Coniferous Conundrums

Published On January 6, 2022

Coniferous Conundrums

Written and illustrated by Jeannie Nicklas

When looking at the majestic trees that surround us, the variety in their qualities can be overwhelming, especially when identifying individual species. One of the first distinctions made in naming a specific tree is whether it is coniferous (evergreen needles/scales) or deciduous (broad leaves that are shed each year). There are exceptions to each group, of course….

Once that distinction is made, focusing on our neighborhood conifers can be studied further. As you look at the hillsides, notice the different shades of green and textures that paint our local forests. Taking a closer look and you can decipher between the various conifers growing in Vermont woodlands.

One of the most quintessential evergreen trees is the Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea). Its dense conical shape, with soft aromatic needles, is the common Christmas tree. These shiny, dark green, flat needles are about 1” long and grow at right angles to the stem. The 2-3” cylindrical cones are dark purple in color and most notably, grow upright on the branches.

The easiest conifer to confuse with the fir is the Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) whose similar needles are much shorter (width of your pinky finger) and rounder. Their small brown cones hang down at the ends of the twigs, which further helps to distinguish this common evergreen. The overall shape of this graceful tree is determined by the lacy sweeping branches. The terminal leader, or top twig, has a distinctive feathery droop.

The Red Spruce (Picea rubens) is easy to identify once to prick your fingers on the short, stiff, shiny green, sharp needles that surround the twigs. The reddish-brown cylindrical cones hang down from the branches and drop at maturity. As opposed to the less common Black Spruce (Picea mariana), whose cones are retained for years.

The ski trails and snowshoe trails at Stark Mountain display these different conifers, often right next to each other. Each species has numerous attributes, especially for the native wildlife.

What other local conifers can cause a conundrum?

How old can these trees live?

What adversities do they face?

What can we do to protect our forests?

You can find out the answers to these questions and learn more about our forests and wildlife by joining us for our Naturalist Snowshoe outing on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Book your custom snowshoe adventure today!