It can be depressing to see fall leaves blow away into the dark days of winter. But conifer trees are always full of life. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, there is plenty to learn about local “Christmas trees.”
There are three main classifications of conifer (cone bearing evergreen trees) that match with the holidays: spruce, pine and fir. Below are the most common of these in Southwest Colorado:
Spruce trees might appear the most regal for Christmas. The needles are square, which contributes to their stiff, stately appearance. These stiff needles are also quite spikey and sharp. This makes them challenging to decorate and startlingly painful for unsuspecting children and pets. To identify spruce trees, remember the S’s – “square, spikey, spruce.”
Colorado blue spruce is Colorado’s state tree. The silvery-blue hue is caused by a waxy coating on the needles. They grow at mid-elevations and like moisture.
Engelmann spruce are similar to blue spruce but greener. Find them from about 9,000 feet up to treeline. While there are many ways to differentiate Engelmann spruce from blue spruce when wandering in the woods, the easiest is by elevation.
Pine needles tend to be softer than spruce. Their needles can be long or short (though longer than spruce), flat, round or triangular. Pine needles are unique because they are bundled in fascicles. The number of needles per fascicle varies by species. To identify pines remember the needles are bundled – “Pines like to party”.
A local pine with two needles per fascicle is the Colorado pinyon. They grow at lower elevations (below 7,500 feet). Pinyons are aesthetic Christmas trees but very sappy. However, cutting pinyon pines on BLM Tres Rios lands is not allowed. The trees are recovering from a beetle epidemic.
Lodgepoles, another two-needled pine, are not native to Southwest Colorado but grow in some older replanted areas. Lodgepoles are a favorite food source for snowshoe hares, which are in turn a favorite food source for endangered lynx. Pinyon and lodgepole are easily differentiated by elevation. Lodgepoles grow above 8,500 feet.
Ponderosa pines have three needles per fascicle. Even after they die, ponderosas create ideal habitat for a number of woodland creatures. Standing dead trees called snags can be home to squirrels, raccoons, bats, boreal owls, various birds and myriad delicious bugs. (For more about this, search “snag” at motherearthnews.com). Occasionally, there is a two-needled ponderosa. However, ponderosas are easily identified by their extremely long needles – they are 5 to 8 inches.
Fir trees: These trees are some of the most popular decorative trees because of their “friendly” nature. They are friendly because they have soft, flat needles. The cones grow upward and the bark contains aromatic resin blisters (pitch pockets). To identify fir trees, remember the F’s – “flat, friendly, fir.”
White fir trees, with their whitish hue, make beautiful Christmas trees and are abundant at mid elevations. The cones are usually gone by winter so look for brown, rounded buds.
Douglas-fir trees are not really firs at all, but do have fir-like characteristics. However, the cones grow downward. It is not legal to cut these on local public lands. They do grow near white firs, so to identify a douglas-fir for certain, look for red, pointy buds.
Subalpine firs grow alongside Engelmann spruce and have lovely spired crowns. They can be confused with Douglas-firs, but the subalpine can be determined by the presence of resin blisters on the bark.
A great way to explore local conifers with a naturalist is to ride the Christmas Tree Train. You can even buy a permit to cut your own white fir at Cascade Wye, where the train turns around. Volunteers from San Juan Mountains Association and San Juan National Forest will be aboard to help with identification and cutting. More information is available at www.durangotrain.com/events/christmas-tree-train.
For a less time-consuming look at fir trees, visit SJMA’s fundraiser Silver Bells Christmas Tree Lot adjacent to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot parking lot starting Nov. 27. There you can have a look at nordmann and noble fir trees grown on sustainable farms in Oregon. More information is available at www.sjma.org.
For a hands-on field guide, consider Trees of Colorado by Stan Tekiela. Save 20 percent on this book at SJMA bookstores through the end of the year. Or pick up the pamphlet, “Trees Native to the Forests of Colorado,” for a dollar!
MK Gunn is assistant for education, volunteer programs and visitor information services for San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education.