Hey, What’s That Tree?

My new series What’s That Tree , will take you through the conifers one by one. Once a week, I will have a conifer to identify. I will hand sketch a representative of each group, starting with Picea glauca White Spruce. I will list the characteristics of each group and show ways to tell them apart.  Not biology or taxonomy, just observation.

Is this a Northern White Cedar?

Photos of the trees will accompany the posts, but let us start with a few ways to tell them apart. General color, needle length and shape, cone, branch color and texture.

A Balsam Fir?

I have to admit,  tree identification is probably the most difficult thing for me, even with all my training, using them in design, and being on a tree farm often. I do have my pet trees.

Maybe a Grand Fir?

So many of the conifers look similar and if a deciduous tree is in a stage of growth not commonly pictured, I am at a loss too.

Color and needle shape?

Training has taught me to look at the bark, the bud growth and development, the leaf structure and shape, fruit, and the overall form of the tree itself.

In the example at left, the White Concolor Fir or Abies concolor, does pretty well at retaining the ‘Christmas tree’ shape as it ages. But look at an older pine and it looks nothing like a Christmas tree.

This is my Concolor and it is a bit unhealthy. It suffered from our heat and dry weather last summer and does not have good needle growth.

You can see the yellowing on the ends of the needles below.

Here is a hint on the  ID of a concolor, besides the color of bluish gray-green, soft feel and shape. Look at the image below. Notice how the needles appear singularly around the branch in whorls. Needle clustering indicates other types of conifers.  Notice the bark too, light brown in color.

With so many varieties arriving on the market each year, unless you are a horticulturist or grower, it is difficult to keep up. So I am betting many of you are like me, sometimes befuddled when you see a particular tree to name it correctly.

Austrian Pine or Ponderosa Pine?

I have decided to start sketching them. This is a great way to burn the intricate details into my brain. There are many varieties that I am sure that you will not know. I didn’t. My friend the grower took me around showing me trees I never heard of.

Norway Spruce or Meyers Fir?

I figured to start with one I know well, then move on to those less intimately known to me. Did you know that needles can vary in how many sides they have? This is a good clue to what they are.

Old White Pine or Young Pine?

How we doing, do you know one pine from another? Black, White and Red, Scotch and Virginia?

Pointy end needles?…… Spruce?

How about the spruce trees, Black, Red, Blue, or White? How about a Norway or Serbian?

Rounded end needles?……. Fir?

And what about those less frequently seen such as Hemlocks and Concolors? Really, these are common, want a few that are not?

Hemlock or deer food? Not deer food.

What about Cedars, Arborvitae, and Cypress. Do some have flattened scales?

Norway Spruce

And those huggable firs? Grand, Noble, Balsam, Canaan, Douglas,and Frasier?

Norway Spruce or Blue Spruce Needles?

Check out the color, that helps a lot. Easy one below.

Colorado Blue Spruce

If I told you that in White Pines, the needles come in clusters of 5, does that help? Austrian Pines have clusters of two, but so does Scotch Pine. Pitch Pine has three per follicle, and so does Ponderosa Pine, but it can have two also. Confused?

So what is the pine above, an Austrian or a 350 year old mature Ponderosa? Natural habitat plays a part in ID too. If it is generally found at elevations of 6000 feet and over, could that be a clue? But the Austrian or Pinus nigra is not native, yet grows well here.

White Pine

Some of you may not know the difference between a fir and a spruce. It just takes grabbing the needles of each to always remember an easy way to differentiate.

Balsam Fir in wet conditions, see the yellowing?

Did you see a lot of variation above? I’ve got many more.

Stay tuned and we will run down the conifers. The answers to the questions will be answered, plus some tidbits of fun facts.  If you find this an interesting series, on to the deciduous trees. There are some clues for our leafy friends too. The answers are in red.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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23 Responses to Hey, What’s That Tree?

  1. lifeshighway says:

    Ok, um…. I am suppose to pick. The only thing I can say is that I have seen old growth Ponderosa pines and they have a very distinctive bark color. Some of the varieties you display, I have never seen before. Of course we don’t get firs in central North Carolina but in certain geographical locations we can get hemlocks which are lovely.

    I’m not playing the game right 😦

  2. Carolyn♥ says:

    I’m always amazed at the many variations on a theme. Your pictures illustrate this beautifully. Mother Nature… she’s one smart cookie!

  3. Marguerite says:

    Donna, this looks like it’ll be an interesting series. I’m at an absolute loss when it comes to identifying evergreens.

  4. Conifer ID is a whole other whorld!

  5. Donna says:

    I have limited knowledge from Christmas tree shopping and cutting…love concolor…I am happy to learn more 🙂

  6. My weak spot is tree identification…especially firs, and our oaks too. I’m curious now, the previous owners planted their ‘live’ Christmas tree some years ago, and miraculously it’s still growing. Apparently it’s deer proof 😛 I’ve never spent the effort to ID it, but I think your series might help! I need to go and look a little more closely at a branch now…

  7. TufaGirl says:

    Truly a great post. I wish I could have some or one of them here in my area of hot, nasty soiled Texas.

  8. Donna, I can’t wait until you straighten all this out. I knew it well enough to ace my Longwood Gardens’ test on conifers but that was many moons ago. I need a refresher course. Carolyn

  9. dona says:

    It’s really an interesting post about my favourite trees. There is so much to learn about conifers: I’m ready then. 🙂

  10. Karen says:

    Donna, what an interesting, informational post. I am so pleased to follow along and learn. I have many dwarf conifers in the garden and they are so diverse, too. Fascinating!

  11. Great post! Tree ID is not my forte. I can ID hardwoods much better than conifers. We don’t have near the variety here in the SE as you do. I do love that Blue Spruce though! Looking forward to reading more…

  12. One says:

    Many of us here call all such trees as Christmas Trees. We don’t have that many varieties. I’ll pay more attention to the differences in the future. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Alistair says:

    Donna, Conifers I only ever remember the names of those which I am particularly fond of like your Blue Spruce, and Cedrus Deodara is a wow especially Aurea, cant leave out Abies Koreana with its blue cones. and many of the Cryptomeria are wonderful. Oh it would be a sin if I didn’t mention the Scots Pine. Look forward to the rest in this series.

  14. Grace says:

    There are a good number of conifer resource books out there to help ID these types of plants. It’s not easy. Love your pictures. Great post.

    • Hi Grace. I realize there are many books to use as resources. But, for me, there is no better resource than my friend the grower and his 300 acres of trees, both deciduous and coniferous. Plus, if we are both stumped on a native tree say, unlikely, but if, we have Cornell Cooperative Extension too. I do have a copy of Dirr’s book, BTW. What is not always shown is some of the layman’s ways to identify, which does come from both experience and observation, feel and even smell. I found too by sketching, I really get to see the details, so much more than my photographs. Environment plays with how a tree grows, so color, needle density and curl are affected, sometimes confusing the matter, like I showed in the two sick trees, one in wet conditions and one in dry. My grower can tell a Serbian from Norway without so much as a quick glance. Me, I have to study the heck out of them and compare. I am glad you liked the post. I wanted to respond to your comment because like you said, it is not easy to tell. I am going to try to make it easy once I get a few of my ID’s posted. Then you can compare.

  15. Brave of you to take on tree identification in the wintertime. Although, I suppose if you start with evergreens… I was feeling pretty proud of myself last month for identifying a Virginia pine. I usually lump conifers into very general categories.

  16. patty says:

    I am going to enjoy this series. I have trouble telling fir from spruce….

    • Patty, simply touch the needles. The fir is soft, like fur, easy to remember, and the spruce is picky. In my photos in the post, look at the ends of the needles. Fir is round, and spruce is sharply pointed. Easiest is just to grab one. Generally, if you say ouch, it is a spruce.

  17. Jennifer says:

    Evergreens are a more recent interest of mine and I would be the first to admit that I have a whole lot to learn. I hope you will also cover some common problems. For instance, I had an alberta spruce with many dead branches, so I trimmed out some of the dead stuff. Is there likely to be any new growth to fill in the hole that I created?

    • Jennifer, my next ID post will cover the White Spruce, which the Alberta is one of, and I will list common problems. Most likely you had spider mites which is really common. You could have repeatedly sprayed the tree with a jet of water to kill off the current crop of them, they resprayed after the new ones hatch. Insecticidal soap works too, but I found keeping up with water sprays is just as good. Most likely too, the branches you cut were not dead. They are notorious for looking dead and will regrow the needles, even on a badly damaged Alberta.

  18. Cat says:

    It’s like you have Christmas all year…my knowledge is limited to the Christmas trees they ship down here…not very deep I’m afraid.

  19. Garden Sense says:

    Nice idea to help with ID’ing evergreens which can have subtle differences. Looking forward to continuation of the series!

  20. Mac_fromAustralia says:

    Looking forward to following this.

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