Decoding evergreens

It’s humbling to be a naturalist. Just when I’m feeling confident in my plant identification skills, I’ll stumble upon a situation that makes me realize how much I still have to learn. Consider the confusion brought about by the term evergreen. While the definition is pretty straightforward—a plant that has green leaves throughout the year—the variety of evergreens can be overwhelming. Evergreens include not only pines and other conifers but also mistletoe, holly, cycads, club mosses, live oaks, and most flowering plants from

Pinus virginiana_WIB_Jan_Feb

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana)

frost-free climates.

Conifers themselves are hardly simple. There are pines, characterized by bundled needles known as fascicles. There are also spruces, which have four-sided needles, and firs, which have flat needles. Junipers are conifers whose needles overlap like shingles on a roof, while cedars have soft, bright green needles that are compressed horizontally with overlapping scales.

When it comes to foraging for evergreens, I like to stay straightforward and safe by sticking with pines. My students love chewing on pine needles, and there’s no need for further identification since the needles of all pine species are edible. Add a handful to a pot of boiling water, remove from the heat, and steep for 15 minutes. The resulting tea has a pleasant citrus flavor and is high in vitamin C. The seeds of all pines are edible, too, although the only species in the United States truly big enough to make the effort worthwhile is the pinon pine of the Southwest. The seeds of a pine are located at the base of each pine cone scale. Pine cones open when dry, so placing the cone near a heat source is an easy way to speed up your seed collection. Putting the scales in a plastic bag and crushing with a rolling pin also helps release the seeds.

Winter is a lovely time to appreciate the Virginia and loblolly pines growing along the Arboretum’s Blockston Branch Walk. Be sure to stop by the Visitor’s Center for a complimentary Native Tree map before you set out.

by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator

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