Kathi excelled at teaching writing and natural sciences as a classroom teacher. Today, she combines her research, knowledge and photography!
What Are Some Common Michigan Conifers?
Michigan shares many types of conifer trees with the eastern and midwestern US states and Canada. This article features the following trees:
- White Fir
- Balsam Fir
- Red Cedar
- White Cedar (Arborvitae)
- Tamarack (Larch)
This article includes information about each tree's location and preferences, size and shape, leaves (needles), seed cones, pollen cones, and bark for identification. This information is accompanied by quality photography.
Eastern Hemlock / Canada Hemlock Tree (Tsuga canadensis)
Eastern Hemlock Tree Location
(See distribution map above.) Michigan native, the Eastern Hemlock tree, thrives in cool, moist, highly acidic sites where it is typically associated with yellow birch; occurs in low ridges where sand soils are too infertile for hardwoods or upland areas where heavy soils impede downward water movement or lowland areas with a relatively high water table. Occurs singly or in groups in stands of northern hardwoods (sugar maple, beech, basswood, yellow birch, red maple); is rarely found in pure stands. Often is the dominant conifer along stream banks and the lower slopes of hillsides; is highly shade tolerant; may exist in shaded forest up to 50 to 100 years or more, gradually reaching the overstory. Another common name is Canada Hemlock, referenced in the scientific name.
Eastern Hemlock Tree Size and Shape
- Large tree 65 feet to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) high with approximately 20 to 40 foot (6 to 12 meter) spread. Very slow growing, but very long lived (600 plus years). Has been called the redwood of the east for its tall stature where exceptional trees have been recorded up to 180 feet (54 meters) tall. Michigan Big Tree: 127 feet (38 meters) in height, Marquette County.
- Young trees have a straight trunk and slender flexible branches that form flat sprays, drooping at the ends; the leader shoot droops slightly. Mature trees form a massive pyramidal, ragged crown of densely foliated branches; trunk is markedly tapered, narrowing on upper portion of tall trees. Lower branches persist near the ground in open locations.
Eastern Hemlock Tree Leaves (Needles)
Easter Hemlock needles are dark green on topside measuring roughly .7 inches ( 1.4 cm) long. Needles are arranged spirally around the shoot, sometimes appearing twisted. They are flat with rounded tips, the blade narrows abruptly at the base to a short threadlike petiole (attachment).
Eastern Hemlock needles underside have conspicuous white bands of stomata. Needles persist on the tree approximately three years.
Eastern Hemlock branches tend to droop at the ends and tiny cones face downwards from the tips of stems. The twigs are pale brown with tiny hairs on new growth turning grayish brown and losing hairs in the autumn and winter.
Eastern Hemlock Tree Seed Cones
Tiny female seed cones of the Eastern Hemlock measure from .5 to .8 inches (1 to 2 cm) long, ripening in autumn of the first season, turning reddish brown. Margins of scales are rounded and smooth or faintly toothed.
Eastern Hemlock Tree Pollen Cones
The Eastern Hemlock is monoecious, meaning wind pollinated by tiny male pollen cones attached to the axils of previous season's backside leaves. Appearing in spring, the pollen cones have a short stalk, are light-yellow filled with clusters of pollen scales.
The Eastern Hemlock tree bark is thick, reddish-brown or gray; is deeply divided into broad, flat-topped scaly ridges.
Historical Significance of the Eastern Hemlock Tree
At the turn of the century, settlers extracted tannic acid from the bark of Eastern Hemlocks used to tan animal hides for leather making. Tanneries popped up in Michigan and many eastern regions of the US. Communities grew around the hemlock forests as it was easier and less expensive to transport the hides than to transport the heavy bark.
The work was hard manual labor. People living next to a tannery endured the constant stench of curing leather and stagnant pools of waste material. Streams became heavily polluted as tanning liquors, lime solutions, flesh, and hair were discharged directly into them. Hillsides with wasted, dead rotting wood tarnished the beauty of the environment. With the introduction of other methods for tanning hides, the tanbark industry disappeared. Today, the hemlock tree is no longer as common in Michigan, in part due to the heavy cutting during the heyday of the tanbark industry. Despite all this, in some regions, the hemlock has made a come back. Today the timber is harvested for lumber and wood pulp and supports an abundance of wildlife.
White Fir Tree (Abies concolor)
White Fir Tree Location
Native to the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada of California, but the hardiness and ability to thrive on harsh sites has made the White Fir tree a favorite for urban landscaping in Michigan spreading naturally into certain landscapes. Otherwise, they naturally occur at an elevation between 2,950 to11,200 feet (900 to 3,400 meters); they are shade tolerant preferring well drained soil.
White Fir Tree Size and Shape
- Large tree dependent on location; Michigan White Fir trees are medium sized reaching 30 to 60 feet (10 to 20 meters) high with about a 15 to 25 foot (4.5 to 7.6 meter) spread. Largest tree recorded in the Sierra Nevada was at 275 feet (83 meters) high, otherwise, grows in the region from 125 to 195 feet (38 to 59 meters) high with a 30 foot (9 meter) spread at maturity. The White Firs are slow-growing, long-lived trees. Michigan Big Tree; 70 feet (21 meters) tall, Oakland County.
- Trunk is straight, crown typically is oval or cylindrical, rather open; branches tend to bend downward and may reach the ground when the tree is open-grown. Has a graceful form with large sprays of glaucous, bluish-gray foliage. Makes an ideal windbreak, snowbreak or privacy barrier.
The White Fir tree twig is grayish to gray brown, and smooth with soft bluish-green needles spirally arranged in rows extending nearly horizontally from all sides of the branch, often twisted or curved.
Unlike, spruce trees, the leaves (needles) of the White Fir tree are attached to the twig without a peg and leave a round scar that is flush with the twig if needle is removed.
White Fir Tree Leaves (Needles)
White Fir tree needles are quite long comparably measuring 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) long. Needles are bluish-green on both sides and are flat (can not roll between fingers as with spruce needles). They are thick, flexible and blunt tipped. Shows two glaucous blue-white bands of stomata on underside.
White Fir Tree Seed Cones
White Fir tree seed cones measure from 3 to 5 inches (8 to 13 cm) long. Young cones begin in May ripening autumn of first season; they are broadly oblong, erect, smooth, olive green, turning purple, maturing to brown; are very resinous; grows upward towards the sky from branches (opposite from spruces); and only grows at the tops of trees. The winged seeds are released when the cones disintegrate at maturity about 6 months after pollination by male pollen cones leaving only the central spire. Cones do not fall intact from the tree like other conifer cones, consequently, can only be used for identification during summer and early fall.
White Fir Tree Bark
The White Fir bark on young trees exhibit thin, smooth, gray to dark-gray bark with many resin blisters eventually becoming scaly and finally with broken fissures having flat, gray ridges as seen in photo provided of an older tree.
Balsam Fir Tree (Abies balsamea)
Balsam Fir Tree Location
(See map for native distribution) Characteristic of the cold, wet Boreal Forest of Canada, but occurs in a variety of sites native to Michigan from cold, poorly drained swamps to well drained uplands. Tree is less tolerant of poorly drained condition, and is more tolerant of warmer and drier climates than the spruces; is more common in the northern regions of the state. Tree is highly shade tolerant where seedlings are often found in the understory. The Balsam Fir is a favorite Christmas tree for their long persistent needles that are not readily shed and for their aromatic properties.
Balsam Fir Tree Size and Shape
- The Balsam Fir tree is slow-growing and relatively short-lived; is typically medium-sized reaching up to 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 meters) high with a 15 to 25 foot (4.5 to 7.6 meter) spread. Michigan Big Tree:155 feet (35 meters) tall, Ontonagon County.
- Balsam Fir is more slender in form than the White Fir spreading pyramidal with a narrow, spire-topped crown. Branches diverge from trunk at right angles, the lower branches often spreading and drooping. In closed stands, dead branches persist below the live crown.
Balsam Fir Tree Needles
Balsam Fir tree needles measure about 1 inch (2.5 cm) long, are flat (can not roll between fingers compared to spruces) and are blunt tipped. They are lustrous, dark green above, and pale beneath in contrast due to numerous white lines of stomata. Balsam Fir needles are very aromatic when crushed or brushed against. Needles are arranged in two rows on either side of the twig, curving upwards with a narrow empty space along the top of the twig giving them a flatter appearance in comparison to spruces. No needles are found on the bottom of the twig, except at the very tips. They are attached directly to the twig without a peg (as with the spruce trees) leaving a round, flush scar if removed.
Note: Here in Southern Michigan, Balsam Firs are hard to find preferring the northern regions of the state. Also, they do not make a popular ornamental due to their slow growth rate, so plantings are fewer, other than for Christmas trees. I have to rely on drawings from the reference books I picked up in order to show identifying photos. Will work on actual photographs when the opportunity arises.
Balsam Fir Tree Seed Cones
Balsam Fir seed cones grow from 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) long, are oblong shaped and more slender than White Fir cones. Like all firs, they sit upward erect upon branches. They ripen in autumn of first season, and upon releasing seeds, they disintegrate thereafter leaving only the central spire. Cones are dark gray-purplish and very resinous. As with all firs, they grow only on the upper crown of the tree.
Balsam Fir Tree Bark
Balsam Fir bark is thin and smooth on young trunks, colored pale grayish-brown marked by raised resin blisters. Bark turns reddish brown on older trunks and somewhat roughened by small irregular scaly plates.
Balsam Fir Tree Benefits
(Info below was taken from bark-photo "source" above)
Balsam Fir is sometimes called Blister Fir. If you were to pierce open the blisters, a clear sap drips out without harming the tree. The sap is meant to protect the Balsam Fir tree from damage and is very rich in antioxidants and other healthy compounds. The sap can then be put directly onto wounds or used in a poultice. There are also quite a few health benefits using the needles and twigs which are highly marketed.
The commercial solutions derived from Balsam Fir are anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-viral; treats ulcers, inflammation, diabetes, liver, lowers cholesterol; Journal of the American Chemical Society found that the tree compounds “exhibited significant cytotoxic activity against cancer cell lines.”
To treat respiratory infections and colds, Native Americans would smoke the root or bark and inhale the fumes. Today, you can buy balsam fir incenses to use in the same way.
Eastern Red Cedar Tree (Juniperus virginiana)
Eastern Red Cedar Tree Location
(Click thumbnail above for native distribution map) This tree is actually a false cedar, but rather is a type of juniper tree native to Michigan and much of eastern North America. The abundance of this tree has increased markedly due to the widespread disturbance and in some cases elimination by humans of old-growth forests in southern Michigan and many other location. Seeds are disseminated widely by birds so these junipers (red cedars) are typically found under large trees in many different forests. They are shade-intolerant and drought resistant. Characteristic of well drained, sandy or gravely soils in open areas including old fields and pastures, open hillsides, fence rows, rocky slopes, sand dunes or borders of lakes, streams and swamps. I see them in large numbers along the stretch of freeways in southern Michigan and the sand dune valleys along the shores of Lake Michigan. Many cultivars of Juniperus have been developed and used in landscaping.
Eastern Red Cedar Size and Shape
- The Eastern Red Cedar tree is a very slow growing, long-lived, small to medium-sized tree measuring 40 to 60 feet (12 to 18 meters) tall with an 8 to 20 foot (2.5 to 6 meter) spread, depending on location. Michigan Big Tree: 50 feet(15 meters) tall, Grand Traverse County.
- Forms vary from pyramidal, columnar or pear-shaped crown and are densely foliated. The trunk tapers and is irregular (not perfectly round) in cross section, often with two or more secondary trunks. Older trees may shed lower branches. (Click thumbnails above to see various shapes)
- Note: This species was called "baton rouge" or "red stick" by French settlers; the capital city of Louisiana was named for.
Eastern Red Cedar Tree Branchlets
The Eastern Red Cedar trees have two types of branchlets. The new foliage near tips of branches is pointed and prickly while the cone bearing branchlets are more blunt. Compared to Northern White Cedar branches, the Eastern Red Cedars branches grow less flattened, sparser and more irregular without glandular nodes on the scales, usually. Also, the foliage often turns reddish brown in winter, especially obvious from a distance.
Eastern Red Cedar Tree Leaves (scales)
Red Cedar leaves (scales) measure about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (.6 to 1.3mm) long; are rounded, covered by closely overlapping, dark green, scales in alternate pairs, sort of like the braiding of hair.
Eastern Red Cedar Tree Seed Cones
Eastern Red Cedar tree cones are tiny and round, less than .5 inches in diameter, are somewhat fleshy; are green at first, turning blue at maturity looking more like little blueberries. The photo above was taken in April, so I'm assuming they are last years cones turned colors.
Interesting fact: The fleshy cones of junipers are used in preparation of gin to give it a distinctive flavor.
Eastern Red Cedar Tree Pollen Cones
Red Cedar male pollen cones appear in spring, are tiny with shield-like pollen scales containing yellow pollen sacs. Unlike most conifers with both male and female cones on the same tree (monoecious), each Eastern Red Cedar tree is either male or female (diocecious).
Eastern Red Cedar Tree Bark and Trunk
Red Cedar bark is reddish-brown to ash-gray in older trees; is fibrous exhibiting long, narrow fringed strips which easily peel; trunk is not perfectly round on older trees.
Note: The wood of the Eastern Red Cedar is very aromatic and highly resistant to rot making it ideal for fence posts, cedar chests, pencils, veneers and furniture making. The inner wood color is redder than the Northern White Cedar.
Northern White Cedar Tree / Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)
Northern White Cedar Tree / Arborvitae Tree Location
(See native distribution map) The Northern White Cedar tree is often found in pure stands that were established following fire. Characteristic of cold, poorly drained swamps with moving water, forming nearly impenetrable, pure stands in such swamps. Also occurs on upland sites of dry, calcareous soils often over limestone bedrock. Native to Northern Michigan, it is abundant on sites with calcareous soils and high water tables and also the gravelly shores, dunes and ridges of Lakes Michigan and Huron. Not found in upland areas with deep, acid soils; is somewhat shade tolerant,
Note: The Northern White Cedar tree is actually a false cedar belonging to the cypress family. It has become one of the most popular "arborvitae" landscaping plants with over a hundred various cultivars; is often used for screens and hedges. It is the most important winter food for deer providing shelter in swamp stands as well. Landscapers need to protect them during winter months
Northern White Cedar Tree / Arborvitae Tree Size and Shape
- The White Cedar or Arborvitae is a small to medium-sized tree measuring from 30 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) tall with a 10 to 15 foot (3 to 4.5 meter) spread.
- The Northern White Cedar tree is a slow growing and relatively long-lived tree. Open-grown trees exhibit a dense, wide-based, columnar crown reaching the ground. Only older trees will shed lower branches. The trunk is much tapered, sometimes twisted or leaning, often divided into 2-3 secondary stems. Michigan Big Tree reaches height of 111 feet (34 meters), Leelanau County.
Northern White Cedar / Arborvitae Tree Leaves (scales)
White Cedar leaves measure less than an inch in length; are scale-like which remind me of braided hair. They are flatter than the Eastern Red Cedar tree leaves and spread out in fan-shaped sprays. Also, conspicuous glandular spots are dotted on the back sides, which the Eastern Red Cedar tree leaves do not display.
Two types of leaves (scales) can be seen on the Northern White Cedar tree; one being more pointed than the other as seen in illustration above. Color is blue-green to yellowish green, often becoming brown at the tips in winter; leaves are strongly aromatic when crushed.
Northern White Cedar / Arborvitae Tree Seed Cones
White Cedar seed cones are female and small measuring about 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) long. They are composed of 7 to 12 scales, colored pale brown, shaped oval-oblong and have a short-stalk. They ripen in early autumn of first season, persisting on the branch throughout the winter.
Northern White Cedar / Arborvitae Tree Pollen Cones
The White Cedar tree is monoecious containing both male and female cones; female seed cones are wind pollinated by the male pollen cones, as with most conifers. The male pollen cones appear April-May; are obscure at ends of new shoots; are round and yellowish with black scales.
Northern White Cedar / Arborvitae Tree Bark
White Cedar bark is thin, light reddish brown to grayish on older trees; breaks into long, thin strips with connecting shredded ridges on older trees. The inner wood is whiter than the Eastern Red Cedar, but both are aromatic and resistant to rot; wood is used in construction such as fencing, poles or furniture making.
Tamarack Tree / Eastern or American Larch Tree (Larix laricina)
Tarmarck / Eastern or American Larch Tree Location
(See native distribution map) Tree is primarily relegated to cold, wet, poorly drained sites including swamps, bogs, lake shores, wet beach thickets because other species are more vigorous and better competitors on the drier, more nutrient-rich upland sites. Is common along the forest edge or sphagnum bogs associated most commonly with Black Spruce. The Tamarack or Larch is a fast-growing tree in well drained sites. It is shade intolerant and a relatively short-lived tree.
Note: European and Japanese varieties, Larix, decidua and Larix leptolepis have been planted in Michigan as ornamentals and in forest plantations for faster stouter growth habit.
Tamarack / Larch Tree Size and Shape
- The Tamarack or Eastern Larch is a medium sized tree from 40 to 70 feet (12 to 21 meters) in height and 15 to 30 feet (4.5 to 9 meters) wide. Michigan Big Tree: 69 feet (21 meters) long, Lake County.
- Tamarack has a straight trunk of little taper, forming an open, pyramidal crown of horizontal branches; in closed stands crown narrows.
Long slender branches with orange-brown stems, turned dark brown support lengthy leaf clusters dangling from larger branches.
Tamarack / Larch Tree Leaves
Light green, 1 to 2 inch (2.5 to 5 cm) slender, soft, flexible needle-like leaves of the Tamarack / Lark tree grow in bundles of 10 to 20 from a single short spur. One of the few deciduous conifers losing leaves in the fall following the seasonal color change of a striking orange-yellow.
Tamarack / American Larch Tree Seed Cones
The Tamarack / Larch female seed cones are small and globular to egg shaped measuring 1/2 to 3 inch (1.3 to 7.5) long; are arranged spirally around branches of the upper crown; purple at first, then greenish turning brown at ripening in autumn of the first season, but persistent on the tree for a year longer. Scale margins are smooth and curved; bracts are not visible as with some larch varieties.
Tamarack / Eastern or American Larch Tree Pollen Cones
Tamarack male pollen cones wind pollinate the female seed cones (monoecious), typically in May. They are composed of yellow clusters of many short-stalked scales spirally arranged about the twig.
Tamarack / Eastern or American Larch Tree Bark
Tamarack bark is thin, scaly, with long irregular strips; colored brownish-gray with dark reddish inner bark.