Kathi excelled at teaching writing and natural sciences as a classroom teacher. Today, she combines her research, knowledge and photography!
The beautiful needle-bearing pines are classified as conifers, sometimes referred to as evergreens, basically since they remain green throughout four seasons of the year. They are related to several other needle-bearing trees, including the firs, hemlocks, spruces, cedars and a few others that share many of the same attributes. I focus on them in several follow up articles. Michigan shares many conifer trees with other Great Lake states and Canada, as well as the North Eastern and Central American regions of the United States.
Pine trees can be challenging to identify simply because some varieties possess almost identical characteristics requiring close examination of their needles, seed-fruit, or bark, while some others are unmistakably identifiable from a reasonable distance simply by their size and shape.
The 5 most common pine trees of Michigan identified in this article include Jack Pine, Scots Pine, Red Pine, Austrian Pine and White Pine, in that order. Discovering their secrets led me on a fun, often head scratching adventure out in the wilderness! The following photographs and artwork (photographed or drawn by myself) are most helpful for anyone needing to identify a species or just for the curious at heart!
Comparing Pine Tree Needles to Other Conifer Species Needles
All true pine species have two to five needles (leaves) per bundle (fascicle), distinguishing them from other conifers such as spruce or fir trees, which have single attachments. The photo above shows the four pine tree species included in this article possessing two needles per bundle. The Jack Pine needles are the shortest, while the Red Pine needles are the longest. White pine trees typically have five needles per bundle (shown later).
1. Jack Pine Tree (Pinus banksiana)
Jack Pine Tree Location
(See U.S. and Canada location map). Michigan native Jack Pines occur in the hottest driest landscapes preferring well-drained sandy or rocky soils, needing full sun. No wonder they can be found along the sand dunes of Lake Michigan where I located a dense grove of them.
Jack Pine Tree Size and Shape
- Jack Pine tree is a slow growing medium-size tree from 32 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) tall with a 10 -15 feet (3 - 4.5m) spread. Michigan Big Tree: 62 feet (19m) tall, Marquette County.
- Jack Pines are highly variable from short, bushy, crooked or distorted. Open-grown trees on dry, sandy soils and rocky sites can grow tall, straight trunks of little taper. Trees often exhibit scraggly, branchy, unkempt appearance. Older trees especially can exhibit several needleless lower limbs.
Jack Pine Needles
Jack Pine needles measure approximately 3/4 to 2 inches (2 to 5 cm) long with two in each bundle (fascicle). They are colored medium green to yellow green.
Jack Pine tree needles often grow curved or twisted showing relatively blunt ends. Winter buds are ovoid with rounded end and pale brown, can be resinous.
Jack Pine Tree Seed Cones
Jack Pine tree seed cones are one of this tree's most identifiable features measuring about 2 inches (5 cm) long and being the only pine tree species with cones curved at the tip of closed cones. Jack Pine cones are typically glued shut protecting the seeds inside requiring fire or temperatures of 120 degrees in order to open up and release the seeds. In Southwest Michigan's preserved Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area along a low sand dune valley where temperatures are steaming hot during the summer months, I noticed the cones on the Jack Pine trees were almost all opened up.
I also couldn't help but notice the Jack Pine trees retained a ton of seed cones on every tree and later discovered through research that they persist on the trees up to 10 to 20 years. I tried to pull one off and was surprised by how much strength it took before it let go.
Jack Pine tree bark exhibits thin gray rectangular flakes, is colored reddish brown underneath turning darker brown on older trees..
Important To Wildlife
The yellow breasted song bird, Kirtland's Warbler, is endemic to Jack Pine groves having made a come back from the federal and state endangered lists. Their nests are located on the ground near or at the edge of fairly dense young Jack Pine stands. Other wildlife eat the seeds, including squirrels, chipmunks, rodents and many bird species. The white-tailed deer and snowshoe hare browse Jack Pines as well. When I was hiking along the trails of the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area preserve near a young stand, a white-tailed deer suddenly dashed out from the pine forest startling me, which required several minutes for me to recover.
2. Scots (Scotch) Pine Tree (Pinus sylvestris)
Scots Pine Tree Location
- Originally native to northern Asia and Europe, as the name implies in reference to Scotland of Great Britain, Scots Pines have been planted extensively for centuries naturalizing throughout the Northeastern and Midwestern regions of North America having the widest geographical range of any pine tree species.
- This evergreen is known for its tolerance of poor soils that may be sandy, rocky, or of heavy clay and also tolerates shade and drought. My forested property was a Scots Pine Christmas tree farm a generation ago, so I can personally vouch for these conditions.
Scots Pine Size and Shape
- A Fast growing, moderately long-living medium-sized tree, grows up to 60 feet (18m) tall with a 10 to 20 foot (3-6m) spread. Michigan Big Tree: 62 feet (19m) tall, Lenawee County.
- Jack Pine tree is highly variable in form, is dense and pyramidal as a young tree, but quickly becomes irregular and contorted in closed-stands, sometimes leaning. Their trunks often split into two main branches; often shows short crooked stems with wide-spreading limby crowns. In open and with good natural branch pruning, they can grow tall straight stems. Scots pines can easily be confused with Jack Pines without closer examination.
Scots Pine Tree Branches and Needles
- Scots Pine branches often curve upward at the tips.
- The needles measure 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) long, growing in clusters of two. They typically are colored bluish-green and less often medium-green to yellow-green, persisting on tree 2 to3 years. Needles are rather stiff, sharp and thick.
The most distinguishing traits of the Scots Pine needles are the way the blades twist and also their bluish-green color.
Scots Pine tree winter buds are oblong-ovoid, sharp-pointed, reddish brown, some with white resin.
Scots Pine tree pollen cones arise in spring with cylindrical, stalked clusters composed of yellowish pollen scales releasing pollen in spring or early summer pollinating the firmer female seed-cones.
Scots Pine Seed Cones
Jack Pine seed cones measure 1.5 to 2 inches (3.8 to 5 cm) long, having a rounded shape, opening up the second year, later dropping from the tree soon as ripening in autumn or winter.
The scales of the Scots Pine seed cones are reddish brown, smooth edged and firm, lacking prickles on the backside. As most pines, the tree is monoecious, with spring male pollen cones pollinating the female seed cones by wind or disturbance from wildlife.
Scots Pine Tree Bark
Scots Pine bark can be bright orange, especially noticeable along the large upper trunk and limbs, a recognizable feature from a reasonable distance on mature trees. The base of the trunks are typically more gray. Bark is thin and flaky with scaly ridges, becoming moderately thick on older trees.
3. Red Pine Tree (Pinus resinosa)
Red Pine Tree Location
- (See location map). Red Pines are shade intolerant, but tolerant of windy locations thriving best in well drained sandy or gravely soil along mountains, hillsides or deserted plains.
- In Michigan, Red Pines are most common in Upper Peninsula and northern half of Lower Peninsula, south to Ottawa Co. on the west side of state and St. Clair Co. on the east side.
- This native pine has also been called Norway Pine because of European settlers mistaken identity.
Red Pine Tree Size and Shape
- Large, fast-growing tree reaching 66 to 115 feet (20 to 35 meters) in height with varying widths. Red Pines are long living, sometimes up to 500 years. Michigan Big Tree: 114 feet (35m) tall, Ontonagon County.
- At maturity, the Red Pine tree grows rather straight, tall and fairly uniform with a narrowing round crown. In closed stands, trunks are long and limbless; crowns are short and oval. Branches are spaced in annual false-whorls along the trunk; tree age can be determined by counting the number of these whorls.
Red Pine Tree Needles
Red Pine tree needles measure approximately 5 to7 inch (12.7 to 17.75 cm) long, are coarse, slender, straight, sharp and flexible, but snap apart when bent sharply. They grow two per bundle (fascicle) and are colored medium green to dark green remaining on trees up to four years providing a dense appearance, especially in younger trees. The Red Pine winter buds are rather resinous as with their resin-retentive lumber, reflected in the scientific name (Pinus resinosa).
Red Pine Tree Seed Cones
Red Pine tree seed cones measure approximately 2.25 inches (5.7 cm) long, are brown, firm and broadly oval lacking prickles on the backsides of their rounded, smooth edged scales. They ripen in autumn of second season, falling to the ground the following summer.
Red Pine Tree Bark
Red Pine tree bark is thick and gray-brown at the base of the tree, and more thin, flaky and bright orange-red brown along the upper crown, (the origin of the tree's common name). Red pine bark is fire resistant; can easily be confused with Austrian and Scots pine tree bark.
Importance To Wildlife
Bald eagles nest in this tall tree just below the crown and colonies of the great blue heron use Red Pines along waterways. Red squirrels, in particular, store their cones in underground tunnels and use the tree as their favorite nesting tree.
4. Austrian Pine Tree (Black Pine) (Pinus nigra)
Austrian (Black) Pine Tree Location
These pine trees are European natives extensively planted for generations becoming naturalized in Michigan and much of the Northeastern and Midwestern regions of the United States. They're desired for their fullness of foliage and adaptability preferring well drained soil, but will tolerate heavy clay, sandy soil, road salt and are resistant to wind and drought. They are shade intolerant.
Austrian (Black) Pine Tree Size and Location
- A large, fast-growing, moderately long-lived tree; in open locations, reaches from 60 to100 feet (20-30m) tall and 20 to 40 feet (6 -12m) wide. Michigan Big Tree: 85 feet (26m) tall, Lenawee County.
- Mature trees have denser foliage and a fuller shape than many other pines, including the Red Pine, of which they share several similar traits. Young trees are densely pyramidal holding lower branches close to the ground. At maturity, they become large, flat-topped trees exhibiting a rough, short trunk with low, stout, spreading branches and sometimes grow into irregular shapes.
Austrian or Black Pine Tree Needles
Black Pine tree needles measure 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) long, are colored medium to dark green with two needles per bundle (fascicle). They're quite similar to the Red Pine needles except the Black Pine needles are stiffer and sharper to the touch. They may be stiffer, but will not snap in two when sharply bent like the Red Pine tree needles. They tend to grow curved toward the twig.
The winter buds of the Black Pine tree are oblong-conical, sharp-pointed, reddish- brown, and often white with resin.
The spring pollen cones of the Austrian Pine tree are cylindrical, exhibiting scaly clusters composed of yellow pollen scales growing at the base of new shoots and pollinate the female seed cones through the wind or animal disturbances (monoecious), true of most evergreens.
Austrian (Black) Pine Tree Seed Cones
Black Pine tree seed cones measure 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm) long, are firm with tiny spikes on the backside of scales. They ripen in autumn of the second season, opening two years after full size is attained and remain on the tree for several years.
Austrian (Black) Pine Tree Bark
The Austrian (Black) pine bark is pinkish gray to darker brown to nearly black (inherent to the common name); older trunks are coarser and deeply fissured, flaking coarsely. The bark looks quite similar to the Scots and Red Pine bark.
5. Eastern White Pine Tree (Pinus strobus)
Eastern White Pine Tree Location
(See U.S. and Canada location map above). The White Pines (also called soft pines) can be somewhat versatile, preferring sandy soil and humid climates, yet they can also grow in boggy areas and rocky highlands, only they do not tolerate heavy clay. They are moderately shade tolerant.
Eastern White Pine Tree Size and Shape
- Eastern White pine is a large, fast growing tree, typically reaching to 100 feet (30m) in height with up to 40 feet (12m) spread. But this native tree has the distinction of being the tallest tree in the eastern regions of North America. Pre-colonial stands were reported over 200 feet (50m) in height.
- Presently, the tallest specimens in Hartwick Pines Michigan State Park are over 160 feet (49m) tall.
- Mature trees can easily live 200 plus years of age, with some Michigan trees that have approached 500 years of age.
- The White Pine exhibits a straight trunk and dense foliage, especially in younger trees, to somewhat irregular shapes depending on location (demonstrated in the two photo samples above). Open-grown trees exhibit a wide-spreading pyramidal crown. Branches in mid-crown spread at nearly right angles to the stem. Upper branches ascend and often grow irregularly away from the prevailing wind direction giving the tree a wind-swept appearance.
Eastern White Pine Needles
The white pine needs measure from 3 to 5 inches (7.6 to 12.7 cm), are colored medium green, or less often to yellow green. The needles have a unique feature among pines with a long, slender, flexible form and attachment to branches in bundles of 5 per fascicle, or rarely 3 to 4. This unique trait gives the tree a fury texture recognizable from a reasonable distance.
Eastern White Pine Tree Seed Cone
Eastern White Pine tree seed cones measure about 6 inches (15.25 cm) long lacking spikes on the backside. They are easily recognizable with their, cylindrical, slender form and less rigid loose scales which are slightly reflexed. After ripening in autumn of the second season, they open to disperse seeds in the wind, later dropping to the ground during the winter and succeeding spring.
Eastern White Pine Tree Bark
White Pine bark is thin, smooth and greenish on young trees becoming thick dark gray to brown with age and deeply fissured longitudinally into broad scaly ridges often showing sap drippings which turn white when exposed to air, as seen in photo left.
Eastern White Pine Historical Significance
This native pine once covered much of North Central and Northeastern North America, but only "1" percent remains today. At the turn of the century, White Pines were clear cut during Michigan’s lumber era, which rebuilt Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. The trees were favored because they were easily accessible occurring in pure stands and floated well. By the early 1900's, over 100 million of Michigan pine trees had been felled in the Lower Peninsula before lumber companies targeted the Upper Peninsula. During this era, the Southwestern Michigan lumber and ship-building town of Singapore became buried in sand, lost forever as a result of clear cutting.
In 1955, the Eastern White Pine became Michigan's state tree.
The Eastern White Pine was called the Tree of Peace by the Iroquois and Ojibway Native Americans who used every part of the tree, including the bark, cones, needles or resin for food, medicine, boat making and various crafts.
The wood of White Pines were the most significant trade commodity and building material of the New World during the colonial period as early as the 1600's.
The Tree That Helped Change America
During the age of square riggers, the tall straight Eastern White Pines were known in the Thirteen Colonies as mast pines, mostly reserved for The British Royal Navy by order of King Charles II. Beginning in 1684, the king forbid the colonies from cutting down any white pines suitable for masts without a special license. Many people are unaware this was a significant motivator leading up to the Revolutionary War as early Americans got fed up with British strangleholds.
© 2021 Kathi Mirto