Searching for Conifers in the Blue Hills

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)

Over the last few weeks, the deciduous trees around Boston have almost completely lost their foliage. Last weekend, we drove down to the Blue Hills Reservation to see some late fall scenery and collect some cones. The reservation, located only ten miles south of Boston proper, is a 6,000 acre state park managed by the Massachusetts DCR. Despite its proximity to the city, the park is home to a range of ecosystems and a variety of wildlife.

I was surprised to read that both the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) and the copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), the only two venomous snake species in Massachusetts, can be found in the Blue Hills. Luckily, I have encountered neither during my life and time outdoors, although I would love to see either at a distance.

Wetland near Houghton Pond

The Blue Hills Reservation is comprised of various ecosystems, including marshes, swamps, ponds, upland and bottomland forests, and meadows. The wetland seen above is located near the visitor center, where we started our hike. Near the trailhead is Houghton Pond, a well maintained swimming area, with picnic areas and a range of other amenities.


We decided to head up from the trailhead towards the Skyline trail, a rugged 9 mile traverse of the entire park that passes through each of its ecosystems and some of its highest elevations. Given the amount of daylight left and my tendency to photograph every few steps, we settled on taking Skyline a few miles towards Buck Hill and then looping back on another trail.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) in Fall Color

We lucked out with the weather–mid fifties with a clear sunny sky. By this time of year, most of the forest trees have lost their leaves, with the exception of some oaks and the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), seen above, that tends to retain some of it golden-brown foliage through the winter, creating a striking display of color against newly fallen snow. The botanical term for this retention of dead organs is Marcescence.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) winter

Beech winter buds, as seen above, are delicate and slender, covered with many overlapping bud scales. They are among the longest buds of deciduous trees in the region, and are easily identified in winter.

Beech (Fagus grandifolia) with Burl

The large protrusion in the beech trunk above is called a gall. A gall is an abnormal growth in woody or herbaceous plant parts caused by a range of factors, including bacteria, fungal or insect growth, physical damage, or genetic mutation. A gall in herbaceous material is easier to classify, as it can be removed and dissected. It would be much more difficult to determine the cause of a gall such as the one above, which is sealed in the wood of the trunk.

Large woody gall are often called burls. Some species, such sugar maples, black walnuts, black cherries and coast redwoods, produce burl wood that is highly prized for its use in woodworking, and the intricate, complex patterns created by the erratic growth of the wood. As far as I know, this beech burl is probably not worth much, albeit interesting to consider.

Roundleaf Greenbriar (Smilax rotundifolia)

As kids, we spent plenty of time running around in the woods, and became very familiar with the roundleaf greenbriar (Smilax rotundifolia). The thorny masses of stems and foliage of greenbriar are clearly visible once the forest foliage has dropped, and it can be seen weaving its way through the undergrowth and climbing on other shrubs and trees, producing dense thickets.

The leaves of greenbriar are notable for their arcuate venation, with veins arching from the base to the apex of each individual leaf.

Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina) in fall color

Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) is not actually a fern, but a deciduous shrub. Comptonia peregrina is the only species in its genus, and grows well in sandy soils, among pines. Sweet fern has an especially strong, sweet odor–especially when its foliage is crushed. I’m fond of the smell–it brings me back to a time as a kid when we would burn the foliage in campfires to make a musky smoke–but I’ve had friends tell me they dislike the urine-like scent of sweet fern. Its dried foliage can be used for seasoning and steeped for tea. It turns a beautiful range of colors in autumn.

Eastern Tent Caterpiller (Malacosoma americanum) Web

Here’s an old communal web of the Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum). These webs are fascinating structures that serve a variety of purposes for the caterpillars. The eggs of this species overwinter in the crotch of a deciduous tree branch, and hatch in early spring. Right away, they begin building their nests, which afford them protection from predators and purchase on their precarious branches. Two to three hundred hatchlings take shelter in these nests during poor weather, and emerge to feed on new foliage on sunny days. Experiments have shown that caterpillars will spin most silk on the sunniest sides of the tent. By late May, the caterpillars leave the nest en-masse to pupate, and continue their life cycle. What’s left is a memorial to insect intelligence, a haunting natural architecture.

Beetle larval galleriesInsect Holes in Bark

More searching turns up evidence of insect deconstruction. These marks are left by some species of bark beetle, which spend their larval stages living and feeding in the inner bark of a tree. Some species feed only on dead or dying trees, and help to renew forests by hastening the death of older trees, and decomposing fallen ones–an example of a beneficial effect of insect activity. However, outbreaks of some species of bark beetles are responsible for the rapid and extensive destruction of entire coniferous forests in the west, and must be closely managed.

As children, we were fascinated by the markings we found on old pine logs and guessed at who or what might have left them. These so called “galleries” describe a record of the movement of larvae through the inner bark, and specific patterns can be used to identify different species of beetles.

_DSC7227_DSC7315Turkey Tail fungus (Trametes versicolor)

The recent cold snaps have reduced the presence of fungal fruiting bodies, but we were able to identify a few species of bracket fungus on bark and downed logs, as well as a strange brown mushroom that I could not identify.

Turkey Tail fungus (Trametes versicolor)

We did manage to find plenty of turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor), a fan shaped bracket with a gradient of beautiful, bright color.

Witches Butter Fungus (Tremella mesenterica)

Finally, some real color! Witch’s Butter Fungus (Tremella mesenterica) is commonly found on the recently-downed branches of broad-leafed species, and often lives as a parasite on other wood decay fungi. Its fantastic appearance has earned it names such as “yellow brain”, “yellow trembler”, and “golden jelly fungus”. Apparently it is edible and has a bland taste, although I’m not sure my constitution is strong enough to handle something so slimy.

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) Cones

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is one of my favorite trees. It can live for over 500 years, and has beautiful, deeply furrowed mature bark and delicate drooping foliage. Its cones, seen above, are only 1-2.5 cm long. It is an ecologically important tree in the northeast, and because it grows well in shade and acidic soil, has produced over 300 ornamental cultivars.

Unfortunately, as many easterners probably know, this tree is under attack by an invasive sap-sucking insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae), which may infect most eastern hemlocks within three decades. In southern Appalachia, hemlock forests have already taken an enormous hit, and the rapid decline of these populations has drastically effected the carbon cycling in these areas.

At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, researchers are using biological measures to quell HWA populations, such as the controlled release of the predator beetle Laricobius nigrinus. You can read more about efforts to stop the destruction of eastern hemlock using biological control methods here.

White Pine (Pinus strobus) Stand

As we gain elevation, we move from stands of hemlock, white pine, and beech to upland forests of pitch pine and scrub oak. The forest floor is littered with a thick layer of needle duff.

White Pine (Pinus strobus) sapling

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is a culturally and economically important species in the northeast. Henry David Thoreau decided that “there is no finer tree” than the eastern white pine, which once covered much of the northeastern united states. However, its clear grain, good workability, and widespread availability made it an early target for commercial logging. Today, only one percent of old growth pine forests still exist in this region.

Pinus strobus is fondly recognized as the tallest tree of the eastern united states, frequently reaching 140 feet or more. The tallest eastern white pines reached heights of over 240 feet, and were truly monumental.

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) sapling

Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) has a dramatically different character than its taller relative. Pitch pines prefer dry, exposed granite slopes and commonly grow irregular, twisting and rugged trunks. Because of their crooked profiles, they not commercially viable as a lumber species. They are well-adapted to fire, and respond to burning by sprouting multiple trunks.

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) bark

Unlike many conifers, pitch pine will sprout new growth from old wood, and are well-suited to use in bonsai.

White Pine (Pinus strobus) and Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) Needles

Pitch pine and eastern white pine are easily identified by the difference in foliage. White pine, on the left, has needles growing in groups of five, while pitch pine, to the right, has groups of three.

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) cones

Pitch pine cones grow in groups of two, one on either side of the branch, and are often retained for two seasons or more. In this picture, you can see the grayish older cones on the bottom, and the brighter brown cones from this season near the top. We collected a good deal of these cones, and quickly found out that their sharp spikes are not friendly to bare hands.

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is another conifer that is found on the rocky granite slopes of the Blue Hills. Its blue berries are actually a type of cone, and give off the pleasant characteristic fragrance of juniper when crushed.

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) deadwood

Eastern red cedar wood weathers to a beautiful patina, and the deadwood on older or deceased trees can take on a sculptural quality. It looks like some passerby had begun sawing through this trunk at one point, before giving up.

View of Boston from Buck Hill

The views from Buck Hill are really spectacular, and on a clear day you can see all the way to Boston. We stopped to have lunch on the sun-drenched granite slopes.

Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) _DSC7248 White Pine (Pinus strobus) Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida)

All in all, we had a very successful day searching out the conifers of the Blue Hills. Standing on top of Buck Hill in the mid-day sun, it is easy to see how these acres of varied New England terrain have played an important role for outdoor enthusiasts living in the Greater Boston area throughout history.

Below are more images from our hike. In the next few days, I’ll write a post about the types of fruiting bodies that we’ve collected during the past few weeks.

Thanks for reading,



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