Time for Pine

This time of year there seems to be an abundance of pines, spruces, firs, conifers and evergreens around every turn. So, whats the difference between all of these piney partners mentioned above? Turns out alot, and it can get confusing!

Here are some terms to get us started:

evergreen: An evergreen keeps it color all season. They also have constant foliage. Not all evergreens are pines! Other evergreens include yews, rhododendrons, boxwoods, spruces, firs and hemlocks.

conifer: Cone-bearing woody plants. Examples are cedars, firs, cypresses, junipers, larches, pines, redwoods, spruces and yews.

Yews are a conifer, even though they don't have what we think of as a traditional cone. The fleshy aril which surrounds the seed has been classified as a highly modified seed cone scale.
Yews are a conifer, even though they don't have what we think of as a traditional cone. The fleshy aril which surrounds the seed has been classified as a highly modified seed cone scale.

Not all conifers are evergreens (Tamaraks loose their needles).  Some evergreens aren’t conifers (Rhododendrons).

Rhododendrons are not cone-bearing, however they have perpetual foliage making them an evergreen but not a conifer.
Rhododendrons are not cone-bearing, however they have perpetual foliage making them an evergreen but not a conifer.

What is a pine?

An evergreen. A pine is a coniferous (cone-bearing) tree.  Their needles come in bundles of two to five, and are attached by a papery wrap called a fascicle.

This is an Austrian pine (Pinus nigra). You can see that the needles are attached in bundles and have a papery coating at the base, typical of a pine.
This is an Austrian pine (Pinus nigra). You can see that the needles are attached in bundles and have a papery coating at the base, typical of a pine.

What is a spruce?

An evergreen. A spruce is also a coniferous (cone-bearing) tree.  Their needles are attached  to the stem singly.

This is a Colorado Blue Spruce. Note that each single needle is attached directly to the stem. Spruces also tend to have very stiff, and sharp needles.
This is a Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens). Note that each single needle is attached directly to the stem. Spruces also tend to have very stiff, and sharp needles.

What is a Fir?

An evergreen conifer.  They can be identified by their soft foliage attached  by a suction-cup shaped base, and erect cones. Some Firs include Frasier Fir,  Noble Fir, Red Fir, Balsam Fir and Siberian Fir. Douglas Fir are not considered a true fir because they belong to a different genus. Firs also tend to have dense, tight cones.

This picture of a Frasier Fir shows the soft and rounded tip needles and dense cone of a Fir. You can also see the winged seeds developing in the cone. When mature the seeds will look like papery tails hanging out of the cone.
This picture of a Frasier Fir shows the soft and rounded tip foliage and dense cone of a Fir. You can also see the winged seeds developing in the cone. When mature, the seeds will look like papery tails hanging out of the cone.

What is a Hemlock?

Evergreen conifers belonging to the genus Tsuga.  Hemlocks can handle shade and are very drought tolerant. Around West Michigan you can see them growing on the slopes of our Maple-Beech forest ravines. They have light, wispy apperance to the branches, and soft leaves (note that they are not classified as needles).

The Hemlock is a beautiful tree with soft foliage. Note the leaves growing from main stem.  Hemlocks are commonly used for wood pulp and in leather tanning.
The Hemlock is a beautiful tree with soft foliage. Note the leaves growing from main stem. Hemlocks are commonly used for wood pulp and in leather tanning.

I hope that this has begun to clear things up a bit… Practice your pine and evergreen spying as you shop for your trees and wreaths this winter and are wandering in the woods this fall!