Campfire
Credit: Kevin Callan

Wood from conifers, or what’s commonly known as “soft wood,” makes a terrible cooking fire.

It has a tendency to spark a lot, and burns quite rapidly.

However, it’s the best wood to get your fire going. And sometimes that’s more important. Here are some of the best to try—and how to identify them.

White cedarGovernment of Ontario
White Cedar

For centuries, many Aboriginals worshiped the cedar as the giver of life and praised it for its ability to hold strong spiritual powers. Today, campers still have a tendency to treat it with high regard. But not for having mystical qualities; it’s just a good fuel-source when you’re trying to get a fire going in the middle of a downpour. A few shavings from this tree and you’re guaranteed to get a hot blaze going.

Cedar can be found in both wetland swamps and rocky outcrops, due to its ability to be both rot- and drought-resistant. The bark is coloured a light grey to reddish-brown, and its needles are unlike those of any other conifer, with light green, flat, scale-like leaves.

HemlockGovernment of Ontario

Hemlock

The hemlock’s trunk is filled with knots; lumberjacks hate it. Campers also distrust the searing sparks it lets loose when burned in the campfire. And forest plants are unable to grow anywhere near it, since its decomposed needles create an acid-rich soil. But deer couldn’t survive the winter without hemlock; they gather under the tree’s dense canopy and nibble on its low-lying branches.

The hemlock tree may be the easiest to confuse with a spruce. However, its needles are not attached completely around the twig. They’re flat and lack the cigar-shaped twig of the black and/or white spruce. It also has two distinct white lines running up and down on the backside of its needles.

The bark of the young hemlock is scaly and orange-brown, becoming deeply furrowed and purplish grey-brown with age.

 Balsam FirGovernment of Ontario

Balsam Fir

Similar to hemlock, the balsam fir needles are flat, not rounded like the spruce. They also have white lines on the underside, but usually more than two.

The bark of the balsam fir, especially when young, is its most distinguishing characteristic. The grey, smooth skin is pocked with horizontal specks and blisters filled with resin, which, when punctured, oozes out and sticks onto everything you own.

Thick, gooey sap is the reason why most conifers hold their needles year-round—hence the name “evergreen” (except for tamarack, or larch, which loses its needles in the fall). Deciduous trees must store their sap in their root system, so the sugar-and-water mix (mostly water) will not freeze and expand inside the trunk. Without the sap, the leaves die and fall to the ground every autumn. The sugar-rich sap of the evergreen, however, acts as antifreeze and allows the conifer to hang on to its needles throughout the cold dormant season.

White pineGovernment of Ontario

 White Pine

The white pine’s silhouette is probably the best to help distinguish it between all the other pines. The branches are feathered out, with the upper portion of the tree’s crown sculpted by the prevailing winds.

If you look at the white pine close up, you can also identify it by counting the amount of needles growing in a cluster. White pine has five needles (remember the word “white” has five letters) and all other pines have two.

The bark of a young pine is smooth grey-green. With age, it turns rough and deeply furrowed with broad scaly edges and grey-brown in colour. 

Red PineGovernment of Ontario

Red Pine

A much hardier tree than the white pine, the red pine takes root in rocky outcrops and nutrient-deficient sandy soil. It is protected from extreme heat and cold and bug infestations by its thick resin.

The silhouette has an oval appearance, forming at the crown. When it grows in the open, branches cover most of the trunk.

Unlike that of the soft white pine needles growing in clusters of five, the red pine has sharply pointed needles (great for using as a pot scrubber), in clusters of two.

The bark has a reddish—or pinkish—brown tinge and becomes furrowed into long, flakey, flat ridges as it grows older.

Jack pineGovernment of Ontario

Jack Pine

Of all the conifer species, the jack pine is the most likely to sprout first after a forest fire, since its tightly sealed cones usually don’t open up until the air temperature reaches 47 degrees Celsius. It also grows in the poorest soil conditions, which is why early settlers cursed the tree so much, and it is so ridden with knots that it’s usually cut more for pulp than for lumber.

To identify it, look at how the needles, growing in clusters of two, are lighter green and somewhat shorter than those of the red and white pine—and they come to a very sharp point.

The bark of the jack pine is reddish-brown to grey and changes to a darker brown or grey with age. It is flaky and furrowed into irregular thick plates on older trees.

It’s most distinguishing feature, however, are the cones. They look similar to a piece of dried-up scat hanging on a dead branch.

White Black SpruceGovernment of Ontario

Black & White Spruce

The black (left) and white (right) spruce is from the single-needle conifer group. The sharp, stunted needles are attached completely around the twig, in the shape of a cigar.

One of the main differences between white and black spruce is the tip of the bud. If the bud-scale is shorter than the bud, then the tree is a white spruce. If the bud-scale grows past the tip of the bud, then it is a black spruce.

There’s a difference between the silhouettes of the two spruces as well. The white spruce is more cone-shaped, with its branches evenly concealing the trunk (this is why it’s commonly used for Christmas trees). The black spruce has very few branches along most of its length, except at its crown where they are bunched together.

The easiest way to tell the spruces apart, however, is to look at the surrounding habitat. Black spruce root themselves around sphagnum bogs and white spruce grow in well-drained, silty soils. So, if your feet are wet, the tree is a black spruce. If they’re dry, it’s a white spruce.

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