Are you confused by conifers and flummoxed by firs? In this article you’re going to get to know the native conifer trees of Britain & Ireland and learn the top five key features you need to look for so that you can easily recognise them in the countryside and tell them apart from the many non-native conifers you may find.
Conifers are not rare in this country, you can find them everywhere. As a general rule, they are also evergreen (though there is an exception, the Larch) so they hang on to their foliage right through our winter. With the majority of our native trees being broadleaves, losing their leaves in autumn, this makes a conifer easy to spot from a mile off.
But are you looking at one of our native conifer trees or is it one of the many non-native species which have been introduced to this country?
I am hosting an online workshop How To Identify Conifers where I will break down the key features of both our native and common non-native conifers. So, if you are perplexed by pines or stumped by spruce then you should join me for that.
What is a Conifer?
Conifers are a very old group of trees that includes firs, cedars, cypresses, junipers, kauri, larches, pines, hemlocks, redwoods, spruces and yews. As a rule, conifers bare cones, though some don’t look much like cones as we think of them. The other key feature they share is they have very small leaves in the form of needles or scales.
With the exception of some Scots Pine in Scotland and a few Yew woodlands, you will not comes across a natural forest of conifer trees in the UK and Ireland. They are most likely planted non-native species, usually for timber production or as a shelter-belt woodland.
When we picture a conifer, we usually have a Christmas tree in mind, which is typically a Spruce. But there’s more to conifers than simply this conical cone-baring form. Especially when it comes to our own natives.
How Many Native Conifers Do We Have in the UK & Ireland?
Well the good news here is that we have only three native conifers. By native, we mean a species which have been naturally present on these isles since the last Ice Age and before we became disconnected from the continent. Our three native conifers are Scots Pine, Juniper and Yew.
Take a trip around the globe and you could be dealing with up to 800 conifer species. So, we’re quite lucky in the UK & Ireland that we only have three to tackle.
It’s not just the trees featured in this article that you could well see on your country walk though. There are several species and families of conifer trees that are very commonly planted here, either for forestry or in country estates and parks for their sheer beauty. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Larch, Spruce, Firs and Hemlock could be part of the natural make of our landscape but they are all guests from exotic lands.
So, let’s get to know our three natives and pick out the key identifying features you need to look for.
Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
There are several pines which has been introduced to this country including the Corsican Pine (Pinus nigra var. maritima) and Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contora ssp. latifolia) to name a couple, but we have only one native and the clue is in the name, Scots Pine. However, don’t be fooled, this tree isn’t found only in Scotland, you could see it anywhere. In its natural range though it does favour uplands and poor soils. The oldest Scots Pine in the UK can be found in Scotland in the Caledonian Forest.
Before we get into the specific details of Scots Pine, it’s worth mentioning a feature that is unique to pines. If you follow a single pine needle back to its base, where it joins the twig, you will discover it is joined to one or more other needles. Pine needles come in twos, threes or fives. This is important because conifers like spruce have needles which are attached singly to the twig.
I was told this handy little rhyme by Dave Watson of Woodland Survival Crafts to help me remember this rule; “If it’s a pair, it’s a pine, but not all pines are pairs.” By using this rhyme we can eliminate other families of conifers and know that we are looking at a pine. So, that leads to the question, how do we know it’s a Scots Pine?
To identify the Scots Pine there’s a few key features to look for:
- Needles come in pairs, joined at their base to the twig. Needles are approx 5 to 7.5cm in length. This is important as a commonly planted non-native, the Corsican Pine, also has needles in pairs, but they are significantly longer. Corsican Pine needles can grow to 15cm long.
- Needles often have a twist to them.
- Mature bark is a warm brown to orange colour with a craggy character. Also, look for a band of orange on the main trunk about a third to two-thirds up the tree. This is especially visible in clear sunlight.
- Pine cones. These are the typical cones used for Christmas decorations that you are probably familiar with. They take two years to mature. Cones are green and conical in their first year on the branch. In their second year they become more rounded and brown-grey in colour.
- Mature trees have a habit of spreading and flattening out in their crown, so losing the “Christmas tree” conical shape we think of when picturing a conifer.
Juniper (Juniperus communis)
You might know this tree best from its berries, or rather what’s its berries are used to flavour… gin.
This is by far the least common of our three native conifers. It is mostly a tree of upland areas, but you can find it formally planted in country estate gardens where it can be trimmed to shape. It’s worth noting though that Juniper is probably the most widespread tree species in the world, found from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.
In the UK, Juniper tends to favour chalk and limestone sites.
To identify Juniper you’re looking for the following things:
- Typically a low-growing, sprawling shrub of a tree. Though not always.
- Needles are small (up to 2cm long), very spiky to touch and they grow in threes.
- The mature bark is a reddish-brown colour which has a peeling habit.
- Berries. When mature they are dark blue/black. They are small and spherical. When young they are green in colour. You will only find them on the female trees. So, this feature can be a little unreliable.
- Crush a berry between you fingers, it will smell of gin. This also works with the twigs & foliage, but be careful, it’s spiky!
The ripe fruit of the female Juniper are generally called berries, but they are actually classed as cones.
There are several cultivated varieties of Juniper which you can pick up in your local garden centre.
Yew (Taxus baccata)
We can lay claim to some of the most spectacular Yew trees in the world, as they are the oldest living organisms in the UK. It’s thought that some are as old as five thousand years! There is hot debate as to which is the oldest living Yew, but the most likely candidates, in my opinion, are in Wales.
You are most likely to find a Yew in your local churchyard, looming over the gravestones. Many of these trees predate the church they are paired with.
To identify the Yew tree you’re looking for a few key things:
- Glossy needles are up to 4cm long. They are arranged flat, along green twigs.
- The needles are soft to the touch, unlike spikier spruce trees.
- The mature bark of Yew is quite beautiful. Look for red-brown bark with a peeling habit that can show patches of oranges, purples and blood red. When wet, patches of the bark can look like they’re bleeding.
- The bright pink/red oval berries of the Yew are very different from anything else you’ll find on a conifer. You will only find these on female trees, so don’t rely on this alone.
- Mature trees will typically have more than one stem, growing from the base.
Yew trees don’t have cones. This makes them easy to distinguish from pine, spruce and fir.
Discover More About Trees
It can be so interesting to really look in to the details of our native trees and notice the changes that they undergo throughout the four seasons. That’s just what I’ve created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you will find a whole host of resources to take you from clueless to confident on your way to really knowing your trees.
When you sign up to this free mini-course you’ll be identifying common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a fully fledged Tree Expert today. The course includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets which you can download and take outdoors with you.
“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and haven’t gotten far. This course answered everything and has seriously upped my game.” Dr. Patrick Alexander
Happy tree hunting folks.