NATURE NOTES - Number 13                     January 28, 2021

Introduction: This is a good time of year to start identifying some of our trees.  We’ll look at others in the spring.                           

Our current topic:  Identifying Evergreens

Tree identification can be a daunting task for a beginner.  There’s terminology to learn, a lot things to look for, and a lot of similarity between some species.  Let’s start with the common evergreens in the council area.  Many folks will call everything with needles a “pine” tree.  Some are.  Some aren’t.  To be a pine tree, the long slender needles have to be jointed at their base in a “fascicle sheath”.  If the needles are not jointed in a cluster, it’s not a pine.  Next count the needles.  In our area, you will find 2, 3, or 5 needles in each cluster. 

The 5-needle pine is the easiest.  It’s a White Pine.  Remember:  there are five letters in the word “white”.    The cone is long (4-8”) and frequently has white sap on it.

The 3-needle pine can be a little tricky.  In this area, a likely choice is Pitch pine. A good key to his species is the presence of clumps of needles growing directly out of the trunk of the tree.  This is found at both council camps. Some folks will lump most of the 3-leafed pines into a general category of “Southern yellow pine”.  That’s probably good enough for scouts. 

The 2-needle will be one of three choices.  First, where are you?  If you are on a high mountain ridge (over 2500’ elevation), it may be a Table Mountain pine.  If the cone has sharp, wild-looking claws all over the round medium-sized cone, and if the stiff, twisted needles are about 2”long that’s what you have. However, if the needles are yellow-green, twisted, and short (1 ½ - 2 ½”); if the cones are golf-ball size and there’s a lot of them on the branches; and there is an orange-colored tint to the scaly bark; you probably have a Virginia pine.  This is a common tree found all over our area, often in forest edges and old fields.  The third possibility is a Short-leaf pine, with longer, slender needles (3”-5”) and cones that are egg shaped.  A give-away to this species is finding small, pencil-sized holes in the bark that look like someone drilled them.

Now some non-pine evergreens:  Eastern Red cedar (it’s actually a juniper) is quite common.  There are no needles, but dark green scales that can be quite sharp. It’s often found growing in old fields. The bark is stringy and has a very pleasant, distinctive odor.

Hemlock is also very common in cool, moist sites in our area.  The short needles (about ½”) are not clustered, but are distinctly flat as they grow out from the stem.  The underside of the needle has two pale lines.  The cones are very small. The overall shape of the tree often has a dark, cool and inviting look to it. 

Northern White cedar (also called arborvitae) is found infrequently in moist sites in our area.  It has scales rather than needles, arranged in a very flat, fan-like fashion.

Native spruces and firs are not likely to be encountered.    Red spruce and Fraser Fir will be found only in the very highest areas in Virginia.

A couple of cautions:

If you are looking in a suburban area, you might find a variety of planted non-native trees, such as various cypresses, spruce, cedars, etc. 

As you move out of the council area, you will find some other species of pine, such as Loblolly to the east and south, so look at the reference below for help.

There are some non-needled trees that are “evergreen” as well, such as magnolia and holly. Unlike most of the broad-leafed trees they keep their leaves year round.

Nature Opportunities:

Tree identification is needed for a First class scout requirement, as well as Nature and Forestry Merit Badges.  The best field guide for this area is the Common Native Trees of Virginia published by the Virginia Department of Forestry for $3 at the regional office in Salem (540-387-5461).  It’s simple to use and it’ll work throughout the state.

As always, thanks for looking at NATURE NOTES.  I’m always glad to get thoughts from readers.  Email me at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..   Nature is always close.  Just look around you.  Help a scout understand it.         Bob Garst

Planned NATURE NOTES for coming months

(Subject to change)

Careers in Natural Resources

Our “Wildcats”





Tree Identification


Wildlife Behavior

What is Forestry?