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By Lyn Chimera

B People tend to refer to all evergreen trees as pines. Often, when we get a call regarding an evergreen on the Master Gardener Hotline, people refer to a problem with their “pine tree.” Actually, pines are quite different from other conifer varieties. Let’s find out how.

First, trees and shrubs that hold their needles all year are conifers. The official classification is Coniferinae. The hint in the name is the “con” part referring to their seeds, which are contained in cones often referred to as pinecones. That’s probably the reason people call all conifers “pines.” Some trees and shrubs included in this category are: pines, spruce, yews, cedars, cypresses, firs, junipers, larches, and redwoods. Just like any rule, there are exceptions. The larch is a conifer that drops its needles and yews have an arillate fruit (covering around the seed) instead of a cone.

One of the most obvious identifying features of a pine tree is the length of its needles; they are quite long compared to a spruce or yew. You can tell one type of pine from another by the number of needles in a bundle on branches. Another way is the difference in their cones and bark. Pine bark on mature trees is somewhat plated and often has colors of deep red, tans, and browns. It’s particularly striking after a rain.

Native pines are an important part of the ecology providing food in the form of seeds and insects, shelter and habitat for a wide variety of creatures from insects to birds and small mammals. Now that you have an idea of the variety of conifers and their importance in the ecosystem, let’s look at some of our native pines. The native pines are being highlighted because they provide the habitat that our native insects, birds, and animals require and are suited for our climate.

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)– This graceful pine is very common in our area. The shape is looser than the typical pyramid shape of many conifers. In its maturity, it has a flattish top and a wide loose overall shape. The needles are long and graceful with five needles to a bundle. Its cones are 5 to 7 inches long. The white pine can grow to over 150 feet high and 30-40 feet wide. It grows well in sun to part shade and prefers moist, well-drained soil. Many people feel the Eastern White Pine is the most majestic tree in North America. In fact, it is the only tree on the east coast that rivals western ones in size and shape.

Red Pine (Pinus resinosa)– This pine also has long needles, 5-7 inches long in bundles of two. The cone is much smaller than the white pine, rounded and about two inches long. Another identification feature is the bark. The name “red pine” comes from the reddish/brown color of the bark. The bark develops large, thick plates in its maturity. Often used as a roadside tree, it does well in exposed sites with dry soil. Red pine can grow to 50-80 feet high having a narrow but open canopy.

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)– Pitch pine is somewhat smaller, growing 30-50 feet high. It’s rather scruffy looking and will grow in almost any conditions as long as it is in full sun. However, it prefers sandy dryer soil. Pitch pine needles are 3-5 inches with three to a bundle. The cones are egg shaped but flat topped when opened. One of the interesting features of pitch pine is that it is fire resistant and will re-sprout when burned.

Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata)– Shortleaf pine has short needles (hence the name). They are 2-4 ½ inches in bundles of two or three. Another difference with other pines is the cones. They are oval, about two inches long and have sharp prickers on the edges. These are easy to spot when you pick one up. The crown of this pine is initially like a traditional cone shape but it becomes broad with age. This pine is a source of wood pulp, plywood veneer, and lumber for a variety of uses.

Hopefully, you now realize all conifers are not “pine trees.”

To contact me at Lessons from Nature, call 652-2432 or e-mail at lyn@lessonsfromnature.biz. I can e-mail or mail the gift certificates.