Spruce, Fir, and Tamarack

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.


The three pine trees native to Minnesota are the White Pine, Red Pine, and Jack Pine.

Pine trees are distinguished from other conifers, like spruce and fir, by having needles attached to their branches in clusters of two or five. Needles of spruce and fir trees are attached singly to the branches.

As shown in a previous post, Red Pines have long needles in clusters of two, Jack Pine needles are also in clusters of two but are shorter, and White Pine needles are in clusters of five. This post will illustrate features other than needles that distinguish these pines from one another. Plus, I just want to share images of these beautiful trees.

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

Eastern White Pine is a majestic and valuable tree. It has been extensively logged for its desirable white wood; estimations are that only 1% of old growth White Pine forest remained by the early 1900’s.

White Pines are long-lived, commonly reaching 250 years and occasional individuals live over 400 years. It is the tallest tree in Eastern North America. Its maximum height is thought to have been about 230′, but this is uncertain because the tallest individuals were cut down long ago.

White Pine needles are soft and tightly packed, giving the tree a feathery appearance.

Red Pine, or Norway Pine (Pinus resinosa)

Minnesota’s state tree is the Red Pine, also known as the Norway Pine (although it is a North American native, not Norwegian). Logging of Red Pine in Minnesota peaked between 1880 and 1900.

It is another long-lived tree, some living more than 200 years. Managed stands of Red Pine typically grow 60 to 120 years before harvest. Such managed stands of Red Pine are common in our area, as seen in the image at the upper left below.

Natural regeneration of Red Pine requires fire. In nearby Itasca Park, the oldest stand of Red Pines originated from widespread fires there in 1714.

Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)

Jack pine is a tree that does not get much respect, it is often described as straggly or scrubby. Jack Pine rarely grows as large as the other two pines and typically is not very straight. Its wood has uses, but is not as desirable as the other pines. However, the US national champion Jack Pine at 73′ tall is found in Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota.

The cones of Jack Pine typically point up along the branch, which is unusual for pines. The cones open to drop seeds only when exposed to high temperatures, as in a fire. Jack Pine is very well adapted to fire. It dominates areas in its range that have experienced frequent burns.

Fall Colors in August

Surprisingly to me, there already are hints of fall colors here — prior to September! This post features pictures of these early signs of season change.

The conditions here in late August are nearly perfect — crisp days with nearly no bugs.

Sugar Maple — August 22

Viburnum; Guelder-rose — August 28

Amur Maple — August 29

American Hazelnut — August 31

The top row of images shows hazelnuts of the American and Beaked Hazelnut with their green-to-brown wrappings (called involucres) and a group of the nuts with involucres peeled away. Sites to guide you on foraging and preparing wild hazelnuts are available here and here. The bush in the lower image that is just starting to turn color is an American hazelnut.

Black Cherry — August 31

Paper Birch — August 31

Hops and Brewing

Hops planted in our yard are ready for use in homebrewing

Cascade Hops (Humulus lupulus)

Humulus lupulus, or hops, is a perennial viney plant in the hemp family. Its cone-shaped fruits are one of the four key ingredients in modern beer (water, malted grain, hops, and yeast). Hops add bitter flavor and provide anti-microbial protection for beer. A wide variety of herbs have been used throughout history as the flavoring agent for beer, but since the 15th century, hops have essentially replaced all of these.

Much of the variety among beers is controlled by the choices the brewer makes in use of hops. This is especially true in currently popular hop-forward types of beer, like Indian Pale Ale (IPA). There are well over 100 varieties of hops, often categorized into bittering and aromatic varieties. In the right-most picture above, a hop cone has been pulled apart to show its yellow lupulin, which are small glands containing the essential oils and hop acids important to brewing.

Three years ago I planted the Cascade Hop plants seen in these photos next to a Red Pine tree that they could climb up. Cascade was developed in the 1960’s in Oregon; it is most commonly used for its aroma, but can also be used as a bittering hop. It gives a citrusy, grapefruit-like flavor to beers.

Yesterday I brewed a basic IPA recipe, using only fresh-picked Cascade hops from my plants.

The following slideshow illustrates yesterday’s brewing process. Many websites provide home brewing instruction; John Palmer’s site is one of the best.

  1. The ingredients other than hops and water — malt products, oats, and yeast
  2. The setup used to boil the mixture of hops and grain sugars (wort)
  3. Inside the kettle while boiling the wort
  4. The wort with yeast added fermenting in its carboy

Late Summer Wildflowers

Fewer new wildflowers are to be found in August, but lately I have found four new and attractive purple flowers

Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera)

There are 5 species of Blazing Star in Minnesota. The Northern Plains Blazing Star is similar to the Rough Blazing Star, but commonly has its flowers on stalks. All Blazing Star flowers are very attractive to butterflies, hummingbirds and bees; and are offered by nurseries specializing in native plants.

Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense)

The Smooth Blue Aster is a very similar species to the Sky Blue Aster. These asters prefer sunny well-drained locations. They are another late-summer bloomer very attractive to butterflies.

Eastern Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

According to Minnesota Wildflowers, the Eastern Purple Coneflower is not native to Minnesota, although other coneflower species are. Despite this, I think the plants pictured below are the Eastern Purple Coneflower. I’ve seen them only one place. They are prevalent along the Paul Bunyan Trail running between highways 34 and 371, south of Walker, Minnesota. It seems suspicious that they are so prevalent there and seen no where else in the area. Reportedly they are increasingly common as a “garden escapee”, which seems a likely explanation for this occurrence.

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum)

Joe-Pye Weed was found growing along a nearby roadside in a lower marshy spot. From a distance it appears similar to a milkweed. Because the plants did not have spots on the stems, they are likely Sweet-Scented Joe-Pye Weed rather than the similar Spotted species.

There are two stories about the origin of the plant’s name. Either “Joe Pye” was the name of a Native American medicine man in colonial New England, or the name is derived from “jopi”, which is a Native American word for typhoid — because the plant has been used as a remedy for typhoid. Its root contains volatile oils and is the part of the plant most commonly used medicinally.


The ten coniferous trees native to Minnesota are listed below

  1. Red Pine (Norway Pine) Minnesota State Tree
  2. Eastern White Pine
  3. Jack Pine
  4. Balsam Fir
  5. White Spruce
  6. Black Spruce
  7. Tamarack (Eastern or American Larch)
  8. Eastern Red Cedar (juniper)
  9. Northern White Cedar
  10. 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.

Lakeshore Plants

This post focuses on plants found on our lake’s shoreline in late summer

Blue Lobela (Lobelia siphilitica)

This native plant, also known as Blue Cardinal Flower, can be adapted to moist areas of gardens. Its species name, siphilitica, refers to its use by the Iroquois in treating venereal disease — a use that European studies failed to verify.

Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata)

It looks innocuous, but Water Hemlock is a deadly poisonous plant to people and animals. It is considered the most toxic native plant in North America. Cicutoxin, its main poison, is concentrated in the plant’s roots. Mistaking the root for similar edible parsnips can have fatal results.

An alternate name, cowbane, reflects its toxic effects on cattle.

Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

Boneset is a native plant found throughout Minnesota and the eastern United States. In the picture to the left above, its stem appears to be growing through two fused opposing leaves. This characteristic suggested to ancient herbalists that boneset could be useful in mending broken bones. This claim is very questionable, but boneset has been used through the years as a remedy for colds, fevers, and other ailments

Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis)

This plant, also called Field Mint or Corn Mint, is the only true mint native to North America. It is edible, a few leaves provides a minty taste to salads. It is also commonly used in herbal teas.

The most commonly cited medical benefit of Wild Mint is to relieve upset stomach.

Mint plants are notoriously invasive in gardens. Wild Mint, or any mint, is best planted in containers to avoid having it take over gardens.

American Water Horehound (Lycopus americanus)

This plant is also in the Mint family (Lamiaceae), however it does not have the characteristic minty scent. A commonly-used alternate name for it is American Bugleweed.

Common Goldentop (Euthamia graminifolia)

Also known as Grass-leaved Goldenrod, this plant prefers wetter environments than other Goldenrod species.

Common Goldentop is a good choice for Wildlife Gardens or Meadows.

Wildflowers described in previous posts have predominantly been from the roadsides. Some other plants from the water’s edge have appeared previously, including Ontario Lobelia, Jewelweed, and Swamp Milkweed.


Hummingbirds; pictures and info

In these first weeks of August we have had many hummingbirds visiting our feeders. We had seen several hummingbirds in May, but they were absent in June and July. Apparently this pattern is common, many hummingbirds hang around feeders in May, but by June the females are busy nesting and the males wander off elsewhere. In late summer they are back at the feeders, fueling up for their upcoming migration south.

There are several species of hummingbirds in the western US, but in Minnesota and to the east only the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is common. The colorful and feisty males are the hummingbirds most often seen at feeders.

Updated to include the pictures above, that show a female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird visiting our garden today.

Hummingbird in New Mexico

Last week on a road trip from Houston to Salt Lake City, we were lucky to see some hummingbirds feeding on yucca flowers near Santa Fe, New Mexico. There are many species of hummingbird in this area; the one in the picture above looks like a Black-Chinned Hummingbird (?).

Small Flowers

I am learning that small plants have remarkable fine-scale features. This post is intended to show off some of these.

Ontario Lobelia (Lobelia kalmii)

This tiny plant is prevalent on the north shore of Lake Superior and is less common elsewhere in Minnesota. It only reaches 0.5 to 1.5 inches tall and its flowers are just 0.25 to 0.50 inches across.

Ontario Lobelia prefers wetland environments, and is found in the northern states and Canada.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

This is an attractive and vigorous native plant that prefers semi-shady wetlands. Its mature seed pods explosively expel seeds at a slight touch, which explains its alternate name, Spotted Touch-me-not.

The sap of Jewelweed has been used by Native Americans to sooth skin rashes, particularly from poison ivy.

Rabbit Tobacco (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium)

Rabbit Tobacco is an interesting plant. A commonly-used alternate name is Sweet Everlasting; because its flowers are long-lasting and it reportedly gives off a sweet, maple-like scent. Its flowers are the yellow-brown parts seen at the tips of the plant in the photos above. The white petal-like structures surrounding the flower are actually bracts.

There are several medicinal and supernatural benefits attributed to Rabbit Tobacco, including sore-throat relief and repelling ghosts. As suggested by the name “tobacco” people smoke the leaves of this plant. Smoking Rabbit Tobacco has been a tradition among both Native Americans and children in the rural south.

Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium fontanum)

Mouse-ear chickweed is truly tiny, I found it hidden amongst the grass on our lawn. For scale, compare it to the blades of grass seen in the pictures above.

There are many species of chickweed in Minnesota, Mouse-ear is distinguished from other similar species, like Common Chickweed, by the prevalent hairs on its stems and leaves and its creeping mat-like growth habit.

These chickweeds are non-native and commonly regarded as lawn weeds.

Indian Strawberry (Duchesnea indica)

Indian Strawberry is another tiny plant found in our lawn that is non-native and invasive (a weed).

An alternate name for it is Mock Strawberry, however its red fruit is essentially tasteless. The Wild Strawberry plant is quite different, much more like cultivated Strawberries.

Three lobed leaves distinguish Indian Strawberry from another similar plant, Dwarf Cinquefoil.

Morning on the Lake

Before sunrise is the best time to be on the lake to see loons, eagles, and swimming beavers.

In the three images above a beaver can be seen swimming across the lake, then raising his tail to slap the water, and finally the resulting splash as he submerges.

It seemed like this beaver was intentionally showing himself to me and then swimming away — maybe to draw me away from the beaver lodge?

A loon parent was out patrolling the lake with the loon chick. The chick still appears to be thriving.

A bald eagle was perched watching the lake the entire time I was in the area.

Sunrise pictures; before and after the sun peeks over the horizon.