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ACT's Nature Corner: Identifying Evergreens

Welcome back to ACT’s Nature Corner. This month we’ll be looking at identifying some of the Evergreen Conifers (trees that have cones and stay green through the winter) that you might find on our trails or around your neighborhood. I hope you had some fun finding our winter green ferns with the clues we talked about last month.

Before we get started let’s answer the question of the month from our January newsletter.

Q. Do you know what tree has both cones and needles but is entirely bare in winter?

A. The answer is a Tamarack. It is also called a Larch or a Hackmatack. It is an ancient tree that has both needles and cones but loses all its needles in the winter. Below is a picture of a Tamarack with all its needles in summer. You’ll find many of these trees around Arundel.

While you are walking the trails in winter you’ll see many evergreen trees. I used to call them all pine trees until I learned that some are actually spruce, fir or even hemlock trees. It’s fun to find and tell one type from another and with the right tools, it can be pretty easy to boot. Ready to become a tree detective? The easiest way is to look at their needles and that’s what we’ll be focusing on for this activity.


Let’s start with a Pine tree. A pine’s needles always grow in clusters. The needles of a pine are also longer than needles on other types of conifers, usually anywhere from 2 ½ -6 ½ inches long.

The number of needles in a cluster can help you identify what kind of pine tree you are looking at.

They usually come in clusters of 2,3 or 5. On the ACT trails we have two main Pines, the red and the white. If the cluster has 2 needles 4-6 inches long and are fairly stiff and brittle you’ve found a red pine.

You can find red pines on the Welch Woods trail. If you find a tree with clusters of 5 needles that are soft and flexible than you have a white pine. The white pine (5 needles-5 letters) is the state tree of Maine and very common in our “Pine Tree State” and on all our trails.

They also have very different barks that help us identify which pine we are looking at.


A spruces’ needles grow from a single point on a branch, not a cluster. They are attached by a short brownish peg. Spruce needles are much shorter, only about an inch, and are sharper and stiffer than a pine. If you were to cut a spruce needle crosswise you would see that it is square.

The square needle will easily roll between you fingers. Many of you might have a blue spruce in your yard. Try and see if you can roll one of its needles between your fingers.

Act trails have several types of spruces you might find during your explorations.


Needles of a fir tree are also attached from a single point. The needles are attached with what look like tiny suction cups.

Fir needles, rather than being square like a spruce tree, are flat and will not roll between your fingers like a spruce. Our Arundel Community Trails property off of Limerick Road has lots of Balsam Fir trees which are one of our most popular Christmas Trees.


Needles of the Hemlock tree also attach from a single point, but rather than brownish peg of a spruce or looking like they are attached by a suction cup like a fir, hemlock needles are attached by a tiny green stem.

“Hems have Stems” is a good way to remember. The hemlock needles are flat like fir and have two white stripes running the length of their underside.

Below is a simple chart that summarizes what we have been learning.

How to identify common New England Evergreen Conifers by their needles:

You now have the tools to identify some trees you see when you are walking on the ACT trails. Have some fun as a nature detective discovering some of these with your family or on your own. Let me know how you do or send me a picture of your discoveries at Is there something you’d like to know more about? Shoot me an email and I do my best to gather some resources.

Next month I’ll be sharing some common tracks you might see in the snow or March mud.



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