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A Conversation About - Evergreens

Written By The Mountain Eagle on 12/1/23 | 12/1/23

By Jean Thomas
Evergreens go sailing past us on the highway, strapped firmly to car rooftops. They loom, forlorn and stripped of their greenery, above swampy expanses. They march in formal regiments delineating property lines. They suffer hacking and pruning to make “formal” shapes in front of McMansions. Just like every other manifestation of nature, they’re the object of our affection at the same time they’re viewed as something to conquer. Let’s look at the world of evergreens, but let’s stick to the needle types and save broadleaf evergreens for another time.                                                                                           Needles are modified leaves and do the same things leaves do… except, with only a few exceptions, don’t drop all their foliage every year. Bear this in mind, those of you who want to say, “But what about palm trees and such?” We will only be talking about trees in our neck of the woods, and that’s the northern temperate forests of North America up into Canada . The needles are a modification that helps winter survival, and the cones that many use for reproduction are also adapted for cold. Hence the association of needled evergreens with winter, and of course, decorating for the holidays.                        When you buy a fresh tree, you have the option of a cut tree or a ball-and-burlap tree with roots to plant later.  You may have to choose between the Firs (Abies), Pines (Pinus) and Spruces (Picea). There are many miniature versions of each available in pots, to be kept as potted plants outside (learn how to tent them) or replanted into the ground. Some words of advice to those who want to plant a ball and burlap tree after Christmas: keep it indoors for as short a time as possible; keep it well watered; pre-dig the hole outside while the soil’s cooperative; and whenever possible remove or at least loosen the burlap when planting. Also remember the thing will grow, so don’t plant it right next to the house.          Needles are different on each type of tree: fir trees have their needles attached right to the branches, one by one. The spruces have twinned needles, and pines are bunched in clusters of usually 2-5 long needles.  The cones are also good ID features. Most firs have cones that stand up like candelabra, and are softer than other types of cone.  Pine cones are a whole universe of stories. There are as many types of cones as there are pines. Some have male and female cones, the cones may be dependent on fire to disperse their seeds, and they can range in size from those of several types in the western states that can be 20 inches long, to the Lodgepole pine (also a Western native), whose cones are an inch and a half long.   The scales that form every pine cone’s shape( and conceal the seeds) are like wood. That’s a good way to tell them apart from the spruce cones. While both hang down from the branch when ripe, the scales of the spruce are almost papery.                                                                                                    The evergreens I chose today are not just lumber industry staples, they’re the most popular Christmas tree choices. The Christmas tree industry is an important one in our state, for two reasons. It’s an important part of the agricultural industry, and it’s a significant ecological one as well, providing valuable climate change resistance. If you’re not interested in a live tree, it’s still fun to decorate with wreaths and garlands, swags and baskets full of these same varieties.  Post-season, extend the value to the ecology by removing all those greens to compost or place them outside as temporary bird feeders.    For a deeper dive into the subject of evergreens, take a trip to the nearby Mountain Top Arboretum in Tannersville, either in person or by podcast at https://ccecolumbiagreene.org/gardening/nature-calls-conversations-from-the-hudson-valley/episode-37-mountain-top-arboretum. They’re open all year and have frequent events exploring the arboretum with a guide at different seasons. Yet again, I’ve run out of space for the other evergreens like hemlock, juniper, cedar and arborvitae. And that’s just the native ones! Maybe next time.           

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