Knowledge is power — as many outdoor enthusiasts can attest. Not only will knowledge of your natural surroundings help you better enjoy your outdoor excursions, but knowledge can also protect you in certain circumstances.
With those goals in mind, here’s a bit of insight into conifer trees — the pines, tamaracks, cedars, firs, redwoods, and others that you might encounter on the trail.
1. Only conifers have cones.
It’s pretty simple: if it grows cones, it’s a conifer. Other trees may reproduce with fruits, nuts, acorns, or other methods, but only conifers grow those distinctive woody cones.
2. Not all conifers are evergreens.
In broad terms, you may think of conifer trees as the opposite of deciduous trees, but the truth is a bit more complex than that. It’s more accurate to say that evergreen trees are the opposite of deciduous. Keep in mind that not all conifers are evergreens. For example, a tamarack tree is a conifer and in some ways appears similar to an evergreen, but its needles turn yellow and drop in autumn. Likewise, in temperate climates, it’s also possible to have a deciduous tree that’s an evergreen. What are some common examples of North American evergreens? Think of the wide varieties of pines, firs, and spruce trees, as well as redwoods, cypress, cedar, and hemlock.
3. Conifers are the largest trees in the world…
A giant sequoia tree affectionately known as “General Sherman” has the largest volume of any known single-stem tree on Earth. This incredible specimen stands 275 feet tall and is over 100 feet across at the base.
4…and also the oldest.
The giant sequoia might have the size, but it’s the Bristlecone pine that has the seniority. It’s not unusual for the hardy Bristlecone pine to live several thousand years. Native only to a handful of western states including California, Nevada, and Utah, the Bristlecone pine prefers a rugged, high-altitude environment.
5. Hemlock trees aren’t related to Poison Hemlock.
There are several different species of the hemlock tree in North America, and outdoor enthusiasts should be aware that these trees (genus “Tsuga”) are not related to the Poison Hemlock plant (“Conium maculatum”). Despite the similarity in its common name, it belongs to an entirely different type of plant family. However, there are other reasons for campers to avoid the hemlock as a firewood source — the wood produces heavy sparking when burned, and the knots are so hard they can damage your cutting tools.
6. Evergreens remain active in the winter.
The broad leaves of deciduous trees fall just prior to the onset of a cold winter. This prevents the moisture in the leaves from freezing and is part of the tree’s process of going into seasonal dormancy. But trees like pines, spruce, fir, and others don’t reach the same level or dormancy. Instead, they’re able to retain their needles even in the winter. One of the reasons is that, because the needles are so narrow, they have less water content. This small amount of water is kept from freezing by a waxy coating.
Consider picking up a pocket-sized tree book to assist in identifying trees when out hiking, and grab a few cans of Rip It Energy to stay revitalized on your excursion.