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BEYOND THE GARDEN GATE: Native Conifers

author: Micol Marotti

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Understanding the role of native conifers in our woodlots, our forests and along the roadsides and identifying their characteristics brings us closer to the winter world that is about to descend on us.

IS THERE ANYTHING MORE IDYLLIC THAN TRAVELLING DOWN A COUNTRY ROAD after a fresh snowfall when the evergreens, boughs laden with glistening snow caps, gently give way to the wind and spill out silver snowflakes that sparkle in the sun? The hardiness and the beauty of these sentinel trees is inspiring – their defiance of our harsh climate reminds us that we too can negotiate our own way through winter.

Native Confiers Needles - Eastern White Pine, Eastern Red Pine, Hemlock, Eastern White Cedar

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

Needles: Long, skinny, wispy needles (6-12 cm) that cluster in groups of five.
Cones: Elongated, tapered cones (7 cm).

The stately white pine with its branches sculpted by the wind is the tallest of the northeastern conifers and is Ontario’s provincial tree. A valuable softwood, white pine is used for trim, doors, window frames and cabinetry because of its strength, straight grain and high-quality fibre.

In the late 16th and 17th century, the British Royal Navy laid claim to the tallest white pines in the colony, to be used as masts on the ships that were to command the seas. Settlers who dared fell a white pine that was marked with the King’s Arrow would be subject to heavy fines.

Eastern Red Pine (Pinus resinosa)

Needles: Long, pointy needles (15 cm) in bunches of two that are sharp and brittle – if you bend a needle, it will snap in half.
Cones: Egg-shaped cones (5 cm) with thick scale tips.

Red pines are often found standing like giant sentinels in forestry plantations where the soil is too poor for white pine. The red pine’s scaly trunks may be clear of branches for as much as three quarters of its length. Because its timber is heavier and harder than that of the white pine, the tree is used in the production of railway ties, and because of its straight grain and height, it’s utilized as utility poles and structural lumber.

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Needles: Small, distinctive fans of flat needles that are shiny green on top, and paler on the bottom.
Cones: Small oval-shaped cones (2 cm).

The hemlock is considered Canada’s most graceful conifer because of its conical shape and its sweeping, flexible branches that grow straight out from the trunk and droop at the ends. Some hemlocks in old growth forests have been identified as being 450 years old and can live up to 600 years. Hemlock wood is hard and strong but somewhat brittle, so it is used mostly for pulp and rough construction. Many species of wildlife benefit from the excellent habitat offered by a dense stand of hemlock.

Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)

Needles: Rich green finger-like needles that spread out from fan-shaped twigs. The back of the needles on lower branches are studded with brown resin granules.
Cones: Tiny floral-like cones (1 cm) that appear in bunches.

The eastern white cedar thrives in cool, moist, nutrient- rich soils near streams, swamps and ditches and in soils with a limestone base. White cedar is used principally for products in contact with water – boats, fences, and shingles.

Jacques Cartier called cedars “The Tree of Life” after he and his crew were spared from scurvy by drinking teas made from its vitamin C rich needles.

native conifers

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Needles: Bluish-green needles with sharp barbs at the base of the branch and softer, more rounded needles at the tips.
Cones: Wedgwood blue resembling berries.

Although it’s called a cedar, the red cedar often seen along the roadsides in Prince Edward County are actually junipers that are thriving in the dry, mineral rich soil. The red cedar is resistant to salt spray, so it’s often used as a windbreak along roadways. It’s also treasured for its fragrance and its beautiful red heartwood that is bug and moisture resistant.

Early French settlers called the red cedar ‘bâton rouge’ (red stick) because of its purplish-red wood and so named many towns Bâton Rouge because of the abundance of red cedar in the area.

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

Needles: Flat needles (2 cm) rounded at the tip – dark green on top and whitish below.
Cones: Barrel-shaped cones (10 cm).

The tall church steeple shape of the balsam fir sets it apart from its fellow conifers in a mixed forest environment. It’s also remarkable because its range is almost entirely in Canada. Balsams are considered the quintessential Christmas tree. Their symmetrical shape, fragrant forest scent and the ability to hold on to their needles after harvest makes it the most popular Christmas conifer.

Young balsams are covered with sap blisters that contain a clear oily resin (Canada balsam) used in the manufacture of varnish. It’s also used as an adhesive for microscope slides because it bends light to the same degree as glass.

White Spruce (Picea glauca)

Needles: Short, sharp four-sided needles (2 cm) with a white powdery, waxy layer.
Cones: Cigar-shaped, light brown cones (5 cm) with smooth-tipped, close-fitting scales.

The majestic white spruce with its uniform shape and sweeping branches is usually part of a mixed forest. Although it can be difficult to tell the difference between a balsam and a white spruce, a simple trick will settle the question: if you can roll the needle between your fingers, it’s a spruce not a balsam.

The white spruce plays an important role in the commercial forestry industry. It’s used as pulp in the paper industry and as framing material in the building industry. The 2”x 4”s at your local lumber yard are white spruce and your newspaper is made from white spruce pulp.

Tamarack (Larix laricina)

Needles: Soft and flexible tufts of 10 to 20 needles that are green in the summer and turn yellow in the fall.
Cones: Small light brown cones (1-2 cm) studded along branches.

Soft green in the spring and summer, golden yellow in the fall and naked in the winter, tamaracks are one of the few deciduous conifers – conifers that lose their needles every autumn. Although not an important commercial product, the tamarack’s heavy, durable wood is used for posts, poles, mine timbers, railroad ties and in the pulp and paper industry. Seeds from the tamarack cones are a favourite source of food for red squirrels, mice and seed-eating birds.

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marianne ackerman

marianne ackermanMarianne grew up in Prince Edward County. She began her writing career as the Picton correspondent for the…

conrad beaubien

conrad beaubien

Conrad’s love of storytelling has engaged him in a life of the arts. A creator, writer and director of films…

bill slavin

bill slavinBill Slavin has illustrated over one hundred children’s books, fiction and nonfiction. Titles include Stanley’s Party