Allyn Walsh – Halton MG

With winter almost upon us, this seems a good time to take at look at the many wonderful conifers native to our area in Carolinian Canada. It can be a bit confusing though – for example the tree commonly known as eastern red cedar is a juniper, not a cedar. And Atlantic white cedar is – you guessed it – not a cedar at all. It’s a Chamaecyparis (false cypress). In Part 1 of Our Native Firs we will look at the distinguishing features of native members of the Pinaceae family: Pinus, Picea, Abies and Larix. The descriptions and photos below highlight the distinctive features of each as well as some current threats impacting their health. Part 2 will examine Tsuga, Thuja and Juniperus (hemlock, cedar and juniper) as well as taking a peek at a near native Chamaecyparis variety.

Abies (Fir)

  • Leaves: Flat, soft needles, each with a single point of origin and a blunt tip. Directly attached to the branch with a “suction cup” appearance all around the twig.
  • Cones: Initially dark green or blue before turning brown. Mature cones are unique in growing upward, like candle flames.
  • Shape: Tall and upright, with some room between branches
  • Cultivation: Full sun to partial shade. Mildly acidic rich soil. Tolerates thin topsoil.
  • Native species: Abies balsamea (balsam fir)

Tsuga (hemlock)

  • Leaves: short & shiny needles, green on top, pale underneath, mostly held to the side of the branch.
  • Cones: downward hanging, long and oval shaped.
  • Shape: Conical with branches growing straight out from the trunk, drooping at the ends.
  • Cultivation: Prefers moist cool areas, tolerates many toil types. Shade tolerant but requires moisture.
  • Native species: Tsuga canadensis (Eastern Hemlock)
  • See notes below re: Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA)
Abies and Tsuga have similar flat needles – but note the light undersurface of Tsuga (right two photos). Abies have distinctive upright cones (left).
Photos by Daniel Tigner, Canadian Forest Tree Essences Ontario Tree Atlas

Picea (Spruce)

  • Leaves: short & stiff needles with pointed ends, tending to be square shaped and roll between fingertips. Single point of origin. Small woody attachments, in a whorled arrangement.
  • Cones: Smooth, flexible with thin scales, hanging toward the ground
  • Shape: Pyramidal shape. Branches vary between trees – either upturned or down turned
  • Cultivation: Very tolerant of soil type, moisture level and degree of sun
  • Native species: Picea mariana (black spruce), Picea glauca (white spruce).
Picea mariana (left 2 photos) Picea glauca (right 2 photos) P. mariana needles are dark green, and cones are egg shaped. P. glauca needles have a waxy layer which lightens the colour. Photos by Daniel Tigner, Canadian Forest Tree Essences Ontario Tree Atlas

Pinus (Pine)

  • Leaves: Long needles, growing in clusters (2 red pine, 3 yellow, 5 white)
  • Cones: Stiff woody cones hanging toward the ground
  • Shape: Open canopy, “jagged lollipop”. Branches tend to turn up at the ends
  • Cultivation: Well drained acidic soil. Full sun
  • Native species: Pinus strobus (eastern white pine) Pinus resinosa (red pine) Pinus banksiana (Jack pine)
  • SEE NOTES BELOW: Dieback of Eastern White Pine
Pinus strobus Pinus strobus Pinus resinosa Pinus banksiana
Counting the needles in the cluster easily identifies Pinus strobus (white pine) with 5 soft needles per cluster. Pinus resinosa (red pine) and Pinus banksiana both have two firm needles in a cluster, but the P. resinosa needles are much longer. The bark of P. resinosa has a distinct reddish hue. P. banksiana has curved cones.
Photos by Daniel Tigner, Canadian Forest Tee Essences Ontario Tree Atlas
Image: wikimedia commons

DID YOU KNOW…The poison hemlock that famously killed Socrates is a product of Conium maculatum – a plant entirely unrelated to our native Tsuga (hemlock) trees. In fact, the needles of Tsuga canadensis can be steeped to brew a delicious tea!

Larix (tamarack or larch)

  • Leaves: Deciduous – needles turn bright yellow before falling in autumn. Grow in tufts of 10-20+ needles.
  • Cones: Small Light brown, rounded. Look like flower buds
  • Branches: Widely spaced, do not droop. In winter, twigs have small bumps where needles were inserted
  • Cultivation: Requires full sun, but tolerant of soil and moisture levels
  • Native species: Larix laricina (tamarack or American larch)
Larix needles in their typical cluster of many short needles (L). The striking autumn colour stands out amongst other Pinaceae species (centre). The small cones are held close to the branch, looking like little brown flowers (centre).
Photos by Daniel Tigner, Canadian Forest Tee Essences Ontario Tree Atlas (L and centre) Photo on R by pasja1000 from Pixabay

Current Threats to Ontario Conifers

Janet Mackey – Halton Master Gardener

Hemlock Wooly Adelgid Eastern Hemlock Cornell Cooperative Extension

  • Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA) arrived in the Eastern U.S. in the 1950’s
  • HWA was confirmed in a forest along the Niagara River near Niagara Falls, Ontario (Inspection Canada) in 2019 and most recently in Fort Erie in October 2021
  • HWA is spread by the wind, birds, humans or other animals (not by flying insects)
  • the insect is tiny but the wooly covering is quite apparent on underside of branches
  • Hemlocks are considered keystone species: shade-tolerant and long-living (500+ years old), which allows them to come to dominate large stands, creating this distinctive ecosystem

Images: Cornell Cooperative Extension

Dieback of Eastern White Pine: Fact Sheet from U.Mass  – July 2019

  • White Pine Needle Disease (WPND)multiple fungal pathogens, an insect pest and a changing climate change.
  • Branch and trunk cankering, caused by Caliciopsis canker (eastern white pine bast scale facilitates Caliciopsis canker)
  • Climate Change may be the cause of an increase in symptomatic trees (increase in temperature and precipitation from May through July has helped to fuel the WPND epidemic)
  • Management:  thinning to create lower density stands of white pine (or removal of undesireable trees nearby) promotes crown vigor, radial growth and reduces the severity of WPND; Nitrogen fertilization may help trees restore vigor. Younger trees may benefit from a fungicide application.

Images Above-UMass Extension Landscape

Images: Bugwood.org, PA Dept. of Conservation


Cover Image: The Canadian Encyclopedia

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