The beautiful needle-bearing pines are classified as conifers, sometimes referred to as evergreens, partly because 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, which I will be focusing on in a follow up article. 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.
The 5 most common pines 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 pine tree photographs and artwork supporting the descriptions in this article are quite helpful for anyone needing to identify a species or just for the curious at heart!
COMPARING PINE TREE NEEDLES FROM OTHER CONIFERS
All pine trees 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.
1. Jack Pine Tree (Pinus banksiana)
JACK PINE LOCATION: (Click on thumbnail above for 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 SHAPE is almost always scrubby. Older trees will exhibit several bare limbs often leaving the lower trunks almost barren. Upon maturity, they rarely will have grown perfectly straight, resulting in irregular shapes. Their growth habit is very similar to Scots Pines. Jack Pines reach up to 50 feet (15 meters) tall.
JACK PINE NEEDLES measure 3/4 to 2 inches (2 to 5 cm) long with two in each bundle (fascicle), and are colored medium green to yellow green.
JACK PINE CONES are this tree's most identifiable feature measuring about 2 inches (5 cm) long being the only pine 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. 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 were almost all opened up on the Jack Pine trees. I was also curious how there were a ton of them on every tree and later discovered they stay on the tree 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 BARK has gray rectangular flakes, is colored reddish brown underneath turning darker brown on older trees..
OTHER JACK PINE INFO: 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 eats the seeds including squirrels, chipmunks, rodents and many other birds. 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 frightened me when it suddenly dashed out from the pine forest.
2. Scots (Scotch) Pine Tree (Pinus sylvestris)
SCOTS PINE 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. 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 SHAPE is dense and pyramidal as a young tree, but quickly becomes irregular and contorted, sometimes leaning. Their trunks often split into two main branches. They are often confused with Jack Pines. Scots pines grow up to 50 feet (15 meters).
SCOTS PINE NEEDLES measure 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) long, are typically colored bluish-green and less often medium green to yellow-green, attaching to the branch in bundles of two. The most distinguishing traits are the needle's twisted shape and bluish-green color (click thumbnails above to view large).
SCOTS PINE 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. They lack prickles on the backside of their scales, as some other pine cones have.
SCOTS PINE BARK is bright orange and flaky, especially noticeable along the large upper limbs, a recognizable feature from a reasonable distance on mature trees. The base of their trunks are typically more gray.
3. Red Pine Tree (Pinus resinosa)
RED PINE LOCATION: (Click thumbnail above to view location map). This native pine has also been called Norway Pine because of European settlers mistaken identity. 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.
RED PINE SHAPE at maturity grows rather straight, tall and fairly uniform with a narrowing round crown. They are long living, sometimes up to 500 years, reaching 66 to 115 feet (20 to 35 meters) in height.
RED PINE NEEDLES are course measuring 5 to7 inch (12.7 to 17.75 cm) long, having 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 CONES measure up to 2.25 inches (5.7 cm) long, are broadly oval lacking prickles on the backsides of their scales.
RED PINE BARK is thick and gray-brown at the base of the tree, but thin, flaky and bright orange-red along the upper crown, (the origin of the tree's common name). Red pine bark is very similar in texture to Jack, Scots and Austrian pine tree bark.
OTHER RED PINE INFO: 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 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.
AUSTRIAN (BLACK) PINE SHAPE on mature trees have denser foliage and a fuller shape than many other pines, including the Red Pine, of which they share several other 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 often grow into irregular shapes. In open locations, they can reach from 60 to100 feet (20 to 30 meters) tall and 20 to 40 feet (6 to12 meters) wide.
AUSTRIAN (BLACK) PINE NEEDLES are coarse measuring 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) long, colored medium to dark green with two needles per bundle (fascicle). They're very similar to the Red Pine needles except the Black Pine needles are stiffer and sharper to the touch.
AUSTRIAN (BLACK) PINE CONES measure 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm) long with tiny spikes on the backside of scales. At maturity, they spread their scales in order to release seeds, later dropping to the ground.
AUSTRIAN (BLACK) PINE BARK at the base of mature trees, have more exposed trunks to sunlight exhibiting a variety of colors showing flaky plates from darker brown to black (inherent to the common name); while underneath colors range from light reddish to light gray to light brown to chalky white. Their bark is quite similar to the Jack, Scots and Red Pine bark.
5. Eastern White Pine Tree (Pinus strobus)
EASTERN WHITE PINE LOCATION: (Click thumbnail above to view U.S. and Canada location map). 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.
EASTERN WHITE PINE SHAPE 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)
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 (50 meters) in height. Presently, the tallest specimens in Hartwick Pines Michigan State Park are over 160 feet (49 meters) tall.
Mature trees can easily live 200 plus years of age, with some Michigan trees that have approached 500 years of age.
EASTERN WHITE PINE NEEDLES 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 very distinctive feature with their long thin 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 CONES measure about 6 inches (15.25 cm) long lacking spikes on the backside. They are easily recognizable with their slender form and less rigid loose scales which are slightly reflexed opening to disperse seeds in the wind, later dropping to the ground.
EASTERN WHITE PINE BARK becomes more furrowed with age, is colored gray to brown 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 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.
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.