Sunday 8 January 2006

Conifer Boot Camp

Over the holidays people spent two weeks with a tree in their house that they would not be able to identify if they saw it in the forest. Christmas trees, and holiday wreathes are usually evergreen trees from the group called conifers. Conifers are an ancient group of trees that have been present in the earth’s forests for over 400 million years. They have a well adapted system of survival that has allowed them to prosper up till the present time.

Typically your needled evergreen will be one of three species of trees, pines, spruces, or firs. The easiest way to tell them apart is to have a close look at their needles. Needles are the equivalent of leaves and perform all the usual leaf functions of photosynthesis and water transpiration. Needles have the following distinguishing features that allow you to identify your tree: length, colour and shape.

Pines have the longest needles, 5cm ( 2 in ) or more in length, grouped in bundles that contain various numbers of individual needles. White pines will have 5 needles in a bundle, red pines will have three needles and Scots pines will have 2 needles with a pronounced twist. Jack pines have two shorter needles with no twist to them. Pine needles may have a yellow tinge to them in winter. Most trees for the holiday trade will have colour applied to give them a blue green hue.

Spruces have shorter, 2.5 cm ( 1 in ), needles that are thick and four sided when you break one in half. They may have a slightly skunky smell. You can also easily roll them between your fingers because they are four sided and not flat. They may be very sharp and waxy blue on a blue spruce or smaller and green on a white spruce. Black spruce needles are generally the shortest and may be dark green.

Firs have shorter needles than pines, similar in size to spruce needles. Fir needles are flat and when you break one in half it is decidedly flattened. You can not roll them in your fingers like a spruce tree and they have a strong aroma.

There are many exceptions to these rules as genetics and environment can create a great variety of forms. There are also other species of conifers that have different features than described. These few key points should have you headed in the right direction whether it’s in the forest or just out looking at the last handful of needles from under the couch.

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