Now that we’ve covered how to identify some of the popular deciduous trees in Part 1 of this blog, we’ll move onto our coniferous tree ID. Personally, I think this is easier. We have less variety of conifers in Minnesota and they look the same all year long, which is tremendously helpful! As we mentioned before, there is a pretty simple, FREE online key to help you!
Before we begin there are a couple of terms we frequently misuse when it comes to these trees. The first term is needles, which we often think of as different than leaves. Needles ARE leaves! Furthermore, conifers can have two different types of leaves: scale-like or needle-like.
Scale-like leaves indicate the tree is a type of Cedar or Juniper, which we won’t cover in detail in this blog. Needle-like leaves can further be divided into other groups. Needles can be single, in bundles, or in clusters.
The second common misnomer regarding coniferous trees is that all conifers are pine trees. Really, only coniferous trees with needle-like leaves in bundles are considered to be pine tree genus. (Fun fact: did you know that bundles of needles are called fascicles?) Conifers with single needles belong to the spruce genus or fir genus, and the clusters are indicative of larch, known to many as tamaracks. These trees are the only deciduous conifer, turning a smoky gold in the fall and dropping all of their needles to the ground! This leads us to the last commonly misused term – evergreen. Deciduous conifers, like tamaracks, are the reason that not all coniferous trees are evergreen. Here’s a little key to classifying trees that may help clarify.
We don’t have evergreen broadleafed trees in our climate, but warmer climes do.
The dichotomous key for conifers perfectly summarizes all of this in a fairly simple diagram. We’ll cover the highlighted ones in more detail.
We likely encounter more pines in our region than other conifers. We have three native types of pine trees: eastern white pine, red pine, and the jack pine. You can tell these three apart by looking at their needles and pine cones.
Eastern White Pines: Needles are in bundles of 5! (One way to
remember that is there are five letters in w-h-i-t-e). They have the long, narrow pine cones compared to the other pines. Fun facts about the eastern white pine:
This is Minnesota’s largest conifer and it has strong wood, which made it a prized timber species starting in the 1700s. It was used for boat-building, lumber, pulp, matchsticks, and many other things made from wood. Did you know that the British attempts to control white pine harvesting (for use in the Royal Navy) contributed to the American Revolution?
This tree is very important for wildlife! It is a favorite of bald eagles, who build huge nests in high branches, and of the pileated woodpecker, who makes large cavities in it for nesting. Abandoned nest cavities are used by many other woodland critters, including owls, flying squirrels, chickadees, and ducks!
We used to have many more white pines in this state but due to white pine blister rust (a disease), unsustainable harvesting, fire suppression, and low natural reproduction (largely due to management) numbers have severely declined.
You can make tea with the needles, which is very high in Vitamin C and the bark has historically been used in many cough syrups because it is an excellent expectorant and diuretic.
You can see the tallest eastern white pine in the state (~110 feet) at Itasca State Park!
Red Pines (aka Norway Pine): Needles are long (4-6”) and in bundles
of 2! They have short, stubby pine cones and a very distinctive reddish-colored bark that resembles jigsaw pieces. Fun facts about the red pine:
This is Minnesota’s State Tree!
It is often called the Norway Pine because European settlers confused this tree with the Norway Spruce of Europe.
While there is relatively little natural reproduction, this is the most commonly planted tree in the state. You’ll often find it outside of its native range in northern Minnesota. Look for straight-rows of these trees, which are indicative of plantations.
Red pines can grow to be very old! Itasca has some red pines that are over 300 years old, while scientists suspect some red pines in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area may be approaching 400!
These trees are self-pruning, which means their lower branches often fall off leaving very straight trunks. By shedding the lower branches, there is less risk of a forest fire climbing up all the way to the top (crown) of the tree, which would likely kill it. The thick bark of this tree helps it withstand smaller forest fires.
This is my backyard. The left side is mostly white pines, which you can see retain their dead lower branches. The right is mostly red pines, which have dropped those branches leaving straight, bare trunks. On both sides, you can see the trees were planted in nice straight rows, indicative of an old pine plantation.
Jack Pines: Needles are short (0.75-1.5”) and typically in bundles
of 2 (sometimes 3). The pine cones are small and hard, appearing to be closed up. Fun facts about jack pine:
Jack pines have serotinous, or fire-dependent cones. They are sealed with resin, which melts in extreme temperatures, such as in a fire. Seeds prefer to germinate in disturbed soils, making this a pioneer species, or one of the first to return after a disturbance, like a fire.
This tree retains all of the lower, dead limbs – another feature that makes it fire-dependent. This encourages ground fires to climb the branches up into the crown, where it can melt the resin, open the cones, and disperse the seeds that will become the next generation of jack pine.
When French voyageurs arrived in Minnesota, they feared the thick stands of Jack Pine which had dense canopies (allowing in little light) and many scraggly, dead lower branches. This combination resulted in few other types of vegetation and very little prey to hunt in jack pine forests. French voyageurs found these forests to be spooky and tried to get rid of them by fire… which of course, only helped produce more Jack pine trees.
The Kirtland’s Warbler, an endangered species of songbird, relies solely on jack pine forests for nesting locations.
The other very common conifer in our area of Minnesota is the Balsam Fir. This is one of my favorite trees! Remember, these trees don’t have groups of needles, but rather each individual needle is directly attached to the twig.
Balsam Fir: Single, flat needles attached to the twig. When you crush the needles, they release a
pleasant smell that reminds me of Christmas! Fun facts about balsam fir:
That yummy smell from the crushed needles (and sap!) is why this tree is often used for Christmas trees, wreaths, and garlands.
Minnesota’s only native type of fir tree!
The seed cones are erect, rather than hanging, like most of our other native conifers.
The balsam fir has many medicinal and other uses! A tea from the twigs can be used as a laxative; steam produced from boiling the needles serves as a nasal decongestant; and the sticky resin has been used in everything from its obvious use as a glue, to sealing canoes and waterproofing pottery, and even medicinally in various treatments for coughs, headaches, and stomach upset
Balsam fir bark is smooth, except little bubbles that form on the surface of the bark. You can find a small stick and “pop” these bubbles to release a VERY sticky, fragrant resin (which is different than a tree’s sap). Scientists think the resin helps protect the tree from hungry insects and disease. Plus it is super flammable, so it makes a great fire starter, and you can make these little “resin rockets” with it – see below!
If the coniferous tree you’re looking at has single, needle-like leaves but they are round and appear to be attached to the twig by a little peglike base, then you’re looking at a spruce! We have two types of native spruce in Minnesota, both are slender evergreen trees with short branches and narrow crowns. The best way to tell them apart is by their twigs, cones, and location.
White Spruce: Common forest tree in upland areas of northern Minnesota. White spruce has hairless twigs and longer seed cones than black spruce. Typically, white spruce are larger than black spruce. Fun facts about white spruce:
These trees are somewhat slow-growing but can live to be over 200 years old. Many suspect some white spruce in the BWCAW are over 300 years old!
Sometimes called Skunk Spruce, the crushed needles of this tree give off a strong odor that reminds some folks of a skunk. I personally think it smells like cat pee. You choose!
Seedlings can grow in a variety of conditions, including in the full shade from a parent tree! This is fairly unusual in the tree world and part of what makes this a climax species, or a tree that lives in the final succession stage of a forest. Many other species rely on some sort of disturbance (wind blowing down trees, fire, cutting, etc.) to make an opening where the ground will receive light – but not this tree! It can keep reproducing without disturbance.
Black Spruce: Not very common in central Minnesota (much more so in the north), except in wetland areas, particularly swamps and bogs! The new twigs have reddish hairs and the tree produces shorter, more egg-shaped seed cones than the white spruce. Fun facts about black spruce:
Like white spruce, this is a slow-growing but long-living tree.
It is the most common type of tree growing in MN bogs. Bogs get all of their water from rainfall and are very acidic and nutrient-poor, which means things don’t grow well in bogs! A black spruce that is 250 years old in a bog may be only 20 feet tall!
When it grows in peatlands, the peat accumulates and causes the shallow roots of this spruce to become buried, where they eventually die from lack of air. However, black spruce have the unusual ability to produce a new layer of roots above the dead layer, creating a unique root layering system to keep the tree alive!
The red hairs on a black spruce twig.
As you head out to enjoy nature this fall and winter, challenge yourself to identify the coniferous trees that you encounter! Share these fun facts with family and friends as you appreciate the beauty of Minnesota trees all year long!