A Field Guide to Evergreen Trees

By Anita Sanchez

They’re the stars of the hol­i­day sea­son. They bright­en the whole drab win­ter with their warm, fes­tive green­ery. But dur­ing the sum­mer, the ever­green trees lose their star­ring role — they’re com­plete­ly upstaged by the foliage of oaks and maples and all the broadleaf trees. The ever­greens, for­mer stars of the for­est, are now in a sup­port­ing role – they just blend into the gen­er­al green back­drop of the woods.

Let’s take a clos­er look. First of all, what does it mean to be ever­green? Actu­al­ly, ever­green” isn’t a type of plant, it’s a lifestyle. There are ever­green ferns, oaks, and moss­es. Ever­green” just means they keep some (but not all) of their leaves green all year long. Nee­dles are leaves, of course, they’re just shaped dif­fer­ent­ly than those of the broadleaved trees. But noth­ing is green for­ev­er, and even­tu­al­ly nee­dles turn brown and die; it just takes them longer than leaves like oak or maple. A pine nee­dle lives about three years, and some types of spruces can hang onto their nee­dles for sev­en years. 

Any­way, ever­greens like pines, spruces, firs, hem­locks, and cedars all get used to deck the halls and malls, and they dec­o­rate the for­est even in sum­mer. But it can be hard to tell which ever­green is which. Here’s a short field guide if you’re not sure which ever­green you’re greeting.

A sim­ple rule of thumb: if the nee­dles are longer than your thumb, it’s prob­a­bly a pine. Pine nee­dles grow in clus­ters on the branch, so if long nee­dles are attached to the twig in bunch­es, think pine.

If the tree has short nee­dles (an inch or less), and if they’re attached to the twigs singly, it’s prob­a­bly a spruce, fir, or hemlock. 

Spruces are the bot­tle-brush tree. When I’m teach­ing kids about tree iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, I lit­er­al­ly show them a bot­tle-brush, to explain what I mean by the nee­dles being arranged all around the branch. You can put your hand round a spruce twig and feel the prick­le from all those bristly, stiff needles.

Firs and hem­locks have nee­dles that lie in a flat plane, like two combs placed side by side. Fir nee­dles tend to be flat and limp, like bits of green rib­bon — not as prick­ly and sharp as spruce. Also, firs have a won­der­ful spicy, resiny fra­grance — I think firs are hands-down the best-smelling trees in the woods. 

Hem­lock nee­dles are small­er and not as fra­grant, but they have a pair of dis­tinc­tive white rac­ing stripes on the underside.

If the plant has a sort of scaly look, a bit like the skin of a green rep­tile, it’s a cedar. Remem­ber sssss-cedars look like ssssss­nakes. Each of the lit­tle scales” is actu­al­ly a short leaf, and they over­lap each oth­er like tiles on a roof. White cedars top the list of deer foods — it’s hard to find a wild cedar (or one in a yard, for that mat­ter) that hasn’t been nib­bled to shoul­der height by deer.

All of the ever­green trees are a feast for the five sens­es. On a hot summer’s day, pick a nee­dle, crunch it up and sniff to be trans­port­ed back to win­ter­time. Their prick­li­ness is reward­ing to touch, whether it’s the paint­brush soft­ness of white pine, the bristly nee­dles of spruce, or the smooth skin of cedar. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, ever­green nee­dles taste absolute­ly ter­ri­ble, but all ever­greens are very high in vit­a­min C and oth­er min­er­als. They’re a nutri­tious nib­ble, or a healthy if less-than-deli­cious tea. (Please do not for­age at the Arbore­tum, how­ev­er. And be sure you nev­er taste a yew tree, a com­mon land­scap­ing tree or shrub, which is high­ly toxic.) 

And of course, ever­greens are just plain beau­ti­ful. I love them for their state­ly height and their majes­tic sil­hou­ettes against the sky at sun­set. Per­haps best of all, the sigh, mur­mur, and roar of the wind in the branch­es of ever­greens is a sym­pho­ny for all seasons.

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Summer 2023

Volume 41 , Number 2

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