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The Homeowners Column
Not All Evergreens Are Created Equal
State Master Gardener Coordinator
The recent hoopla about an ugly Christmas tree in Pennsylvania got me thinking about expectations. As I understand it the aforementioned ugly tree was at one time happily growing near a baseball field. So instead of continuing to watch over second base it had the bad luck of being the second runner up as a Christmas tree. This once majestic landscape spruce came to be ridiculed as an ugly Christmas tree. I say the blame is not with the tree.
Landscape evergreens are produced and managed much differently than Christmas trees. Landscape evergreens are pretty much left to grow as their genetic nature intended. Christmas trees are a crop and require yearly shearing from the time they are babies till the time they end up in your living room. Shearing gives them the fullness and sturdiness that we demand for them to hold the stockpile of lights and sundry ornaments and for us to call them beautiful. Expecting a mature 50-foot tall landscape evergreen to behave like a Christmas tree is like me expecting my portly black lab to win a race against a sleek, born-to-run greyhound. Not gunna happen.
This ugly Christmas tree story also reminded me that most people cannot identify evergreens. One of the national reporters called it a pine. Another national story called it a Norwood spruce. I could tell from the pictures it has the classic landscape shape of a Norway spruce. Granted only plant geeks like me care about these distinctions, nevertheless I'm pretty sure my lab doesn't want to be called a poodle either.
Ok now that I vented a bit of steam let's continue on our quest to understand and identify evergreens. Evergreens shed their leaves, usually as needles, throughout the year in contrast to deciduous plants that shed their leaves in autumn.
Nature quickly teaches you to never say "never" and never say "always". Not all evergreens have needles. Broadleaf evergreens include holly, boxwood and rhododendron. In addition not all plants with needles are evergreen. For example the rebel trees of bald cypress, dawn redwood and larch have needles, but shed their needles each fall.
Tree identification as in wine appreciation is learning to look for subtle differences, but without the ingestion of lots of crackers. One essential clue to evergreen tree identification is the way the needles are attached to the branches.
The needle bases of Fir (genus Abies) are expanded like suction cups. Needles look like little plungers. Their bare branches with round depressed leaf scars remind me of octopus legs. Fir needles are generally flat with blunt ends.
As landscape plants most firs suffer miserably during our hot summers. Concolor fir is the best fir for a Midwestern landscape. In case you were wondering and to really confuse you further, Douglasfir is not a true fir, but is in its own genus.
Spruce (genus Picea) needles are held singly on woody pegs which make the bare branches very rough. Spruce needles are stiff and often extremely prickly. Planting a blue spruce is like hugging a porcupine. Spruces are also good choices as landscape trees.
Pines (genus Pinus) have needle lengths that vary from 1 to 10 inches. The needles are borne in bundles, also known as fascicles. One of the first tasks in identifying pines is counting how many needles are in each bundle. Scotch pines have two short needles per bundle and are common as quality Christmas trees. However Scotch pines are lousy landscape plants due to disease and insect susceptibility. White pines have long soft needles in bundles of 5. White pines make pleasant landscape plants and living Christmas trees for planting later in the landscape.
So during this holiday season let's remember trees are just doing what comes naturally and not every evergreen is a pine.