Pines are the dominant conifers in our area; but spruce, fir, and tamarack are also commonly found.
White Spruce (Picea glauca)
Two species of spruce are native to Minnesota, the White Spruce and Black Spruce. The spruce in our area are predominantly White Spruce, Black Spruce are small and found in swampy areas. The White Spruce ranges across Canada and extends south only into the northernmost United States. It is the tree species that survives furthest north in North America, reaching north of the Arctic Circle, up to the 69th latitude.
In our area, small White Spruce trees are found around the edges of stands of pine trees. The larger spruce that I’ve seen locally were planted around homesteads or in cemetaries rather than growing wild. It seems that pine out-competes spruce for sunlight here.
Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
Balsam Fir is another conifer fairly common in our area, it has many similarities to White Spruce. Both have short needles that grow singly on the branches, the trees also have roughly the same conical shape.
There are several differences between the two trees that can be used for reliable identification. Balsam fir usually grows in a more slender conical shape than White Spruce. The bark of mature spruce trees is rough and scaly, while the bark of the fir tree is smoother. Their cones are distinctive; spruce cones hang down while fir cones stick up. Examination of the needles provides unambiguous identification. The needles of the fir are softer and flat, those of the spruce are stiffer and diamond-shaped in cross section. Spruce needles can be rolled between your fingers.
Tamarack (Larix laricina)
Tamarack, also known as the American Larch, is the only one of our native conifers with needles that turn yellow and completely fall off in autumn. It is most commonly found in low boggy areas.
The tamarack tree typically has a scraggly shape. It has short needles that grow from the branch in distinctive clusters of 15-20.