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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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).
- 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
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)
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: Bugwood.org, PA Dept. of Conservation
- The Ontario Tree Atlas
- The American Conifer Society
- Tree Identification of Common Species Found in Ontario
- Cornell Cooperative Extension – Fact Sheet Hemlock – Wooly Adelgid
- UMass Extension Nursery Landscape & Urban Forestry – Dieback of Eastern White Pine
Cover Image: The Canadian Encyclopedia