HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Pine Trees


Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria araucana) is NOT a Pine Tree

Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria araucana) is NOT a Pine Tree

According to my dad all cats are girls and all dogs are boys. That’s just the way it is. Every cat is a ‘she’ and every dog is a ‘he’. Of course for many years we had a male cat and a female dog, but that didn’t matter.  My dad doesn’t seem to be alone in this sentiment. My father-in-law ex-father-in-law also always refers to dogs in the masculine and cats in the feminine.

Something similar happens at this time of the year. As people start searching for their Christmas trees, often they refer to every Christmas-tree shaped object in the lot and in the woods as a pine tree. Just like all cats are not girls and all dogs are not boys, all evergreens are not pine trees.

Define Pine (Pinus)

Pine trees are defined by their fascicles, or bundles, of needles. No other evergreen trees have these. This is how you know a pine is, in fact, a pine.  Pine trees are further divided, for identification, by the number and length of needles in their bundles.

Our native, long, soft needled, white pine has 5 needles in their bundles  – WHITE (5 letters = 5 needles in the bundle)

Pinus strobus

Bundled needles of native White Pine (Pinus strobus )

Depending on the type of pine, you may find 2-5 needles per bundle.  Regardless of the number of needles, it is the papery sheath that creates the bundle of needles that makes a pine tree.

Junipers  (Juniperus)

Another easy one to tell from most of the others is the juniper. The native Red Cedar is not often used as a Christmas tree (though we have had great success using these trees as living Christmas trees and planting them in the yard after the holiday lights have been unstrung), but it does sport cheerful blue fruit throughout the winter, that is until the more than 70 types of birds that use it for winter food descend and denude it in late winter. Junipers have what are called awl needles. Some describe them as canoe shaped. Juniper can be tricky though, sporting two different shaped needles in youth and with age. Young needles are longer and can be quite sharp while the older needles are less aggressive.

This evergreen also differs from many others in that the cone (yes, it is a cone!) looks like a blue berry. The blue cone is a female cone. It is the flesh on this cone with fused scales that gives gin its unique flavor.

Juniperus virginiana with Berries

Juniperus virginiana with Berries

Other types of evergreens may be a little more difficult to discern.


Fir needles are flat. Lots of other needles are flat too, but this helps me narrow down what I am looking at. Below are the 2″ blue-green, flat soft needles of Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), spirally arranged around the stem.  This evergreen has become a popular Christmas tree because of its ability to retain needles in the hot dry conditions of most homes during this time of the year. Though it will hold on to its needles in the heat of the house, if you are planning on growing one of these it’s best if you live in the cooler hardiness zones of 6 and below.

Douglas Fir (Pesudotsuga menziesii)

Douglas Fir (Pesudotsuga menziesii) needles are soft, blue-green and spirally arranged around the stem.

Because fir needles are flat, they will not spin when you place them between your fingers. A good field test when trying to determine what you are looking at. Though Douglas Fir is not a true fir (true firs are members of the genus Abies) I lump it in with the flat needles firs for ID purposes.

Firs are Flat

Fir needles are flat. They will not spin when placed between the fingers.

Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)

Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)

Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri)

Fraser Firs are found in the wild along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina (talk about a road trip!) as well as the mountains of West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Notice this tree has shorter, more sturdy needles.

Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

From below you will notice the prominent white bands on the undersides of the needles of Canadian Hemlock. The needles of these diminishing native evergreens are only about 1/2″ – 3/4″ of an inch long. This tree is not often used as a cut Christmas tree because it will not hang onto its needles for long. However, if you are choosing a living Christmas tree (one that comes complete with roots and a ball of soil!) this may do as long as you keep it watered and don’t keep it inside for too long. Plant these trees with room for their 70 tall and 35 foot wide spread in cool, rich, well-drained woodland soil. Contrary to popular practice, this is not the tree to use to create a hedge in your sunny front lawn.  These trees used to make up a great part of eastern forests, but an invasive pest – the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid – has all bust decimated the population. I keep planting them, in fact I just planted 50 2-gallon trees throughout my woodlands this spring, not to mention the living tree we decorated last year. Why? Aren’t I afraid they will all be attacked by the adelgid? I plant them because the more of them there are, the more chance there is that some will escape the pest or attract a beneficial insect that will eat the pest. I plant them because I am an optimist and want to do my part to try and save this beautiful tree. I plant them because I care about my plants and will monitor and take steps to protect these trees. Canadian Hemlock, with its tiny cones and graceful habit, at one time defined east coast stream banks and ravines, rich woodlands and damp mountainsides and supported the songbirds and small mammals that resided within. I would like to see that again, and so I do what I can.

Spruce (Picea)

Norway Sprunce (Picea abies)

Triangular needles of Norway Sprunce (Picea abies).

Spruces spinHow do you tell a fir from a  spruce? Firs are Flat, Spruces Spin. While fir needles just sort of sit there when you try to spin them between thumb and forefinger, spruces will spin. Spruce needles are square in cross-section, making it easy to roll them between your fingers. Again, a fairly simple and reliable field ID technique to help you narrow it down.  Norway Spruce and Blue Spruce are very (too?) common in landscapes. Norway Spruce needles are dark green and 1/2″ – 1″ in length. The stiff Blue Spruce needles have a blue cast to them, though this is very variable depending on a number of factors including shade.

Spruces Spin in between the fingers of the husband's hard working hands.

Square in cross-section, 4-sided spruces needles spin in between the fingers of the husband’s ex-husband’s hard working hands.

Yew (Taxus)

Yew (Taxus baccata)

Yew (Taxus baccata)

Native yews are few and far between, not used in the landscape because they bronze in the winter. Asian and European varieties are much easier to locate in yards and gardens. Looking at the undersides of the needles, you may notice the lack of white bands. You may also notice, if you compare these needles to those of hemlock, that the yew needles end in a point, while the hemlock needles are blunt-tipped. Like the Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), yew sports highly modified and decorative cones. In this case the cones are flashy red berries with a single seed inside. As in many cases, red means danger. The foliage and seeds of this plant are highly toxic to many animals. Don’t have red berries on your yew? These plants are dioecious – meaning they have male plants and female plants. You may either have a female plant with no male nearby to fertilize it or a male plant fertilizing the rest of the yews in the neighborhood.

Identifying Evergreens

Of course there’s more to identifying evergreens than just taking a close look at the needles, but since they’re always there, it’s a good place to start. Overall shape, silhouette, bark and cones will all help you figure out just what that Christmas tree you are looking at actually is.

About those cones

Yes, all cones are not pinecones either. Only those cones that come from a pine tree are pine cones. The other cones are spruce cones, hemlock cones, fir cones…

Get out there, feel the needles, touch the tree and be specific when you are talking about the species of your Christmas tree and, for that matter, the gender of your pet.

4 thoughts on “Pine Trees

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  3. I always wondered if Red Cedar and Juniper were different species, or just different names for the same species! I’ve seen Red Cedar mostly in natural landscapes in a tree-like form, but often seen juniper in cultivated areas in a bush-like form. Same plant, different subspecies? Or just pruned to stay low, perhaps?

    • Hi Lynn. Red Cedar is a type of juniper. There are hundreds of different types of junipers native to all over the world. Some are low growing some are tall. Most likely what you are seeing are the same genus different species of juniper. Though folks have been known to take what are naturally very large growing trees and prune them into tiny meatballs. So you never know!

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