How to properly identify common conifer trees

Tree identification can be challenging. Many times differing species have similar characteristics. For those in Michigan and nearby states it's easy to tell a white pine from a norway pine from a jack pine. Just check the needles.

White pine, left, with five needle fascicle removed next to it; white spruce, center; balsam fir, right. Michael Schira | MSU Extension
White pine, left, with five needle fascicle removed next to it; white spruce, center; balsam fir, right. Michael Schira | MSU Extension

Far too often as one travels around Michigan and other Great Lake States you will see properties proudly named “Big Pine” this “Twin Pines” that, and they will have large spruce marking their entries. Proper identification of individual tree species can be challenging, but if landowners are going to name country estates after their beloved trees, they should make the effort to ensure they are properly identified.

All trees maintaining green needles through the year are not necessarily pines.  Although pines retain most of their needle-like leaves throughout the year, so do spruce, fir, cedar, hemlock and a few other Great Lakes tree species. If individuals are not sure about correct identification of a green needled tree, “conifer” would be a correct generic identification.  All needle-bearing trees can be classed as conifers.

With the understanding that landowners may not be too interested in identifying their ownerships as “Big Conifer”; there is a reasonably simple way to determine if the tree in question is a pine or not. With only three species of true pines native to the Great Lakes region it just takes a little investigation for proper identification.

White pine (Pinus strobus), red or Norway pine (P. resinosa) and jack pine (P. banksiana) all have needles in bundles or clumps called fascicles.  White pine has five needles per bundle, while red and jack pines have two needles. All the other native conifers with green needles year around in our region have single or individual needles attaching to the stem.

There is also a quick, and usually accurate, check to identify spruce trees.  If the tree in question has single attached needles, pick one and place it flat between thumb and finger, if it rolls easily between them it’s probably a spruce. All the other Michigan native single needle conifers have flat needles that cannot be easily rolled. There are two native species of spruce in the state and several exotic species planted so this method won’t help identify what species of spruce you may have, but it will narrow it down to the spruce family.

Looking at trees from a distance should also be a clue to identification as their shapes or form class are different however, close up examination of the needles should be the easiest way to determine species.  Michigan State University Extension may also be useful in helping identifying tree species.  For help with identification, send digital (jpg.) images of the tree/s in question to our nationally linked eXtension Ask an Expert website for assistance.

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