Woodland walks in a northern New England winter may require cross-country skis or snowshoes, but in shallow or heavily crusted snow, hikers can hoof it in boots. Indeed, the white season may offer casual observers little to see beyond a Currier & Ives landscape, but it provides folks with nature knowledge or a guidebook plenty to peruse each day.

For example, veteran outdoor types know that most conifer species grow different age classes of needles – readily visible when temperatures drop. I noticed white-pine needles shedding in my youth because these stately trees surrounded my boyhood home. Each November, brown needles covered our lawn and driveway after these trees shed part of their foliage. I was the kid in the family, so my parents relegated me to rake them.

I once read that white pine drop 20 percent of their needles each fall, which struck me as obvious after raking them in my youth. Pines look sparser in winter after dropping needles each fall before growing more in spring. Spruce may hold part of their needles for 10 years, but the species sheds others in a much shorter period. This evolutionary tactic saves water and energy in the season of scarcity.

When I was a child, “conifer” was a 79-cent word, so most of us called these trees and shrubs “evergreen.” Mainers chose the latter because the foliage stayed green 12 months per year – albeit a somber blue-green. That terminology slowly changed over the decades, and now we hear educated folks use “conifer” almost exclusively.

We call one Maine conifer species “tamarack” or “hackmatack” (the latter an Algonquin word), but “larch” is a more appropriate term nationwide. The first two words confuse myriad people living outside Maine. This tree loses all its needles in fall – a unique adaption to save water and energy each winter.

Eastern hemlock has encountered a serious threat in this state because of infestations of woolly adelgid and elongate hemlock scale. For now, though, we can observe needles on this tree, and observation begins by looking at the bottom of each needle. Take a gander at the easily viewed, parallel white lines on the needle bottoms that absorb carbon dioxide and light from the atmosphere, part of the photosynthesis equation when the two combine with water and elements drawn up from the soil.

When my daughters were 8 and 10, I was showing them these lines on a hemlock needle, and Heather said, “They’re like fish gills.” A great metaphor for a child. Other conifer species have those white lines that absorb the necessities for photosynthesis, so you can see how this visual aid works for educating kids.

While on the topic of eastern hemlocks, this species can grow 600 years – a long time compared to humans. When I was 5, I walked in a hemlock grove near my boyhood home, and decades later it looks pretty much the same – impressive to me. Time stands still in these places – unless the current infestations cannot be stopped.

In comparison, balsam fir live 200 years, but once at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park near Freeport, I counted the rings on a balsam fir that rangers had cut up after it had blown over in a storm. The stump had 109 rings – 109 years old – and that tree was larger than most balsam firs that I had ever seen. Apparently it was growing in ideal habitat. White spruce can last 250-300 years and white pine 200-300 years.

Needles (actually leaves themselves) on conifers serve a similar purpose to leaves on deciduous trees, and looking carefully at a single needle reveals interesting features. For example, a spruce needle looks like an ultra-miniature broadsword blade. It is quite thin and much wider than thick. The center of the blade is thicker than the edges – like a sharpened sword. In short there are four sides to each blade – two on one side and two on the other. Guidebooks often say two sides, though. The term “needle” makes us think “cylindrical,” but that’s incorrect on Maine’s conifers.

Recently I watched a white-breasted nuthatch pecking in a rotted crack in a tree, foraging on tiny invertebrate or their eggs. Yes, a winter stroll through a woodland gives us lots to ponder, including birds eating such an unlikely protein in winter. Who would think bugs and their larvae would be available now?

These forest walks can begin (or continue) this very weekend.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at

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