Demystifying Conifer Identification

Young needles

A starting point on an Identification journey into the needle species. In this blog and the my next two (in the coming months) I’ll try to demystify conifer identification.

Scots Pine - Pinus sylvestris
Scots Pine – Pinus sylvestris.

I’ve started with the scots pine (pinus sylvestris ) not, as the boss likes to say, as it’s all I have up north but due to its history in Scotland and its continued importance in both commercial forestry and as the ecology of both boreal and northern temperate forests of Europe. It also has, to my mind, a special place in our ecology and mythology as one of our few native needle leafed species and the only one that’s a true conifer.

But what’s so special about Scots pine? It’s enough to say that as a widely planted, quite distinguishable tree it’s a good starting point in identification terms.

Now to the ID
Often people tend to focus on the broadleaf trees when learning bushcraft and tree ID. This, in general, can be because to the novice or even the more experienced outdoorsman the needle species can seem a rather mystifying sea of green identification beyond basic families. This then seems a daunting task involving fine detail and an alchemists knowledge of botany, however, that needn’t be the case. In this series of blogs I’ll try and equip you with a few simple tools to assist in your tree identification journey.

Tree form (it’s basic shape)
Trees can often be distinguished at a fair distance just by things like location and silhouette. I’ve tried to show this with some common examples below. As it matures this species loses its lower limbs and starts to spread unlike the spruce which maintains its rocket ship shape into maturity. Often you will see stands of Scots pine in gullies, on hilltops etc in certain parts of Scotland – these are the last true remnants of the Caledonian forest.

As it matures this species loses its lower limbs and starts to spread
As it matures Scots Pine loses its lower limbs and starts to spread.
Norway Spruce rocket shape.

As you can see the shape and growth habits of a tree can be an identification aid even at a distance once you get your eye in. But what’s the next step? Well as you approach the tree the bark on the scots pine is rather distinctive, with its orange flakey texture, as you can see below.

Orange, flaky texture of the mature bark
Orange, flaky texture – semi mature bark (approx 30 years old)

This is also very apparent on both young stems and branches, although in saplings and very young trees it’s not so evident.

Bark of young scots pine (approx 6 years)
Bark of young scots pine (approx 6 years)

So as you can see we are starting to build up a picture as we approach the tree. At this point, through experience, you may be able to identify the family if not the tree. However, we can now look closer at the tree. It’s worth noting though that juvenile trees tend to have slightly longer needles.

As you can see from the pictures below the needles are joined, as in all the pines, but in this case they are in pairs. The woody sections is called the fascicle and encases both the needles and attaches them to the stem – this is a great identifying marker on most conifers.

Juvenile trees tend to have slightly longer needles
Juvenile trees tend to have slightly longer needles.
The needles are joined as in all the pines but in this case they are in pairs
The needles are joined, as in all the pines, but in this case they are in pairs
Young needles
Young needles.

As you can see the needles are in pairs slightly twisted and are a dark green/blue colour. Our last ID feature is the cones. As you can see in pictures below the cones are egg shaped until opening, then are very open having released their two winged seeds.

Top view Scots pine cone
Top view Scots pine cone.
Bottom view Scots pine cone
Bottom view Scots pine cone.

I hope this demystifies one of the conifers.

Some comparisons
I’ve added a few comparisons below to help define some of the differences in the ID features.

Cone comparisons
Cone comparisons.

From the top…
Larch – no needles on winter stem, small cone remains on tree.
Middle is a Douglas fir cone – note the snake tongue “bracts” sticking out.
Bottom is a scots pine cone.

Next time I will build on the knowledge and introduce the spruces and firs.

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