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Why Do Pine Trees Stay Green All Year Long?

By Andrea M. Zander
Pines keep their needle-like leaves all year round.
pine tree image by pershing from Fotolia.com

Though we call them needles, the green of pines and other evergreens are actually leaves. They serve the same purpose as the leaves of deciduous trees, but their characteristics allow them to remain on evergreen trees, only dropping off after several years. This saves energy for the pines to use making cones and new limb growth.

Pigment

Evergreens come in all kinds of forms, including this rosemary.
Leaf image by Lucid_Exposure from Fotolia.com

Of the three pigments found in tree leaves, chlorophyll is dominant in evergreens. This is the chemical that leaves use to make food from sunlight, and it gives all kinds of leaves their green color.

Leaf Type

Unlike pines, broadleafed deciduous trees can't afford to keep their leaves in winter.
autumn image by voven from Fotolia.com

Deciduous trees change color and lose their leaves in the fall in anticipation of the oncoming winter. Their broad, flat leaves haven't any protection against freezing temperatures and would be a liability for the plant's overall health. In contrast, evergreen leaves are narrow, with far less surface area exposed to the elements. They also have a heavy coating of wax to keep the fluids inside the leaf from freezing.

Benefits of Keeping Leaves

Pines can put their energy into cone production instead of new leaves.
Pine cone image by matko from Fotolia.com

Without leaves, deciduous trees work hard from spring through autumn gathering enough food to fuel growth. Winter forces them into dormancy, and they must use some of their stored energy to produce new leaves in the spring. By keeping their leaves year round, pines can use their energy for new growth rather than for leaf production.

Some Leaf Loss

Old growth drops off and makes way for new.
pine leaves image by Hao Wang from Fotolia.com

Although they stay green, pines and other evergreens do not keep their leaves indefinitely. Inner needles and those that have worn out drop off within a few years to be replaced by new growth.

Leaf Decomposition

Fallen needles still contribute to a tree's health.
Pine Needles - Background Texture image by evillager from Fotolia.com

Organisms such as earthworms, fungi and bacteria break down fallen pine needles, returning them to the earth as food for the tree from which they came. The humus layer this creates also helps hold rainfall, preventing erosion and allowing the tree to maintain a solid hold with its roots.