Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree! When you think of a Christmas tree or any “evergreen” tree, do you ever wonder what the difference is between the types, or species? You may have heard the terms pine and spruce, hemlock and fir but never really could tell one from the other. Well, let’s take a look.
Common “softwoods”, these trees are relatively less dense than their hardwood counterparts, such as oak, maple, hickory and ash. What makes a hardwood versus a softwood is a little more complicatedly and can be found here, but let’s consider the cone-bearing, or coniferous, trees as softwoods and look at some of the differences.
You will find a variety of what are often called “evergreen” trees, but are actually types of pines, firs, spruces, and hemlock trees. All these trees are evergreen, meaning they are never without some green “leaves”, no matter the season, but not all evergreen trees are pines, spruces, firs, etc. To be more accurate we will refer to them as conifers. Common across the US and Canada, these trees are the traditional “Christmas Tree” types with needles and cones and mainly shaped like a pyramid. Most of Canada’s trees are conifers. In fact, over 50% of all Canadian trees are spruce species and if you’ve ever flown over Canada, you may have found yourself in awe at the sheer number of the green spires that stretch from coast to coast.
The woodlands of the United States are somewhat more diverse in composition and distribution. The eastern half of the United States has a greater percentage of hardwoods, led by oak and hickory forests, whereas the western states enjoy a majority of pines, firs and spruces covering their woodlands.
To tell the difference between a pine tree, a fir and a spruce, you can start by looking at the needles. Needles are found either in clusters or individually attached to the stem of a branch. Also, they will be either round or flattened. Further, you will find them either attached to the stem or to a small wooden peg.
Pine trees will have needles grouped in clusters- either 2, 3 or 5 needles. Interestingly, a red pine will have three needles and a white pine will have five needles, which can be remembered by the fact that RED has three letters and WHITE has five. Pine cones are very hard, woody and rough.
Spruce trees are the most numerous conifer in North America. They can be distinguished by their needles, which are squarish, rather than flat or round and which attach to little wooden pegs. Spruce cones are smoother and more flexible than pine cones and usually “drape” downward from the trees. Allegedly, the oldest living tree in the world is a Norway Spruce tree in Sweden, at over 9,500 years of age!
Fir trees have cones that stand up on branches instead of hanging. The cones are similar to spruce cones, softer and more flexible than pine cones. The major difference can be found in the needles of the fir which stick out individually from the branch. The Douglas fir is the most numerous of the fir tree varieties in North America and is a popular choice as a Christmas tree.
A couple other conifers of note include the hemlock and the sequoia. The hemlock tree will have branches that stick out horizontally from the trunk. The needles are typically much softer and laid out is a flat pattern. The sequoia is the family to which the Coast Redwood belongs. These redwood trees, found on the west coast of the US produce some of the tallest trees in the world including one named Hyperion, which hold the current record as the tallest know living tree, at more than 380 feet!
A big part of the camping experience is being outside, close to nature. Being surrounded by woods and fields, lakes and stream can bring a sense of peace and well-being to many a camper. While it used to be common for every child to be familiar with the plant and animal life found outdoors, it is now much more common that a child may go years, or even most of their childhood never experiencing a walk through a forest or seeing the animals and animal tracks that are found near lakes, rivers and streams.
It is not surprising then, that most people grow up not knowing the different types of plants and trees that can be found near their homes. There are literally thousands of types of trees worldwide. In fact, one non-profit group called the Botanic Gardens Conservation International has documented over 1,400 species of tree in North America alone. And while that may sound like a huge variety, North America ranks rather low in the number of types of trees compared with other parts of the world. South America, for example boasts more than ten times as many tree species.
North American trees can be divided into many groupings. Botanist catalogs will show classifications such as Families, Genera, and Species. For our purposes we will look at some basic groupings, starting with the difference between hardwoods and softwoods.
Hardwoods, as the name suggests, are more dense and “harder” than their softer cousins. This is generally because they are slower-growing so the woody material is packed more tightly together. Some North American hardwoods include oak, beech, and ash, which is so hard that it is the traditional choice for baseball bats. North American softwoods include mostly pine tree varieties. The scale of “hardness” for trees is relative. For example, white ash may be three times harder than redwood (which is the softest tree in North America), but Brazilian Ebony is three times harder than white ash.
With hundreds of species of trees in North America, let’s look at just some of the more popular ones that you might encounter while camping or strolling a tree-lined avenue. Looking at common softwoods, you will find a variety of what are often called “evergreen” trees, but are actually types of pines, firs, spruces, and larch trees. Common across the US and Canada, these trees are the traditional “Christmas Tree” types with needles and cones and mainly shaped like a pyramid. The majority of Canada’s trees are of this “coniferous’, or cone-bearing type of tree. In fact, over 50% of all Canadian trees are spruces!
The woodlands of the United States are somewhat more diverse in composition and distribution—from the oak-hickory and maple-beech-birch forests dominating the North Eastern sections to wide expanses of pine forests in the Southern states and the primarily pine-laden forests of the West, heavy with Douglas firs and ponderosa pines.
In the hardwood category you are likely to find oaks, maples, hickory, beech, birch and ash trees most prevalent. In the Eastern half of the US you are more likely to find oaks and hickory trees and other hardwoods, while the Western half has relatively few hardwood forests.
Next time you find yourself in the woods, see if you can identify a few of the most common trees shown here.