Conifers are a large and varied group of trees, but most are relatively easy to identify by looking at their leaves. Conifers may have needle-like leaves, scaly or awl-shaped leaves or flat feather-like leaves. Pine, spruce, fir and larch trees all have needle-like leaves that are commonly referred to as "pine needles." Specific varieties can be identified by looking at the length, shape and texture of the needles, among a variety of other characteristics.
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Pine trees have needles that are sheathed at the base and grow in bundles of two to five. Piñon, mugo, Scots and Austrian pine all have two needles per bundle; ponderosa pines have two to three; and white, bristlecone and limber pine have five. Pine needles may be between 1/2 and 6 inches long, depending on the variety. The pine cones have thick, woody scales; the branches are straight with a generally pyramidal formation.
The needles of spruce trees grow singly. Individual needles can be broken in half, and the cross-section will appear square. Colorado blue spruce is perhaps the most well-known variety; it has stiff, sharp needles with a blue-green colour between 3/4 and 1-1/2 inches long. Black spruce has tightly packed medium-dark green needles that rarely exceed 3/4 inch. The cones are generally smooth and may have rounded or pointed papery scales.
Fir trees have needles that, like those of spruce trees, grow individually. The needles are flat in a cross-section, and are generally soft and flexible. True firs have rounded bud tips and will leave round leaf scars on the branches when you remove a needle. Balsam firs have pointed bud tips and oval leaf scars. The needles are usually around 1 inch long, and the cones are rough but not distinctly prickly or spiky.
Larch trees are somewhat unusual in that they are deciduous or semi-deciduous conifers, whereas most are evergreen. Larches have short needles that grow in clusters or tufts of 10 or more. The form of these trees varies greatly depending on variety, and the pine cones are usually woody and distinctly prickly.
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- Encyclopedia Britannica; Pine; 2011
- Colorado State University Forest Service: Colorado's Major Tree Species
- University of Minnesota Extension; Choosing Landscape Evergreens; Jeffrey Gillman, et al.; 2009
- "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees;" David More, et al; 2002
- Colorado State University Extension; Identifying Conifers; David Whiting, et al.; 2010
- Virginia Cooperative Extension; Selecting Landscape Plants: Conifers; Diane Relf, et al.