Imagine yourself walking quietly through a high-elevation subalpine forest. You feel immersed in shady stillness while enveloped by a tantalizing fresh scent of pine, spruce and fir. You gaze out at the trees enjoying their varied colors and textures. But how can you tell what species of trees you are walking amongst? Try a few simple tests to shed some light.
Some people think that by looking at the color of the bark of the tree that they can tell what type of tree it is. However, color is not a reliable indicator of tree species because the bark is highly variable in color.
The best tests are done with a bare hand. First of all, gently pull off a couple of needles. Right away you will get a clue. Did the needles come off as singles, or did they come off in a bundle? Spruce and fir needles always come off individually, while pines always come off in bundles of two or more. I like to think that pines come in packages.
Locally in the high country, we have lots of lodgepole pine, and the needles come in bundles of two. Overall the needle covered limbs look like bottle brushes. The needles are about twice as long as spruce or fir needles, and the color is bright green opposed to dark forest green. We can also occasionally find limber pines occupying harsh windy sites, usually on an exposed ridge. Limber pines are flexible which enables them to handle intense gusts of wind. A close inspection of limber pine needles reveals that they come off in bundles of five.
Now test another tree in the forest by plucking a few needles. This time you suspect a spruce or fir because the needles came off singularly. Now feel the tip of the needle. Is it sharp or blunt? Let’s pretend that this one is sharp. Now try to roll the needle between your thumb and forefinger. This needle rolls between your thumb and forefinger with a clicking feel. This is because the needle is neither round nor flat, it is square in cross section.
Now look for a small bare twig and break it off. This twig is covered in what looks like razor stubble, another great clue. These needles are sharp and square, while the twigs are stubbly. All of these “S” words indicate spruce. Locally we have Engelmann spruce and blue spruce. Blue spruce are water loving and tend to grow near creeks and the cones are relatively long when compared to Engelmann spruce. Engelmann spruce tends to grow not in the creek bed, but on a mountainside, and often the bark is cinnamon colored.
Strolling on you enjoy the interplay of light and shadow and ahead spy a tree trunk with glimmering silver bark. Right away you suspect it’s a subalpine fir, but some spruces sport silver bark as well, so it’s best to do the tests and then you can tell for sure. As you approach a low-lying limb, you stroke the needles and feel their softness. Plucking a single needle from the limb you try to roll it between your thumb and forefinger, but you can’t because this needle is flat. Taking the needle, you break it in two and wave it slowly beneath your nose and breathe in deeply. Your mind quiets as the subalpine fir aromatherapy wafts into your soul.
I like to say flat, friendly, fragrant fir. We have two types of firs locally. The subalpine fir grows on mountainsides that get plenty of moisture, while the Douglas fir grows on sunny relatively drier slopes. The aromatic scent of Douglas fir emanates a lemony twang that can add a sparkle of sunshine to your life.
These basic tree identification skills will add to your understanding of our local mountain landscapes. Trees seem to be our neighbors no matter where we travel in this beautiful Vail valley, and it enriches our lives when we know our neighbors and have an idea of the environment in which they thrive.