The ten coniferous trees native to Minnesota are listed below
- Red Pine (Norway Pine) Minnesota State Tree
- Eastern White Pine
- Jack Pine
- Balsam Fir
- White Spruce
- Black Spruce
- Tamarack (Eastern or American Larch)
- Eastern Red Cedar (juniper)
- Northern White Cedar
- Eastern Hemlock
Bold type marks the seven trees in the list that I’ve identified in our area (so far); the three pines, a spruce, the fir, and the tamarack. Eastern red cedar is a later addition.
There is a lot to say about these trees, I intend to focus on how to distinguish among them. This post will illustrate the feature that is most diagnostic and easiest to remember; the needles.
Needles of the three native Minnesota pine trees.
From left to right: Red Pine (Pinus resinosa), White Pine (Pinus stobus) , and Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)
All three of these pine trees grow needles from buds in clusters called fascicles. The number of needles in each fascicle distinguishes the White Pine, with five-needle clusters, from the Jack and Red pines that each have two needles in their fascicles. Jack Pine and Red Pine needles are quite different; the Red Pine needles are much longer.
As illustrated in the picture above, the combination of needle length and the number of needles in each fascicle makes it easy to distinguish these pines from one another.
Needles of the Tamarack (Larix laricina)
The tamarack tree, also known as the larch, also grows needles in groups from a single bud. As can be seen in the image above, there are many needles in these clusters; typically 10-20. Unlike most conifers that keep their needles year-long (evergreens), tamarack needles turn yellow and drop off in fall.
Needles of the White Spruce (Picea glauca) and Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
Pictures of White Spruce needles are on the left above, while pictures of Balsam Fir needles are on the right. In both trees, the needles grow singly from the branches, not growing in clusters as in pines or tamaracks. The spruce needles are shorter, more prickly, and grow in a circle around each branch. Balsam Fir needles are softer and preferentially grow out to the sides of each branch.
In cross-section spruce needles are a diamond shape while Balsam fir needles are flatter. A quick diagnostic test is to try rolling a needle between your fingers. A spruce needle will easily roll, a needle from a fir won’t.
Again, White Spruce needles are at the left of the picture above and Balsam Fir needles are at the right. A clear difference is the white lines on the underside of the fir needles.
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Addendum: Red Cedars are present in our area too, but I did not recognize them prior to posting. So far I have seen them mainly in parks and cemeteries; the photograph above is a red cedar in a park in Nevis, Minnesota.
The next post about these trees will illustrate larger-scale features that can be used to distinguish among them.