British Bushcraft Videos Hawthorn Berries – Are you confused by conifers and confused by firs? In this article, you’ll get to know the native conifers of Britain and Ireland and learn the top five main characteristics you should look for so you can easily identify them in the countryside and distinguish them from the many non-conifers. native conifers you can find.
Conifers are not rare in this country, you can find them everywhere. As a general rule, they’re also evergreen (though there’s an exception: ham), so they hang on to their foliage right through our winter. Since most of our native trees are broadleaf and lose their leaves in the fall, this makes it easy to spot a conifer a mile away.
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But are you looking at one of our native conifers, or is it one of the many non-native species that have been introduced to this country?
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I am conducting an online workshop called “How to Identify Conifers” where I will outline the key features of both our native and common non-native conifers. So if you’re confused by pines or gnarled firs, you should join me on this.
Conifers are a very old group of trees that includes firs, cedars, cypresses, junipers, kauris, hemlocks, pines, hemlocks, redwoods, spruces, and firs. Typically, conifers are bare cones, although some don’t quite look like cones as we think of them. Another key feature they share is that they have very small leaves in the form of needles or scales.
With the exception of Scots pines and a few yew forests in Scotland, you will not come across a natural forest of conifers in Great Britain and Ireland. They are most likely non-native species planted, usually for timber production or as shelterbelt woodlands.
When we picture conifers, we usually have a Christmas tree in mind, usually a fir tree. But there is more to conifers than just this conical shape. Especially when it comes to our own natives.
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The good news here is that we only have three native conifers. By native we mean a species that has been naturally present on these islands since the last ice age and before they broke off from the mainland. Our three native conifers are Scots pine, juniper and nettle.
Take a trip around the world and you may encounter up to 800 species of conifers. So we are quite lucky in the UK and Ireland that we only have three to deal with.
The trees featured in this article aren’t the only ones you might see on your country walk. There are several species and families of conifers that are very popularly planted here, either for forestry or on country estates and groves for their sheer beauty. You’d be forgiven for thinking that hemlock, spruce, firs and eggplant might be part of the natural fabric of our landscape, but they’re all guests from exotic lands.
So let’s get to know our three natives and pick out the key identifying features you should be looking for.
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To name the pair, but we only have one native, and the clue is the name, Scots Pine. Don’t be fooled though, this tree isn’t just in Scotland, you can see it anywhere. In its natural range, though, it favors upland and poor soils. The oldest Scots pine in Great Britain can be found in the Caledonian Forest in Scotland.
Left: Needles in pairs, joined at their base. Average: ripe cone, still closed. Right: A mature cone that has shed its seeds.
Before going into the specifics of Scots Pine, it is worth noting a feature that is common to pines. If you follow one pine needle to the base where it joins the twig, you will find that it is connected to one or more other needles. Pine needles come in twos, threes, or fives. This is important because conifers like spruce have needles that are attached separately to the twig.
Dave Watson of Woodland Survival Crafts told me this handy little rhyme to help me remember this rule:
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Using this rhyme, we can eliminate other conifer families and know we’re looking at a pine. So that leads to the question of how do we know it’s a Scots pine?
Left. Look for an orange tape on the trunk just above the tree. Average: The crust is rocky and covered with plates. Right. the crown of mature trees flattens.
You can best know this tree by its berries, or rather what its berries are used to flavor… gin.
This is the smallest of our three native conifers. It is primarily an upland tree, but you may find it formally planted in country estate gardens where it can be pruned to shape. It should be noted, however, that juniper is probably the most common tree species in the world, found from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.
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Left. Usually a low growing and spreading tree. Average: ripe berries are blue to black. Right. Needles grow in threes. They are very sharp.
Ripe fruits of female junipers are commonly called berries, but they are actually classified as cones.
Left: Bark is reddish brown and flaky. Average: Young berries are blue/green. Right:
We can lay claim to the most spectacular fire trees in the world, as they are the oldest living organisms in the UK. Some are believed to be five thousand years old. There is hot debate as to who is the oldest living Ancient One, but the most likely candidates, in my opinion, are in Wales.
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Left. mines are often found in churchyards. Average: The needles are soft to the touch. Right: Bark stained red, brown, and purple.
You’re likely to find a Yew in your local churchyard, perched on gravestones. Many of these trees predate the church they are paired with.
Left. The pink/red berries are unmistakable. Medium needles on flat, green branches. Right. The crust is flaky and full of character.
It can be so interesting to really look at the details of our native trees and notice the changes they undergo during the four seasons. That’s exactly what I created for my FREE introductory online course called Kickstart Your Tree ID Skills. Here you’ll find a whole host of resources that will take you from clueless to confident on your way to really getting to know your trees.
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When you sign up for this free mini-course, you’ll discover common trees with video tutorials and photo galleries at your fingertips. Start your journey to becoming a full-fledged tree expert today! The tutorial includes Tree ID Cheat Sheets that you can download and take with you outdoors.
“I’ve been frustrated for so long trying to learn my trees myself and not getting very far. This course answered everything and seriously raised my game.”
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Most of us can spot an oak in winter by looking for fallen acorns or familiar leaves, but can you tell me the difference between a black oak and a hawthorn in winter just by looking at the buds? Or do you know which trees shed their bark in winter? We may be able to identify trees in the summer when their leaves are on fire, but winter is a whole different ball game.
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For anyone looking to brush up on their tree identification skills, winter provides us with many tell-tale signs such as buds, bark, twigs and fallen leaf litter that we can use to identify our native and common tree species. All the clues are there if you know how to look.
In this blog, I’ll give you some tips to look out for this winter and break down the differences between common trees that are often confused. You can go outside and find these clues for yourself with the free download I created: Winter tree guide you can get right below.
By the way, if you love trees but struggle to distinguish one species from another, you can sign up for my FREE Tree Identification Course online. You can find more details at the end of the article.
One of the first things you can ask a tree when trying to identify it in winter is:
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This is absolutely essential for nailing the species tree, because once you answer that question, it allows you to eliminate a whole bunch of species from your query.
The last thing to remember. It is important to choose a young healthy branch to answer this question because as the branch matures it will often choose the healthiest branch to grow on and leave it for a partner. So you might look at an older branch and think that they definitely aren’t growing in opposite pairs, but then on closer inspection you might notice the old scar left over.