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Pine Trees or Evergreens?

by Don Janssen, Extension Educator

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All pine trees have needles, but all needled evergreens aren't pine trees any more than all dogs are dachshunds. Telling pines from firs from spruces isn't any harder than distinguishing beagles from Bassett hounds from bloodhounds -- you just need to know how each one is distinctively different from the others.

A distinguishing trait of pine trees is that their leaves (the needles) are bundled together, usually in packs of two to five. The needles may be long or short or somewhere in between, but if you find needles in bundles, you have a pine tree.

If you examine a needle from a tree and find out that it's not round and not flat but rather four-sided, you are looking at a spruce needle. The color may range from dark green to quite blue, but if the needle rolls between your fingers as smoothly as a square wheel, it's a spruce.

If you try this with a fir needle, it won't roll at all because it's flat. Like spruce needles, fir needles don't grow in bundles, either. Like spruce trees, fir trees tend to be tall, dark and symmetrical. Like pine trees, some types of fir trees are used for Christmas trees. Spruces, however, tend to lose their needles too quickly once they're taken indoors, though their shape makes them good candidates for outdoor lights around the holidays.

Another common evergreen is the juniper. The shape and size may vary from tall to short to globular to virtually flat but if the needles are lapped over one another like the shingles on a roof, it's a juniper. Foliage may be anywhere in texture from soft to prickly, but all junipers share the overlapping needle trait.

Sprays of cedar foliage are compressed horizontally, bright green and soft with overlapping scales. A dark green evergreen with shiny, flat needles that remind you of fir needles but aren't stiff or prickly is a yew, or taxus. Yews are another versatile group of landscape evergreens. Their soft foliage is a popular trait.

Evergreen identification can be more than just an intellectual exercise or a chance to show off to your friends and neighbors -- it can also help you track down information on unlabeled plants in the landscape that you might want to know more about, perhaps because you would like to add one to your home grounds. 'Large evergreen' is a little vague, and not much help when you're trying to enlist the help of a Master Gardener or nursery operator in identifying a particular plant. If you can narrow it down to 'juniper' or 'spruce', you have a better start. And that may lead to other information -- on best planting site conditions, common problems, mature size and spread, and so on. You should end up with a much better idea about whether the plant will do well where you intend to plant it. And if you can ask for it by name, a much better chance of being able to find it.

(This resource was added December 2003 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement)

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office