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In the last blog we began our tree identification series with an introduction to identifying coniferous tree species using needle and cone characteristics. We will expand upon that in today’s blog and will discuss how to distinguish between some of the more often found groups of coniferous trees here in the Northeast.
The most common groups of conifers in this area include large trees such as pines, spruces, firs, douglas-firs, hemlocks and smaller trees such as Eastern red cedar and arborvitaes. Examination of the needles of these trees is the first step in distinguishing each group. Because pines are so numerous in the landscape here the first step should be to determine if the tree a pine or not. Are the needles grouped together (either in 2’s, 3’s or 5’s) in a bundle (fascicle)? If so the tree is a type of pine. If not, are the needles solitary, 4-sided and pointed (compared to flattened and not pointed)? If so the tree is a type of spruce (see picture in Part I’s blog). If not, are the individual needles distinct, solitary and flattened or very short and overlapping? If the former, the tree is a fir, — or hemlock. If the latter, there is a high probability it is either Eastern red cedar or arborvitae (we discuss a couple of less likely possibilities in Part III).
A look at the cones and a closer look at the needles are needed to distinguish between hemlocks, firs and douglas-firs. Are the needles flattened and pointed (douglas-fir) or flattened and not pointed (hemlocks or fir). A douglas-fir also has very distinctive cones to help you confirm your ID. To distinguish between hemlocks and firs look at how the needles are attached. If there is a short stem (petiole) attaching the needle to the branch it is a hemlock. If the needle does not have a petiole and has a circular point of attachment is is a type of fir. Additionally, hemlocks will have dangling small cones (.75 – 1.5” or so) while firs have larger, upright-standing cones that disintegrate upon maturity (you won’t find cones in the winter).
To distinguish between Eastern red cedars and arborvitaes again look at theneedles. Both will have overlapping, scale-like needles but arborvitaes will have flattened foliage and small woody cones, if present (see picture in lastweek’s blog). Eastern red cedar foliage will be more rounded with some short, pointed needles in addition to the overlapping, scale-like needles. The cones are berry-like and only found on female trees in fall so it is often not a useful ID feature.