Identifying North American Pine Trees

Pines belong to the conifers, with evergreen needles and cones. Sorting the pines from among its relatives, the firs, spruces and hemlocks, is not difficult.

Pines can be distinguished from other conifers because their needles grow in bundles of two to five. Each species can be identified by the number of needles in the bundles. A sheath at the base of the needles holds them together on the branch.

Cones of pines are among the largest and most durable of all the conifers, making them prized for Christmas decorations and crafts.

Below are some of the common pines found in North America, including Mexico.

White Pine (Various Species)

White pines have five needles per bundle. Needles are generally long, giving the trees a handsome appearance. The symmetrical cones can be up to 10 inches long. The long, soft needles of Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) give these trees a graceful, lacy form. Needles of the Western (Pinus monticola) and Mexican (Pinus ayacahuite) varieties are a bit tougher, but trees are just as stately. Sugar pine, another member of the white pines, is native to the western U.S. and Mexico and boasts the longest cones (up to 18 inches). White pines are tall trees (up to 220 feet) and long-lived.

Ponderosa Pine (Pinus Ponderosa)

Needles of the ponderosas are bundled in threes (occasionally twos) and grow up to 10 inches long, forming tufts at the ends of the branches. Crafters collect the needles to make pine needle baskets. The cones are egg-shaped with prickles. This is a common tree in the western U.S. and southwestern Canada and an important timber tree.

Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)

Jack Pine can look rather shaggy, but it’s a hardy tree that survives poor soils and cold northern climates. Its needles are bundled in twos and measure only an inch to an inch-and-a-half long. The trees themselves are also rather short, reaching generally about 15 to 40 feet high. The cones are about 2 to 2-1/2 inches long and curve toward the tip of the branch. Cones stay on the tree for years, opening to release their seeds after a fire. They are native to Canada and the northeastern U.S.

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)

A native of the Appalachian Mountains, this is another short pine that can look rather gnarled. Needles are bundled in threes, 3 to 5 inches long, with tufts of needles often sprouting directly out of the trunk. The hard oval cones are 2 to 4 inches long and prickly.

Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta v. latifolia)

This North American tree comes in two rather different forms: a short, “contorted” variety growing along the Pacific Coast and the taller, straighter form growing inland. Both have relatively short needles (1 to 3 inches) in bunches of two. Cones are an inch or two long.

Branches of the coastal shore pine grow to odd shapes, sometimes bending around the trunk in response to harsh ocean winds. The taller inland lodgepole pine grows through the western U.S. and Canada from Southern California to Southeastern Alaska.

Bristlecone Pine (Pinus aristata)

The old gnarled bristlecone pines of eastern California are famous for being the oldest living things on earth. A few trees have been dated to 4,000 years old. The trees are relatively short. Needles grow in bundles of 5 and may stay on the tree for a dozen years or more. Cones are about 3 inches long and tipped with prickles.

Other pines, including the Virginia and Scotch pines, along with the white pines, are favored for Christmas trees.

The pines are among the most numerous conifers in North America, sometimes forming dense forests. These hardy trees are worth getting to know.

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