“The smell of pine needles, spruce and the smell of a Christmas Tree-these to me, are the scents of the holidays.”
— Blake Lively
The overarching reason that pine needles may be a favorite scent is because they signal the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year — the holiday season.
Each year families and friends venture out into the holiday rush to pick out the perfect tree. Stepping onto a Christmas tree farm or into the forest, the sight and smells immediately bring about that feeling of holiday cheer. Whether the trees are fir, spruce or pine, the aromas of earthy mulch, sweet tree sap and fresh pine needles are enough to put our sense of smell into overload. Paired with a delicious mug of warm hot chocolate or a minty candy cane, the adventure of bringing home the Christmas tree marks the unofficial kickoff to the holiday season.
Telling the difference among conifers can be tricky. To me, they are all Christmas trees. But calling them such doesn’t really do justice the varying species of evergreens. There is, however, a quick way to tell these three common conifers apart.
Look for the number of needles that come out of the same spot on a twig. If a twig bears needles in groups of two, three, or five, you can safely call it a pine. If the twig carries its needles singly, it’s a good bet you’ve got a fir or a spruce. Pull off a needle, and roll it between your fingers. If it feels flat and doesn’t roll easily, it’s a fir. If the needle has four sides and, thus, rolls easily between your fingers, it’s a spruce.
Evergreen trees give us vibrant green color in winter when the rest of the world has turned brown or is covered with a blanket of white. These trees also provide a magical scent as you stroll through a snowy evergreen forest on a crisp winter’s day.
In case you didn’t know, evergreens are trees that keep their needles and are never totally without leaves. Most conifers are evergreen, but not all. The tamarack is the only conifer in our state that changes color (to yellow) and sheds all of its leaves each fall. It is really easy to spot one in October in the forests of Boundary County.
The rest of the conifers that are evergreens remain green year-round and will lose brown needles occasionally as the tree grows. Evergreens are conifers — trees that produce their seeds in a cone. They also have narrow round or flat needles instead of broad leaves like an oak. The cones and needles can help you tell the trees apart and identify them.
Many species of wildlife live among the conifers and use them for food. Red squirrels love to dig out the seeds and stash them for a winter snack. Mourning doves nest in the protective shelter of large trees. Chickadees pick boughs clean of insects. Hawks use the treetops as lookouts. Groups of trees camouflage deer, lynx and bobcats. Low hanging branches provide a corridor for the snowshoe hare. Branches lying on the ground make perfect homes for snakes, salamanders and shrews. White-tailed deer will strip white cedar branches clean to feed themselves in the winter, while porcupines eat the bark off of cedar stems. Owls also find comfortable perches in the treetops.
Many people like to have conifers in their yard to give shade, provide habitat for animals and because people like the way they look and smell. We also use conifers in other ways. Just think of all the products we use each day that are made from conifers.
Growing up, the smell of pine needles was likely a familiar scent in the home for almost an entire month and the Christmas tree was often the living room centerpiece during the holiday season. The festive scent is a favorite because it often reminds us of loved ones, holidays and of home. It symbolizes tradition, celebration and family. Even just the vision of a Christmas tree through a snowy window can evoke a sense of warmth and happiness.
Enjoy Boundary County and all its beautiful evergreen trees.