The holiday season is the perfect time to get to know the conifers
With practice, it’s possible to identify many plants and animals by size and shape alone. Any two European starlings will always look plump, have a relatively long, straight bill and sport a short, square tail. In flight, the wings will appear triangular and pointed. The shape of trees, too, is remarkably consistent and often allows for quick recognition at a glance. Identifying distant trees against the winter sky adds enjoyment to any walk or car trip as you mentally compile a list of the species you observe. It is also a useful skill to have when pointing out the location of a distant object such as a bird. “Do you see the hawk perched at the top of the white pine over there? I think it’s a red tail.”
The holiday season is an especially appropriate time to sharpen our conifer (i.e., cone‑bearing trees) identification skills. Whereas deciduous trees are now bare to the sky, our conifers are dressed in their finest holiday foliage. Juxtaposed against their leafless neighbours, the unique contour of each species is easy to see. Christmas is also the time of year when we decorate our homes with evergreen wreathes, make winter planters and put up a real (the only choice!) Christmas tree. But, how many of us can tell the different species apart?
For each conifer group described below, I’ve provided hints for identifying the trees by shape and by characteristics of the needles. I’ve also included a memory aid or mnemonic with similar spelling for linking these characteristics to the name of the tree. (e.g., pine and pin).
Towering high above its forest neighbours is the eastern white pine, Ontario’s official tree and an iconic species of the Kawarthas. If you only learn the shape of one species, learn this one. The irregular crown and stout, wing-like branches growing at right angles to the trunk make this species instantly recognizable. The crowns of many white pines become one‑sided in appearance because of the effect of the prevailing wind. Jackson Park in Peterborough is crowned by a majestic stand of these imposing giants.
Although less common, the red pine is also native to the Kawarthas. Like the white, large sections of the trunk are visible almost to the top. The crown, however, is usually symmetrical. This species also has a very open, airy look with most of the needles grouped together in ball‑like “tufts.” This is because the foliage is crowded towards the tips of the branches. The scaly reddish bark is also a useful field mark. There is a stand of red pine planted on the south side of Lily Lake Road, just west of Ackison Drive.
A pine needle is like a long like “pin”. The white pine has bundles of five needles, which is the number of letters in the word “white”. Red pine has bundles of two needles. (Sorry, but red has three letters.) Care must be taken, however, not to confuse red pine with Scots (Scotch) pine, an introduced species whose needles also come in pairs. The red pine has long brittle needles (close to six inches) which break in half when bent. The needles of Scots pine are only half as long and are twisted. Just to confuse matters, the two-needled Austrian pine is another commonly planted conifer in cities and along highways. The bark, however, is dark brown to gray.
Our most common native species is the white spruce. The entire tree has a near-perfect symmetrical appearance. The crown is cone-shaped or somewhat rounded. Most of the trunk is usually hidden by the bushy branches. The bark is gray and scaly, becoming darker with age. Spruce are particularly easy to identify this year because of the abundant cones, which are concentrated at the top of the tree. The cones of white spruce are about two inches in size.
By far the most common spruces in Peterborough, however, are the non-native Norway and Colorado (or blue) spruce. In fact, they are the most common tall conifers of any species in the city. Norway spruce are often planted around farms, too, where they serve as windbreaks. This species is easily distinguished by its large, horizontal branches from which secondary branches hang straight down. The cones, on average, are about six inches in length. Colorado spruce have a striking bluish colour, especially at the tips of the branches.
Spruce needles “spiral” all the way around the twig and are usually “stiff”, “spiky” and painful to touch. Because they are rounded, they roll or “spin” between your thumb and index finger.
The only fir you’re likely to see in eastern Canada is the balsam. Unfortunately, they are rarely planted as ornamentals and are therefore uncommon in the city. Firs have a near‑perfect symmetrical shape, but differ from spruce in that they are narrower and taper to a skinny point at the top. This gives them the nickname of the “church steeple” tree. The smooth, grayish bark of young trees is covered with raised sap blisters, which are fun to poke. This species makes a great Christmas tree, thanks to the wonderful balsamic fragrance, symmetrical shape and the long-lasting, dark green needles. Fir needles are “flat” and very “flexible”. You can’t roll them between your thumb and finger. Fir are most common in low, damp habitats on the Shield. Watch for them along Highway 28 north of Burleigh Falls. They also grow in Harper Park.
The eastern hemlock is another tree with a conical crown, but it becomes ragged and irregular with age. This gives the tree an untidy outline. Unlike the spruce and fir, the tip of the crown and other branches usually droop. Hemlock foliage has a feathery – almost lacy – look to it and the tiny cones can be found on even the lowest branches. While the white pine surely qualifies as king of the forest, the hemlock is my choice as the queen.
Hemlock needles are flat like balsam fir, but very short (less than an inch) and nearly white underneath. To connect the needles to the word hemlock – yes, it’s a stretch – think of the prefix “hemi”, which means half (e.g., hemisphere). Hemlock needles are half white (underside) and half green (topside). There are a number of spectacular hemlocks in Jackson Park, where they grow on the north side of the steep hill above the concrete bridge over Jackson Creek.
By far the most common conifer in the Kawarthas south of the Canadian Shield, white cedars grow in dense, single-species stands or along forest edges. Trees growing in open environments such as fields are conical to almost columnar in shape and have a neat, trimmed appearance. The foliage is dense and often hides the trunk right to the ground. Forest-grown trees have a visible trunk and open irregular crown. The lower branches are usually dead. The bark, which matures into flat, stringy narrow strips, is shiny, smooth and reddish brown in young trees and grey in older individuals. This year, cedars are laden with an exceptionally heavy crop of small, tightly packed cones.
Cedars are unique in that they have scale-like, flattened needles. If you need a mnemonic – another stretch, I’m afraid – remember that cedar needles have scales, just like fish in the sea! (“sea”dar).
The only tree-sized juniper in the Kawarthas, Juniperus virginiana, is usually known by its inaccurate common name of eastern red-cedar. They are small trees (usually less than 30 feet tall) and are most abundant in abandoned fields. The shape is variable, ranging from oval to columnar or pyramidal. The berry-like cones are dark blue in colour and often covered with a whitish powder. They are a favourite of robins and waxwings. There is a tall hedge of eastern red-cedar on the north side of Parkhill Road, just west of Wallis Drive.
Junipers have two kinds of bluish-green leaves: soft, rounded scale leaves, resembling those of the white cedar, and sharply-pointed needle leaves. The scale leaves can become yellowish-brown in winter. Both types of leaves often appear on the same branch. So, to remember the juniper, think of a pair of different kinds of leaves or juni”pair”.
Watch for these medium-sized, spruce-shaped trees in swampy lowlands, especially on the Shield. Winter identification is simple: the branches are bare because all the needles are shed each fall. In fact, you might mistake them for dead spruce. All that remains on the twigs are seed cones and some little protrusions or lumps, where the bundles of needles grew. Maybe think of “leafless larch”. There is a particularly nice stand of tamaracks on County Road 10, just south of Hooton Drive/Wilson Line on the west side of the road. They are beautiful in the fall when the foliage changes to a smoky gold.
Being able to recognize the various conifers that dot the landscape of the Kawarthas provides a very satisfying sense of place. Like the common loon and the white‑tailed deer, the pines, spruce, cedars, firs, hemlocks, junipers and tamaracks tell us we are home.