Tag Archives: evergreen

Know The Needles

This time of year, much of New York’s landscape is dappled with bare-branched deciduous trees and dark, evergreen conifers. These cone-bearing conifer trees are adapted to survive harsh, cold weather, from the microscopic structure of the leaf to the overall shape of the entire tree. Despite the needle-like shape, conifer leaves serve much the same function as the flat, broad leaves of a sugar maple or oak tree. Most conifers keep their needles year-round. Do you know which New York native conifer drops its needles every fall? It is the tamarack (Larix laricina), a member of the larches, shown below.

Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

On the left, these tamaracks are changing color. Every autumn the needles turn bright yellow and will fall off the tree by winter, so they are not considered an “evergreen.” On the right, a closer view of tamarack needles, which grow from a woody spur in clusters of ten to twenty. The needles are approximately ¾” to 1 ¼” inches long.

When talking about evergreens, pines may first come to mind, but conifers also include firs, spruces, hemlocks, and others. But how do we tell which is which? Here are a few quick tips to help narrow down the tree group simply by looking at the needles.


First, let’s look at pines. Pine trees have needles in bundles on the stem. The number per bundle depends on the species, but if you find bundles of five needles or less, you’ve likely discovered a pine. There are six native species of pine in New York, but two you may be most likely to encounter are white pine (Pinus strobus) and red pine (Pinus resinosa).

Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

WhitePineTreeRobert Vidéki, Doronicum Kft., Bugwood.org
Robert Vidéki, Doronicum Kft., Bugwood.org

Bill Cook, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

The eastern white pine (left) and its bundled needles (middle and right). This species of pine has five needles per bundle (and as a memory trick, there are five letters in the word “white”). The needles are soft and flexible, measuring about 2 to 4 inches long.


Spruce trees have needles that are individually attached to the branch with small woody pegs. A key characteristic for spruce needles is that they are square and can roll easily between your fingers. They are usually sharply pointed. Also, if any needles are shed the woody pegs make the branch feel rough, unlike the smooth branches of firs. There are three native spruces in New York: the white spruce (Picea glauca), the black spruce (Picea mariana), and the red spruce (Picea rubens).

Bill Cook, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

The white spruce (left) and its needles (right), notice the woody pegs that attach the needle to the branch. Needles are stiff and measure about ½” to ¾” inches long. This species is sometimes called skunk spruce or cat spruce due to the strong odor from broken needles.


Fir needles are also individually attached, but unlike spruces, they are attached by what resembles a suction cup (look for a circular base). They are typically soft and flat with rounded needle tips. There are two whitish lines on the bottom of the needle. Another distinguishing characteristic of firs is that their cones stand upright on the branches, rather than droop down. The only native fir that can be found in New York is the balsam fir (Abies balsamea).

Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

A stand of balsam fir (left) and its needles (right). Balsam fir needles are dark green and measure around ¾” to 1 ½” in length. The tips of the needles can be blunt, rounded, or notched.


Hemlocks have individually attached needles that are flat. Unlike firs, each hemlock needle has a small stem attached to a woody peg. In New York there is only one native hemlock species, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). While you’re out testing your needle identification skills, keep an eye out for the invasive pest hemlock woolly adelgid, which creates white woolly masses at the base of hemlock needles. This insect causes tree health to decline and can lead to the death of the hemlock in as little as four years.

David Lee, Bugwood.org

Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org

A young eastern hemlock stand (left) and its needles with stems (right). Needles are usually a shiny green. On the underside of each needle, you can see two characteristic white lines (shown in the picture). The needles are typically one inch or less in length.

So there you have it! Next time you’re out scratching your head, wondering if you’ve encountered a white spruce or a white pine, ask yourself these simple questions:

  • Are the needles in bundles or individually attached?
  • Does the needle roll easily between your fingers or is it flat?
  • Are the needles attached to a stem, woody peg, or a “suction cup” structure?

Just by taking a quick look (and maybe pluck) at the needles, it is often possible to categorize the conifer into pine, spruce, fir, or hemlock. If you come across a conifer that doesn’t fit into these categories, try looking at cedars or junipers too. And the best part of studying conifers is that you can look at needles all year long! Unless it’s a tamarack, of course.

If you’d like to learn more about some key conifers, check out this blog post to learn about identifying specific species you may encounter in State Parks!

Post by Kelsey Ruffino, State Parks


Cover Photo – Eastern Hemlock: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=298754

Winter Greens

Winter is here! It is still a great time to get outside to enjoy nature. Here are some evergreen plants you can see in State Parks while hiking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing this season. These plants are all native to NY state. Though popular for decorating, you should only pick them from your own lands or look for decorating greens at your local nursery or Christmas tree farm. Please don’t pick the plants in state parks or on other public lands so that others may enjoy seeing them in the wilds. A number of the plants below are designated as exploitably vulnerable (http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7135.html) to prevent their over harvesting.

American holly (Ilex opaca) is most common in our Long Island parks and also planted in many landscapes. Its red berries provide good food for wintering birds and the sharp spines on the leaves protect the leaves from being eaten by deer or rabbits.

Ilex opaca
This photo of holly was taken in the dunes of Long Island – that is sand, not snow! Photo by J. Lundgren, NYNHP.

Several plants go by the common name of Wintergreen. This one is Gaultheria procumbens. Its thick waxy leaves stay green all winter and also contain wintergreen oil, like the smell of Canada mints or gum.

Wintergreen.  Photo by Jubilee Fiest.

Clubmosses (lycopods) look like little small Christmas trees or candles on the forest floor. Some types grow along long runners that were popular for garlands. Today, this plant is on the protected list to prevent over harvesting.

You may have read about this one in our November blog. The cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) that is found in boggy places in parks. And the less common look-alike below is snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula) – oddly more closely related to the Wintergreen above than the cranberry plant. Look hard and you can see the white berry.

Cranberry. Photo by Greg Edinger, NYNHP
Snowberry. Photo by J. Lundgren

A few of our ferns are wintergreen too like the common polypody or rock-cap fern (Polypodium virginianum). As its name suggests, it grows on rocks, often in large patches.

Rock-cap fern.  Photo by NYNHP

Here one that is easy to learn – the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Each leaflet looks like a little boot or stocking!

And what do Santa’s reindeer eat? Reindeer moss of course! This is actually not a moss, but a large group of gray-green lichens that are common in our forests and mountain tops and even more abundant in the tundra of Canada and northern countries where caribou and reindeer live. Shown here with wintergreen and clubmoss.

EPSON DSC picture
Reindeer moss. Photo by Steven Young, NYNYP

Do you know your evergreen trees? What has long soft needles in clusters of 5? Or sharp needles with a strong odor? Or flat needles that are soft to the touch? All of these trees provide important shelter and food for wildlife during the winter and add to the beauty of the winter landscape.

This one is the white pine (Pinus strobus) with its long soft needles. Photo by Jubilee Feist
Spruce (Picea sp.) has short, very sharp needles. Photo by J. Lundgren
Hemlock (Tsuga candensis) has short and soft flat needles, you can see the difference in this and the stiff spruce branches above. Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and yew (Taxus) also have flat needles but both lack the white stripe on the underside of the hemlock leaf. Photo by J. Lundgren
An inviting path through a grove of hemlocks. Photo by J. Lundgren

So get out and enjoy the greens of winter!

Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

Winter Tree Identification Part II: Evergreen Trees

Evergreen means these trees keep their “leaves” throughout the winter. Though we may call them pine needles, they are actually very skinny leaves that serve the same function as the leaves on a deciduous tree. Identifying evergreens during the winter months is almost the same as in spring and summer, with the added advantage of having mature pine cones.  Growth pattern, bark, cones, needle shape and number are used to identify the different species. Let’s learn how you can identify red pine, white pine, and eastern hemlock.

Last time we learned that leaves attached at the stem from the node. This is the same for evergreen trees, except these trees can have multiple needles attached to the stem in a bundle or sheath. This helps identify species since they differ by the number of needles they have per bundle.
See the example below:

Needles per cluster 2
This red pine has two needles per bundle.


Now we are ready to learn some tree species!

We will start with white pine. First let’s look at the bark and growth pattern:


White Pine LS Final 2

White pine usually grows straight and tall with horizontal, upturned branches. The tree has a uniformly full foliage appearance. The bark is a light gray in color with shallow ridges.  White pines can be found in well drained soils and are native throughout the state.

Now we will look at the characteristics of the twig and cone. There is a pencil in each picture for size reference:

White Pine LS 1

White pine has 5 needles per bundle. The needles and stem are flexible and slender. The cone is long and narrow and about 3 to 8 inches in length. Needles are light green in color.


Red Pine Tree LS Final

Red pine is a tall, straight growing tree with horizontal or dropping branches. The foliage looks clumpy, instead of uniformly full like white pine.  The bark can have a reddish coloring and is flaky/ scaly. This tree grows in well drained areas; such as rocky or sandy habitat. Red pines are native to a small area of the state, but are often planted around reservoirs or in parks.

Red Pine LS

Red pine has two long needles per bundle. The needles and stem are thick, unlike white pine. The needles are dark green and stiff – they break in half easily. The cone is short and round; usually about 1.5 to 3 inches in length.


Hemlock LS Final

Eastern hemlock has a tall straight growth pattern. The branches grow horizontally. The foliage is more of a yellowish green in color compared to white pine. In this picture there are white pine trees in the left background for comparison. The bark is scaly when young, becoming ridged with age. The trunk is reddish-brown in color. These trees grow in shady-moist habitat, often along streams, on slopes or at higher elevations. Eastern Hemlocks are native to NY.

Hemlock LS 5

Hemlock does not have bundles of needles, just one short needle per node. The needles are yellow-green in color and are soft and flexible. The underside of the needle is whitish. The cone is small and round, under an inch in length. The twig is thin and flexible.

Learn more about winter tree identification by reading the Winter Tree Identification Part I: Deciduous Trees and Winter Greens blogs.

Post and photos by Lilly Schelling.