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It's evergreen season up north

Maybe it is because of the holidays that we celebrate at this time of winter. Or maybe it is the green foliage that stands out in the stark and snow-covered landscapes. But each December, we take a closer look at the evergreens that thrive in the...

Maybe it is because of the holidays that we celebrate at this time of winter. Or maybe it is the green foliage that stands out in the stark and snow-covered landscapes. But each December, we take a closer look at the evergreens that thrive in these Northland winters.
Our region has about a dozen species of native conifers that grow here. Many other exotic nursery evergreens are found in yards and parks as well. Among the native trees are three kinds of pines: red (Norway), white and jack; two spruces, white and black; balsam fir; northern white cedar and tamarack. All are quite common.
A few more kinds are less likely to remain green throughout the cold times. All bear cones of varying sizes. All hold modified leaves known as needles. Some grow large and towering. Others are thin and nearly flat. But none show the pointed shape and cold-weather adaptations better than the spruces.
At this time of year, perhaps no other trees are more attractive to us than these pyramidal evergreens as they stand with their snow-covered apparel. Both the white and black spruce have extensive ranges and live over much of the northern United States and Canada. They make up huge parts of the boreal forest and may be found about as far north as any trees can grow. Both have long-lasting sharp needles that completely surround the stem. Unlike pines, spruce needles grow alone. (Many students of forest ecology have learned of the association of "s" for spruce and "s" for sharp needles or the witty saying: "When you're all spruced up, you're looking sharp.")
The tree's pointed shape is an adaptation to reduce the snow accumulation, even though snow may pile up on the short, thick branches close to the trunk. Often the ground around the tree trunk, under the tree, has less snow than beyond. These conditions make the spruce a favorite shelter for deer, hare, grouse, owls and songbirds. Most only seek a hiding place here, but spruce grouse and snowshoe hare may even eat the needles for winter meals.
Black spruce is smaller and more pointed than the white. Needles grow to be only about one-half inch long. It thrives in the poorly drained soils of swamps and bogs along with such characteristic plants as tamarack, Labrador tea and sphagnum moss. In this environment, black spruce may grow for decades and still be quite small.
White spruce with the longer, one-inch needles, lives in forests, hillsides and old fields. In these drier and richer soils, white spruce often grows with aspen, birch and balsam. Whites are considerably larger than the spindly blacks, but typically are still smaller than pines.
They're with us all year, but now in the winter scenes of late December, they tend to stand out either with or without a blanket of snow. We enjoy seeing their green and "Christmas tree" appearance, but for many winter critters, the spruces serve as a cold-weather shelter or food source to help survive the chill.
Larry Weber is author of the "Backyard Almanac." He lives in Carlton County and teaches natural science at Duluth's Marshall School.

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