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Monday, December 20, 2010

How To Tell If You Have a Pine, Spruce, or Fir Tree

At this time of year many families are buying or chopping down trees to celebrate Christmas. They know what they like, be it a towering bastion of the forest or a Charlie Brown rescue tree. Like many of the conifers we have in our landscape, people often refer to any tree with needles instead of leaves as a "pine tree". In actuality, many, if not most, of the trees we purchase at Christmas are fir trees.

The National Christmas Tree Association (www.christmastree.org) reports that the number one most popular tree grown and sold in the U.S. is a Fraser Fir. My good friends Della and Roger have a beautiful Fraser Fir decorated in white and silver. The number two tree is a Douglas Fir, the number three tree is a Balsam Fir, and the number four tree is the Colorado Blue Spruce. The first pine tree, a Scotch Pine comes in at number five. Our family favorite, the Noble Fir, just missed the top ten.

Our little Noble Fir Christmas tree
Many of us select Christmas trees and landscape trees because we like how they look, not because we like their name. In the process we tend to generalize. I know many people who walk through a forested area or even their own yards and refer to the "pine trees", even when they are clearly (to me) a different type of tree. With a few helpful tips, it's fairly easy to tell them apart.

Much of this information comes from a tree identification class and guide developed by Linda Smith of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension in El Paso County, Colorado. It was produced for Master Gardeners and isn't readily available to the public, but I'll share some highlights with you now.

Generally speaking, a conifer is a plant with needled foliage that remains on the plant throughout the year -- an "evergreen". If a plant doesn't have flat leaves, its probably a conifer. The needles are the most obvious and easiest way to quickly identify the type of conifer. With training, practice, and a good identification key you'll be able to tell the difference between a Douglas Fir and a White Fir, but my intent is to teach you basics for general recognition.

There are basically three types of conifers based on their foliage or needles. The first type is plants that have individual needles growing on stems; Spruce and Fir trees fall into this category. The second group is plants where the needles grow in bundles; pine trees follow this pattern. The third is plants with overlapping scale-like foliage; Junipers and Arborvitae are in this type.

Spruce and Fir trees look very similar, but with close-up inspection are easy to tell apart. Both have single needles growing from all around a stem, but roll a needle between your fingers and you'll see that Spruce trees have square-shaped needles while Fir trees have flat needles. If you grab a branch, Spruce needles are sharp and Fir needles are blunt, or "friendly" to hold. Take an individual needle and bend it; Spruce needles are stiff and may break while Fir needles are flexible. The needles on a Spruce grow in a spiral around the stem, but Firs tend to grow with all needles pointing up at the sky.

Use this memory aid to identify a Spruce or Fir:

Spruce tree needles are Square, Sharp, Stiff, and grow in a Spiral.
Fir tree needles are Flat, Friendly, Flexible, and grow "fir" the sky.

Pine trees have a completely different needle structure. Pine needles are slender and typically longer than a Spruce or Fir. Most importantly, pine needles grow in bundles of two to five needles connected by a papery sheath at the base. This sheath connects to the stem on a branch and when pulled from the tree remains intact with all of the bundled needles staying together. When the needles in a sheath are compressed together, they form a circular column. Remember that Pines have "plural" needles.

Our old Ponderosa Pine tree in our front drive

Juniper and Arborvitae look very similar. If the tree has overlapping scale-like foliage with horizontal and vertical foliage sprays, it is a Juniper. If the scale-like foliage grows in vertical and flattened spays, it is an Arborvitae. Junipers tend to have prickly needles while Arborvitae have rounded tips. Juniper does well in many growing conditions and will tolerate dry locations very well; Arborvitae will not tolerate dry, windy conditions. Juniper grows upright like a single-trunk tree or as a spreading shrub; Arborvitae grows tall in a teardrop-shaped, dense form, usually with multiple trunks. The cones of both trees look like berries; Juniper have three to six scales that are fused together in a round ball while Arborvitae have thicker scales that tend to peel back into pointed tips.

That's it. With the basic information above you should be able to give yourself the confidence to correctly identify an evergreen tree. There are a few other conifers like Yew and Larch, but they aren't very common and you should know right off that they aren't pine trees.

With more practice and experience you can identify specific tree types. Pinon Pine, Mugo Pine, and Lodgepole Pine trees all have two needles in a bundle. Pinon Pine needles are medium green, have white stripes along the needle and are 1/2" to 1-3/4" long; Mugo Pine needles are dark green, 1" to 3" long and slightly curved; Lodgepole Pine needles are yellowish-green, 1" to 3" long and sharp and stiff with a slight twist.

Ponderosa Pine grows in bundles of three needles that are 4" to 7" long, sometimes longer. Both Bristlecone and Limber Pine trees have bundles of five needles, but the Bristlecone needles are shorter and clearly identified by the little white spots that cover them. Colorado Spruce needles are 3/4" to 1-1/4" long while Engelmann Spruce needles are only 1/4" to 1/2" long.

The first step in making an easy tree identification is to find out what kind of conifers grow in your area. Ask your local Extension office, nurseries, or tree growers for a listing of local trees. I live in an area forested by Ponderosa Pines. With my eyes closed I can identify trees in our neighborhood as Ponderosa because that's about all that we have so I've started growing Colorado Blue Spruce to break up the monotony. If you know that White Firs don't naturally grow in your area, you aren't likely to confuse them with Douglas Firs.

If you want to go beyond the basic identification I've described, get a tree identification book or online guide. Just like the different needles, conifers have differing cones (only Pine trees have Pine cones). They have different growth patterns and different environmental requirements. By knowing what to look for, you can correctly identify unknown varieties. Next time you walk through a forest, stop and feel the needles. You'll amaze yourself at how easy it is.
At this time of year many families are buying or chopping down trees to celebrate Christmas. They know what they like, be it a towering bastion of the forest or a Charlie Brown rescue tree. Like many of the conifers we have in our landscape, people often refer to any tree with needles instead of leaves as a "pine tree". In actuality, many, if not most, of the trees we purchase at Christmas are fir trees.

The National Christmas Tree Association (www.christmastree.org) reports that the number one most popular tree grown and sold in the U.S. is a Fraser Fir. My good friends Della and Roger have a beautiful Fraser Fir decorated in white and silver. The number two tree is a Douglas Fir, the number three tree is a Balsam Fir, and the number four tree is the Colorado Blue Spruce. The first pine tree, a Scotch Pine comes in at number five. Our family favorite, the Noble Fir, just missed the top ten.

Our little Noble Fir Christmas tree
Many of us select Christmas trees and landscape trees because we like how they look, not because we like their name. In the process we tend to generalize. I know many people who walk through a forested area or even their own yards and refer to the "pine trees", even when they are clearly (to me) a different type of tree. With a few helpful tips, it's fairly easy to tell them apart.

Much of this information comes from a tree identification class and guide developed by Linda Smith of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension in El Paso County, Colorado. It was produced for Master Gardeners and isn't readily available to the public, but I'll share some highlights with you now.

Generally speaking, a conifer is a plant with needled foliage that remains on the plant throughout the year -- an "evergreen". If a plant doesn't have flat leaves, its probably a conifer. The needles are the most obvious and easiest way to quickly identify the type of conifer. With training, practice, and a good identification key you'll be able to tell the difference between a Douglas Fir and a White Fir, but my intent is to teach you basics for general recognition.

There are basically three types of conifers based on their foliage or needles. The first type is plants that have individual needles growing on stems; Spruce and Fir trees fall into this category. The second group is plants where the needles grow in bundles; pine trees follow this pattern. The third is plants with overlapping scale-like foliage; Junipers and Arborvitae are in this type.

Spruce and Fir trees look very similar, but with close-up inspection are easy to tell apart. Both have single needles growing from all around a stem, but roll a needle between your fingers and you'll see that Spruce trees have square-shaped needles while Fir trees have flat needles. If you grab a branch, Spruce needles are sharp and Fir needles are blunt, or "friendly" to hold. Take an individual needle and bend it; Spruce needles are stiff and may break while Fir needles are flexible. The needles on a Spruce grow in a spiral around the stem, but Firs tend to grow with all needles pointing up at the sky.

Use this memory aid to identify a Spruce or Fir:

Spruce tree needles are Square, Sharp, Stiff, and grow in a Spiral.
Fir tree needles are Flat, Friendly, Flexible, and grow "fir" the sky.

Pine trees have a completely different needle structure. Pine needles are slender and typically longer than a Spruce or Fir. Most importantly, pine needles grow in bundles of two to five needles connected by a papery sheath at the base. This sheath connects to the stem on a branch and when pulled from the tree remains intact with all of the bundled needles staying together. When the needles in a sheath are compressed together, they form a circular column. Remember that Pines have "plural" needles.

Our old Ponderosa Pine tree in our front drive

Juniper and Arborvitae look very similar. If the tree has overlapping scale-like foliage with horizontal and vertical foliage sprays, it is a Juniper. If the scale-like foliage grows in vertical and flattened spays, it is an Arborvitae. Junipers tend to have prickly needles while Arborvitae have rounded tips. Juniper does well in many growing conditions and will tolerate dry locations very well; Arborvitae will not tolerate dry, windy conditions. Juniper grows upright like a single-trunk tree or as a spreading shrub; Arborvitae grows tall in a teardrop-shaped, dense form, usually with multiple trunks. The cones of both trees look like berries; Juniper have three to six scales that are fused together in a round ball while Arborvitae have thicker scales that tend to peel back into pointed tips.

That's it. With the basic information above you should be able to give yourself the confidence to correctly identify an evergreen tree. There are a few other conifers like Yew and Larch, but they aren't very common and you should know right off that they aren't pine trees.

With more practice and experience you can identify specific tree types. Pinon Pine, Mugo Pine, and Lodgepole Pine trees all have two needles in a bundle. Pinon Pine needles are medium green, have white stripes along the needle and are 1/2" to 1-3/4" long; Mugo Pine needles are dark green, 1" to 3" long and slightly curved; Lodgepole Pine needles are yellowish-green, 1" to 3" long and sharp and stiff with a slight twist.

Ponderosa Pine grows in bundles of three needles that are 4" to 7" long, sometimes longer. Both Bristlecone and Limber Pine trees have bundles of five needles, but the Bristlecone needles are shorter and clearly identified by the little white spots that cover them. Colorado Spruce needles are 3/4" to 1-1/4" long while Engelmann Spruce needles are only 1/4" to 1/2" long.

The first step in making an easy tree identification is to find out what kind of conifers grow in your area. Ask your local Extension office, nurseries, or tree growers for a listing of local trees. I live in an area forested by Ponderosa Pines. With my eyes closed I can identify trees in our neighborhood as Ponderosa because that's about all that we have so I've started growing Colorado Blue Spruce to break up the monotony. If you know that White Firs don't naturally grow in your area, you aren't likely to confuse them with Douglas Firs.

If you want to go beyond the basic identification I've described, get a tree identification book or online guide. Just like the different needles, conifers have differing cones (only Pine trees have Pine cones). They have different growth patterns and different environmental requirements. By knowing what to look for, you can correctly identify unknown varieties. Next time you walk through a forest, stop and feel the needles. You'll amaze yourself at how easy it is.

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