How Can I Identify Pine Trees?

Overview

Many different pine tree species exist, all of which have their own distinctive features. Pine trees may all look the same because of their needles and generally similar growth habits, but upon closer inspection you'll notice that they are in fact very different. Each pine tree species has its own unique cone, needle, growth and bark attributes. Pine trees are also easier to identify than other trees because they're evergreens, allowing you to study the foliage for identification purposes year-round.

Step 1

Identify the Austrian pine (Pinus nigra), also called the European black pine, by its 40- to 90-foot height and 3- to 8-inch-long needles that grow in pairs. The needles are flexible, thick and dark-green, and the egg-shaped cones are more than 1-inch long with flat bases and thick scales with end wings.

Step 2

Spot the Eastern white pine (P. strobes), or white pine, by looking for its needles growing in clusters of five and 4- to 8-inch-long cones that have stalks. The white pine is one of the largest pines, growing 75 to 100 feet tall with a 2- to 4-foot-diameter trunk. The bark on younger white pines is gray and smooth, while older trees have bark segmented into small rectangles.

Step 3

Identify the Norway pine (P. resinosa), more commonly known as the red pine, by its 50- to 100-foot height and 1- to 1½-foot trunk diameter. The red pine has brittle needles that are 3- to 8-inches long and grow in clusters of two, as well as bark that breaks into wide, flat ridges as the tree ages.

Step 4

Look for needles that grow in clusters of three and egg-shaped, flat-based cones with thick scales that have spines to identify the pitch pine (P. rigida). The pitch pine tree grows 50 to 60 feet tall with a 1- to 2-foot trunk diameter and bark on younger trees that has reddish-brown scales. The older pitch pines have plate-like, flat-top ridges divided by deep fissures in the bark.

Step 5

Identify the Scotch pine (P. sylvestris) by its shorter height and thicker trunk, growing 40 to 75 feet tall but with a 1½- to 3-foot trunk diameter. The Scotch pine has short, bluish-green needles that grow in pairs to less than 3 inches long. The cones have scales with pyramidal tips, and the distinctive bark is bright orange-red, becoming darker and rougher on the lower trunk as the tree ages.

Step 6

Look for slender, dark-yellow, 3- to 8-inch-long needles that are flexible and grow in pairs to spot the shortleaf pine (P. echinata), also called the yellow pine. The shortleaf pine's bark is dark yellowish-brown and has large, flat-topped plates. This pine tree grows 80 to 100 feet tall at maturity with a 2- to 3-foot-diameter trunk.

Step 7

Spot the Virginia pine (P. virginiana), also called the scrub pine, by its smaller stature, growing up to only 40 feet in height with a 1- to 1½-foot trunk diameter. The Virginia pine tree has yellowish-green to grayish-green needles growing in pairs to less than 3 inches long. The egg-shaped cones are rounded at the base and have a wing and spines on each scale. The scrub pine's bark is dark reddish-brown, developing scaly plates as the tree matures.

Step 8

Identify the Canary Island pine (P. canariensis) by its dark-green, 7- to 10-inch-long needles that grow in clusters of three. The Canary Island pine tree grows 70 to 80 feet tall and is found in warmer regions that rarely have freezing temperatures in winter. The cones are oblong or ovular and 6 inches long.

Step 9

Spot the eldarica pine (P. eldarica) by looking for its overall pyramidal shape and widely-spaced branches. The eldarica pine tree has stiff, long, dark-green needles and 3-inch-long reddish-brown oval or oblong cones. This pine tree grows 30 to 60 feet tall at maturity and emits a slight, mild fragrance.

Step 10

Look for a fast-growing tree with dark-green, 6- to 9-inch-long needles that grow in groups of three and spiral around the limbs to identify the loblolly pine (P. taeda). The loblolly pine tree grows 60 to 100 feet tall and produces narrow and ovular, reddish-brown cones that often grow in pairs and are 3 to 6 inches long.

Step 11

Identify the lodgepole pine (P. contorta v. latifolia) by its yellowish-green to dark-green needles that grow in twisted pairs. Reaching 70 to 80 feet tall at maturity, the lodgepole pine tree has a pole-like trunk that's long and slender with a cone-like crown shape. The lodgepole pine produces 1½-inch-long cones that stay unopened on the tree for up to three years, and orangish-brown to grayish-black bark that's thin and flaky.

Step 12

Study the tree for a broad, spreading form to spot the mugo pine (P. mugo). This low-growing pine tree reaches only 20 feet in height, but it can have a 25-foot spread. The mugo pine tree has dark-green, 1- to 2-inch-long needles that grow densely in bundles of two. The cones are also small, about 1 to 2 inches long, oval-shaped and brown.

Step 13

Spot the ponderosa pine (P. ponderosa), also called the Pacific pine, by its tell-tale dark grayish-green or olive-green needles and its irregular overall shape. The sharp, stiff needles are 5 to 10 inches long and grow in dense clusters of two or three. The ponderosa pine tree produces 3- to 6-inch-long, light reddish-brown cones that often grow in clusters of three to five. This pine can reach 100 feet in height or more.

Step 14

Look for blue-green needles and small, brown edible pine nuts to identify the singleleaf pinyon pine (P. monophylla), also known as the stone pine. The singleleaf pinyon pine tree grows 25 to 50 feet tall with a 20- to 40-foot spread.

Step 15

Identify the slash pine (P. elliottii) by its long, dark-green needles, horizontal branches and elongated, 2- to 6-inch-long cones. The slash pine tree reaches 70 to 100 feet in height and grows mostly in warmer climates.

Step 16

Spot the longleaf pine (P. Palustris) by its open branches and silvery-white buds that emerge in winter. The longleaf pine tree reaches 60 to 80 feet in height and has scaly orange-brown bark. This pine has dark-green needles up to 18 inches long that usually grow in clusters of three but sometimes occur in pairs. The cones are large, brown and oblong, growing 6 to 10 inches long and 5 inches wide at the base.

Tips and Warnings

  • Don't confuse the Austrian pine with the red pine. Both pine trees have similar characteristics, but the Austrian pine has yellowish-brown bark when it's young and patches of brown, gray and white as it matures. The red pine, however, has distinctive reddish-brown bark.

References

  • Arbor Day Foundation: Tree Guide -- Pine
  • Oplin.org: Identify Tree by Common Name

Who Can Help

  • Oplin.org: What Tree Is It?
Keywords: identify pine trees, Pinus species, pine tree types

About this Author

Sarah Terry brings 10 years of experience writing novels, business-to-business newsletters, and a plethora of how-to articles. Terry has written articles and publications for a wide range of markets and subject matters, including Medicine & Health, Eli Financial, Dartnell Publications and Eli Journals.