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The large, single Eastern hemlock tree was the only natural object that caught my eye when I scanned the hillside with my binoculars. Its long, drooping branches provided a splash of green color to the otherwise dull gray, winter landscape. It was nice to know that some species of trees and shrubs found here in Pennsylvania don’t lose their leaves each fall. For one large group of plants, commonly known as Evergreens, their year-round beauty comes in many different shapes and sizes.
Evergreens are called this because they don’t drop all their leaves in the fall at one time, like deciduous trees do. These types of plants still shed their leaves, they just do it gradually, with new leaves (many called needles) replacing old ones. Since it’s not as dramatic as some of the more common deciduous trees, like oaks, maples, hickories and ash, we just don’t notice it. The more familiar evergreens are the conifers, or “cone-bearing” trees. Most, but not all conifers are considered evergreens and not all evergreens are conifers! Are you confused yet? Let’s try and sort all this out. Conifers produce seeds through their cones, not flowers or fruits like many other plants. Common families of “evergreen” conifers include the pines, firs, spruces, hemlocks and arborvitae. All of these species produce a cone, from the gigantic, spikey-looking Coulter Pine, which can measure 16 inches long and weigh almost 10 pounds, to the small Eastern hemlock, which has a cone that only tops out about ½ inch and weighs a couple ounces. But, like many other things in nature, there are a few “crossovers.” There are a few unique species of conifers that are considered deciduous. Yes, they produce cones, and yes, the turn color in the fall and lose all their leaves. These include the larch, or tamarack, as it’s sometimes called, Bald Cypress and the Dawn Redwood. In addition, we have several species of evergreens that only produce berries, no cones. These include the cedars, junipers and yews. Stay with me we’re almost done!
Our last category of evergreens have leaves that are more broad (not needles or scales), and look more like deciduous plants rather than evergreens. These plants include some of the native hollies, rhododendrons and our Pennsylvania State Flower, the Mountain Laurel. Cultivated species we commonly see planted around homes include Boxwood and a few varieties of Euonymus. Whatever the species of evergreen, most provide an important source of food and cover for many species of wildlife.
Birds will dine on the berries from cedars and hollies, as well as the seeds from several cones. Squirrels will dangle high in the branches of pines, firs and spruce trees to munch on the cones and deer will browse on the low hanging twigs of hemlocks if they get really hungry. One of the most important benefits of evergreens is the cover and shelter they provide for wildlife, whether it’s hiding from predators, being protected from the snow, rain and wind, or serving as nesting locations. Planting an evergreen tree in your backyard can have instant benefits for many local critters. But, mammals and birds are not the only animals attracted to evergreens, so are humans.
Every year in the U.S., as December draws near, people begin searching for their perfect evergreen tree, to function as one of the symbols for Christmas. Millions of Douglass Firs, Fraser Firs, Balsam Firs, Scotch Pines and Colorado Blue Spruce, are sold from Christmas Tree farms across the country, from corner lots in almost every state, and even over the internet. Sometimes you have to get creative to “harvest” a live Christmas tree, as was the case in our family, in the early 1970’s, by my oldest brother, Jim.
It was an unusually cold December around 1975, when my brother Jimmy proclaimed to my dad that he would be responsible for getting the Wood Family Christmas tree this year. So, assisted by my sister Cathy, the two of them trekked into our back woods in frigid temps to find just the right evergreen. The story gets a bit blurred at this point, but legend has it that Jimmy found the perfect tree-it didn’t really matter that it was 40 feet above their heads! You see, his plan was to climb a large pine and cut off the top 8 feet, since the top seemed to be just what we needed in our living room! So, with the skills of Paul Bunyan and handsaw slung over his back, he ascended up the tree like a squirrel going after food, until he reached his goal. After a few quick strokes of his saw, our new tree came crashing down to the ground, scattering birds and small mammals in every direction and sending my sister diving for cover! Not until he dragged it back to the house and squeezed it in through the door, did Jimmy discover it was about 5 feet taller than our living room ceiling. We will always remember that Christmas as the year Jimmy re-defined “trimming the tree!”
Evergreens grow in almost every region of the world, from the tundra of the arctic, to the rainforests of the tropics. Some have broad leaves, many have needles, but all provide many benefits for wildlife and humans. It would be hard to imagine looking over the landscape and not seeing a few plants that stay “For Ever-Green!”