off in little strips. Usually this grows down in swamps but this one happens to be one of the few Cedars you'll find growing on higher ground. A typical place where Northern White Cedar grows, low and wet. 

 Let's do a quick review of the things that are actually pines. They're in the genus of the pines. White Pine, soft needles, about three inches long, Five needles per bunch. Red Pine, which has a little bit more course needles and they come in batches of two. The Jack Pine, which the needles are shorter and kind of twisted around. The same as the tree is.

And the one tree that one may be confused with a spruce. This again is Northern White Spruce, note the length of the needles. Sharp needles, go all the way around. Can be light green all the way to more of a blue color, but that's the one you find out in the woods. This one is ornamental Blue Spruce. Colorado Blue Spruce, this is the one you usually see in town planted in people's yards longer needles, real pokey. Hard to grab.


Balsam which is not a spruce it's a fir. And again, flatter branches flat needles, nice and soft to the touch as opposed to pokey to the touch. Balsam Fir, Colorado Blue Spruce and Northern White Spruce.

And finally two which are significantly different than the other branches that we've looked at.  Northern White Cedar, it's the only Cedar that we have remember Red Cedar is actually a type of Juniper. Flat branches, very very fleshy needles. Not sharp at all.

A species of larch, which is Tamarack has needles that are deciduous, they fall off in the fall. In May, so these are brand new needles they will get a little bit longer than this. First of all let's look at these two. Both of them have long needles. These needles are softer than these, these are longer than these these are darker green than these. Ok, these are in bunches of five and these are in bunches of two.


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