Evergreens are best divided by the layman into the woody (trees and shrubs) and non-woody (mosses, lichens, some ferns and some flowering herbaceous plants). This is a brief exploration of the former that have long found favor among northerners who yearn for color in winter: The pine, spruce, juniper, yew and hemlock join the aromatic fir, offering a glimmer of hope that nature is only at rest.
Providing shelter and a degree of silence rarely found out of doors, evergreen groves entice animals while winter's chill holds fast. A walk through such stands will most always provide the explorer with the peep of a hardy bird or the foot prints of a small mouse being trailed by a fox or coyote. Sometimes the snow beneath such trees records a veritable system of trails created as animals go about their nightly, and sometimes daily routines.
One mile from the center of Pittsfield, Canoe Meadows, a 253-acre Massachusetts Audu bon property, brings wilderness to Berkshire County's largest city. Gentle, flat trails that wind through scenic woods, fields, and wetlands along the edge of the Housatonic River, and it is a retreat in all seasons.
Its large, old evergreens, especially the stately spruces and white pines, are truly a reminder of past efforts. In the late-1920s an impressionable, young (in his words) Walter Graves helped plant 1,000 2-year-old white pines on the property. He later went on to become financial secretary at the Berkshire Museum, where I met him.
More than a century and a half ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes planted spruce trees there, on what was then a 280-acre parcel he inherited from his great grandfather's original 24,040-acre holdings. Reminiscing to a friend after leaving Pittsfield for good, Holmes wrote in 1856, "One thing I shall always be glad of: That I planted 700 trees for somebody to sit in the shade of."
This reminds me of a favorite quote by Nelson Henderson: "The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit."
Many white pine and most Norway spruce growing proudly in neighborhoods and parks are planted. The Norway Spruce is an alien introduced from Europe. The white pine is a native, with ancient mature specimens found in isolated places. Younger growth is more widespread in valleys, and second and third growth has reforested fields and pastures.
White pine has long needles, five to a bundle. Its nutritious seeds are a favorite to many bird species, as well as red and gray squirrels. Once it covered much of Northeastern North America. Today, only one percent of the old-growth forests remain, following years of extensive logging between the 18th century and the early 20th century. It is the common native pine, while red pine, although native, is uncommon except where planted. Its long needles come in bundles of two.
The Norway Spruce is a native of Europe, and it is often called the mountain spruce there. Hardiness and adaptability has influenced its introduction around the world. Know it by its dark green color in older trees with upward arching branches. This spruce is one of the most widely planted spruces, both in its native range and beyond, and among the most economically important evergreens in Europe. In New England it is primarily an ornamental tree in parks and gardens and yards. It is also commonly planted for use as a Christmas tree.
Two native spruces are black and red. The black prefers boggy environs at higher elevations, and red is common on upper slopes of Mount Greylock, where it has filled in abandoned pastures on both Mount Greylock and the Berkshire Plateau.
Hands-down the most favored of evergreens is the balsam, common above 2,600 feet on Mount Greylock and the dominant tree at the summit. Its needles are dark green and flat, having silvery bands beneath. Its cones are uniquely a purple-green color. It is hard to beat as a Christmas tree, if only for its aroma.
Its pitch is known as Canada Balsam and is used as a clear cement for glass in optics and microscope slides.
The eastern hemlock rivals white pines in number locally, and is common in most forests, ravines and cool rocky mountain slopes, and grows well in shade. While not ranked high as a Christmas tree species, its branches make fine wreaths and garlands.
It is a long lived species with the oldest recorded age of over 550 years.
Many of the old-growth forests in Massachusetts contain eastern hemlock -- and it is frightening to think they could be wiped out by the hemlock woolly adelgid, to join the American chestnut and elm.