Do You Know Your Minnesota Trees?

maple and balsam fir
A bright orange maple and balsam fir complement each other beautifully

Do you like to know the trees you’re looking at when you hike, camp or generally spend time outside? If so, let’s a look at some of Minnesota’s most common and coolest trees.

I’m no expert, but I’m the type that likes to know: Is this a birch or an aspen? Is this a red pine or a white pine? What are these towering trees we find all over the Cities?

So I’ve educated myself over the years as I’ve spent time outside.

You can, too!

Coniferous or Deciduous?

In a nutshell, coniferous trees keep their leaves all year (pines, evergreens) and deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall (everything else).

We have lots of both kinds in Minnesota.

Common conifers are pines and firs. Common deciduous are maples, oaks and birch. We won’t get into the nitty-gritty of various types of firs, maples, oaks, etc. But let’s focus on a few basics:

Birch or Aspen?

We have both birch and aspen in our neighborhood. You probably do too, as they’re common trees in Minnesota.

At first glance they look the same:

aspen and birch trees

Both have whitish bark. They have similar leaves. They both turn bright yellow or gold in the fall. The easiest way to tell the difference to to take a close look at the bark:

aspen and birch bark

The aspen’s bark looks more “barky,” especially down towards the base. The bark of large aspen turns to look more like regular tree bark at the base. Birch is white all the way to the ground, and has the tell-tale paper.

What about the Evergreens?

Because I’m writing this post, I get to choose my favorites 🙂

My favorite evergreen is the white pine. I fell in love with these majestic pines during  my first summer in the Boundary Waters. They’re the ones that tower over everything else in the forest up there. That summer my friend, Danny, told me you can identify them by their “furry” needles.

It’s true—the long needles of the white pine look furry, especially when compared to the similar-looking red pine. Also notice the red pine’s needles look reddish or brown at their base:

red pine and white pine needles

They both look different from the cedar, which has flat leaves:

cedar leaves
Distinctive cedar leaves 

You can also tell the difference by their bark. The red pine has a distinct reddish tinge and its bark has a layered look. The cedar looks completely different from both:

cedar, red pine and white pine bark

Maples and Oaks

Maples are popular because of their fabulous fall color, and we have plenty of them in the Cities. They’re easily identifiable by their leaves—or if you forget, just remember Canada’s flag 🙂

golden maple leaves
Bright yellow maple leaves

Maples are the ones with the helicopter seeds.

Oaks display more earthy tones in the fall. They’re easy to spot in the winter because they keep a good chunk of their leaves until new growth pushes them out in the spring. Nice for variety, but if you have oaks in your yard you already know you have to rake twice a year!

rusty red oak leaves
Rusty-red oak leaves

If you have oaks you also have lots of squirrels, because squirrels love acorns.

Fir or Spruce? Or Tamarack…?

Both fir and spruce have the classic A-shape—they look like Christmas trees. They’re both short-needled. The way I tell them apart is: fir branches tend to spread upward at the ends while spruce branches tend to droop, especially the bigger the tree gets.

And did you know we have an “evergreen” that loses its needles every fall? Those are tamaracks.

balsam fir and tamarack
To the untrained eye, fir and tamarack look alike until fall when tamaracks turn gold

They’re easiest to spot in the fall. They look like balsams, but their needles turn bright gold. They’re great because they turn after most of the other trees have already lost their leaves for the season.

Tamarack needles and branches have a whispier look than either fir or spruce. With practice you’ll be able to identify them in the summer, too.

Minnesota’s Giant Trees

OK, so not giant like California’s giant trees. But we grow cottonwoods pretty darn big!

You can find these all over the Cities, too. They can grow to very impressive sizes, with a wide girth and deep bark:

Tree-hugging skier
This massive cottonwood is along a ski trail at Lake Elmo Park Reserve

Of course there are many, many more varieties of trees…and many varieties within each species.

If this is fun for you, get yourself a Minnesota tree guide and take it with you on your outings. Take time to stop and learn when you see a tree you like.

We suggest: Trees of Minnesota by Stan Tekiela.

Sharon Brodin
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