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O, Christmas Tree! . . . What Are You, Exactly?

O, Christmas Tree! . . . What Are You, Exactly?

Did you know that there are approximately 25–30 million live Christmas trees sold in the US every year? For many, the holiday season includes enjoying time spent outdoors—and bringing the outdoors indoors by getting and decorating a tree. When you go to a tree farm or out to a forest to select a tree, you may find many different kinds of trees available to you. So, which to choose? And why? What are the different kinds of trees we collectively refer to as “pines,” anyway? 

Many words are tossed around that generally refer to the green, pine-smelling trees we bring indoors during the holidays. We may call them “evergreens,” “conifers,” “pines,” etc. What’s the difference? 

Evergreen

Scale-like evergreen leaves

While deciduous trees shed their leaves, evergreens retain their foliage over the course of a year. And not all evergreens are what you may traditionally consider an “evergreen” tree—although their leaves are often needlelike or scalelike (see the two images to see examples of each), this isn’t always true. Many tropical trees have broad leaves that they keep all year long and reproduce via flowers. Because the temperature remains warm in these areas, the trees simply do not need to drop their leaves!

Needle-like evergreen leaves

There are several significant categories of evergreen trees, including conifers, temperate broadleaved species, and tropical hardwoods. Some species don’t belong to a larger group, however.

 Conifers

Simply put, a conifer is a tree that bears cones, like pinecones, which contain the plant’s seeds. “Con-” refers to the cones coniferous trees produce and the root, “-fer,” means to carry (as in “this tree carries cones”). Though many conifer trees are evergreen, not all are; it’s their cones and not their green needles that make them a conifer. There is a small group of conifers that grow and drop a new set of leaves every year, just like maples, birches, and other deciduous trees. 

Pine, Spruce, and Fir Trees

There are over 100 species of pine in the genus Pinus! What makes them easier to identify is that all pines share an easily identified feature: The slender needles are arranged and attached to the branches in clusters of two (red pine group), three (yellow pine group), or five (white pine group). They also have a papery covering that attaches the cluster to the branch.

Many trees popularly called pine aren’t actually in the pine family at all! If you’re looking at an evergreen with needles that come directly out of the branch rather than in bundled clusters, it is likely a spruce or fir, not a pine.

Both have needles that attach directly to the branch, so they’re a little more difficult to tell them apart. The needles on spruce and fir trees have different shapes: Spruce needles are square while fir needles are flat. To help you remember which is which, think:

Spruce → Square

Fir → Flat

You can also take a needle from the branch and roll it between your fingers. The flat fir needle will be more difficult to roll, while the square spruce one will roll more easily.

Putting It All Together

Take a look at this handy Venn diagram, which will help you visualize where each group of trees lies in relationship to the others so the next time you’re taking a stroll outdoors (maybe, at the suggestion of our last article on magnetism, to look for magnetic things) you’re able to identify what kind of tree you’re looking at. Of course, what species you’ll come into contact with will vary depending on the region you live in! The top Christmas tree producing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Washington.

On the hunt for your next Christmas tree and curious to learn more about how they’re farmed, how they grow, and which species might be the best for you and your family? Check out the National Christmas Tree Association’s website, which has not only FAQs about harvesting and displaying your Christmas tree but how to find a recycling program near you once your tree is ready to be recycled.

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