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Just what is an evergreen?

Nature is unpredicatable

December 19, 2008
By Miriam Patton - Palo Alto County Naturalist

When we think of Christmas trees or evergreens, we often say pine tree. Not all evergreens are pines.

Evergreen trees have needles instead of flat leaves so that they can better survive winter. Needles are narrow, and there is less surface area so these trees do not lose much water through evaporation. The thicker, waxy leaf prevents water loss.

Evergreen trees can survive where there is less rainfall. That is why you notice evergreen trees higher in the mountains or further north on the continent, where there is less rainfall. Evergreens do not usually do well if the soil is too wet.

Coniferous trees are the oldest seed plants to survive until modern times. They have been around for more than 300 million years!

Most evergreens have some type of cone, hence their name, conifer. Pine trees have needles that are in bundles or groups.

The White Pine has five needles in a bundle; the Red Pine has two needles in a bundle.

Spruce and fir trees have needles attached one by one on the branch, not in a bundle. Spruce needles are four-sided and sharp on the end. Fir trees have flat needles. Cedar trees have really scaly needles. The only two evergreens native to this part of Iowa are the White Pine and the Red Cedar. All others, even if they are found out in a wooded area, have been brought in and planted.

Although you see bright green evergreens in the dead of winter, that doesn't mean they never lose their "leaves." They just don't lose the needles all at once like deciduous trees. Needles are lost little by little.

Did I say evergreens don't lose their needles all at once like deciduous trees? There is an exception. The needles of the tamarack, an evergreen found further north, turn golden yellow and then drop off before winter.

Cones of evergreens come in a variety of shapes and sizes. We shouldn't really call them pine cones unless they come from a pine.

There are spruce cones, fir cones and hemlock cones. The largest evergreens, redwoods and sequoias, have some of the smallest cones.

One of the biggest cones comes from the Sugar Pine that can be found out west. Some evergreens like Yews, Junipers and Cedars have fleshy berries. Yews have a bony seed partially surrounded by a fleshy red pulp.

Juniper and cedar berries are bluish black covered with white powder. The seeds and berries of evergreens are important food for a variety of animals.

We often refer to the wood of evergreens as softwood and the wood from deciduous trees as hardwood. Yellow pine has very hard wood, while wood from Cottonwood or Boxelder is quite soft. So much for guidelines and rules of thumb to help us distinguish the characteristics of trees. Nature is never predictable.

I hope that you and your family are enjoying your evergreen tree, whether it is a pine, spruce or fir. Happy Holidays!



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