How to Identify Scots Pine Varieties With Peeling Bark

Written by kim joyce
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How to Identify Scots Pine Varieties With Peeling Bark
Mature Scots pines have distinctive orange-brown peeling bark and open, asymmetrical crowns. (scots pine tree image by Christopher Dodge from

One of the striking characteristics of Scots or Scotch pine trees, Pinus sylvestris, is the orange-brown bark on the trunk and major limbs of mature trees, which is prone to peeling off in thin, paper-like flakes. Other pines have peeling bark, of course, including the closely related Japanese red pine or Pinus densiflora. To identify a Scots pine it's necessary to observe physical details of the tree very closely. Growers recognise more than 35 different varieties of Scots pine, each with defined seed sources, though distinctions aren't necessarily visible. Hardiest trees are grown from seed harvested at that latitude or somewhat farther north.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Tree branch with needles
  • Mature and immature cones
  • Ability to observe growing tree at multiple ages, or detailed photographs

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  1. 1

    Observe the tree's needles. Notice their length; most Scots pine needles are two to four inches in length, though for some varieties needles are between one and two inches long. Study their colour; they should be bright green in colour, though some varieties are dark green to blue-green. Examine needles further; Scots pine needles should be notably twisted, and arranged and attached to the tree in fascicles or bundles of two. Look at the undersides of needles, as well; those of Scots pines will feature several rows of whitish stomata or pores.

  2. 2

    Examine cones, which develop on the tree near the ends of growing branch tips. Observe mature cones, which on Scots pines are brown, woody, and one to three inches long; cones are egg-shaped, but more bell-shaped once they open and disperse seed. Mature cones will stay on the tree for at least two years before opening. Notice any immature cones, which should be green and brown, tightly closed like pineapples.

  3. 3

    Study the tree itself. Notice that young trees are naturally pyramid-shaped, though the trees for sale on holiday tree lots have typically been sheared. Examine a middle-aged Scots pine, which still has a general cone shape and is uniformly covered with foliage but will begin to develop irregular form. Finally observe mature trees, which grow into unique individuals, dropping lower branches and developing an open, asymmetrical form. Note that the trees have developed competing leaders, with upper branches that branch and branch again to create an umbrella-like canopy.

Tips and warnings

  • Young Scots pines are well-suited to be cut holiday trees because of their pyramid shape, stiff branches, and excellent moisture and needle retention.
  • The Scots pine has great economic value in Europe and Asia as a timber tree for logs, lumber, veneer, plywood, and pulpwood.

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