The Major North American Conifers with Descriptions

The Most Common Commercial Softwood Trees and Forest Associates

A conifer is a tree belonging to the cone-bearing order Coniferales. These trees have needles or scale-like leaves and are very different from hardwood trees which have broad, flat leaves and usually no cones. You can easily identify a conifer from a hardwood.

Also called evergreens, conifers normally keep foliage or needles through the entire year. The notable exceptions are baldcypress and tamarack which shed needles annually.

These "softwood" trees usually bear cones and include the pines, spruces, firs, and cedars. Wood hardness varies among the conifer species, and some are actually harder than some hardwoods. Most of the common conifers are of major economic importance for lumber and paper production.

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Bald Cypress tree
Swamp Cypress or Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), Cupressaceae. (DEA/C. SAPPA/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images)

Baldcypress grows into a large tree and the bark is gray-brown to red-brown, shallowly vertically fissured, with a stringy texture. The needles are on deciduous branchlets that are spirally arranged on the stem. Unlike most other species in the family Cupressaceae, bald cypress is deciduous, losing the leaves in the winter months and thus the name 'bald.' The main trunk is surrounded by cypress "knees" that protrude from the ground.

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alaska cedar
(Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Alaska cedar is a cypress (Cupressaceae) for which botanists have had historical problems determining its scientific category. The species goes by many common names including Nootka Cypress, Yellow Cypress, and Alaska Cypress. Even though it is not a true cedar, it is also often confusingly called "Nootka Cedar," "Yellow Cedar," and "Alaska Yellow Cedar." One of its common names derives from its discovery on the lands of a First Nation of Canada, the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, who were formerly referred to as the Nootka.

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atlantic white cedar tree
Atlantic White Cypress Chamaecyparis thyoides foliage and cones, Franklin Parker Reserve, Chatsworth, New Jersey. (John B./Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), also called southern white-cedar, white-cedar, and swamp-cedar, is found most frequently in small dense stands in fresh water swamps and bogs. Heavy cutting for many commercial uses during this century has considerably reduced even the largest stands so that the total volume of this species growing stock is not currently known. It is still considered a commercially important single species in the major supply areas of North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Florida.

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Northern white cedar tree
Young light green seed cones (left) and dried up pollen cones. (Quartl/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Northern white-cedar is a slow growing native North American boreal tree. Arborvitae is its cultivated name and commercially sold and planted in yards throughout the United States. The tree is identified primarily by unique flat and filigree sprays made up of tiny, scaly leaves. The tree loves limestone areas and can take full sun to light shade.

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Cedar, Port-Orford

Port-Orford cedar tree
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana showing mature female cones. (Eric Hunt/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana is a cypress known by the name Lawson's Cypress when cultivated in the landscape, or Port Orford-cedar in its native range. It is not a true cedar. Port Orford Cedar is native to the southwest of Oregon and the far northwest of California in the United States, occurring from sea level up to 4,900 ft in mountain valleys, often along streams. Port-Orford-cedar is found with an extremely wide variety of associated plants and vegetation types. It usually grows in mixed stands and is important in the Picea sitchensis, Tsuga heterophylla, mixed evergreen, and Abies concolor vegetation zones of Oregon and their counterparts in California.​

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Douglas fir tree
(RVWithTito/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)
Wherever Douglas-fir grows in mixture with other species, the proportion may vary greatly, depending on aspect, elevation, kind of soil, and the past history of an area, especially as it relates to fire. This is particularly true of the mixed conifer stands in the southern Rocky Mountains where Douglas-fir is associated with ponderosa pine, southwestern white pine (Pinus strobiformis), corkbark fir (Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica), white fir (Abies concolor), blue spruce (Picea pungens), Engelmann spruce, and aspen (Populus spp.).

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balsam fir tree
Closeup of thickly leaved branchlets. (Ktr101/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Tree species associated with balsam fir in the boreal region of Canada are black spruce (Picea mariana), white spruce (Picea glauca), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). In the more southerly northern forest region, additional associates include bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), tamarack (Larix laricina), black ash (Fraxinus nigra), and northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis).

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California red fir tree
Abies magnifica: Needle-like leaves bend upward. (Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)

Red fir is found in seven forest cover types of western North America. It is in pure stands or as a major component in Red Fir (Society of American Foresters Type 207, and also in the following types: Mountain Hemlock (Type 205), White Fir (Type 211), Lodgepole Pine (Type 218), Pacific Douglas-Fir (Type 229), Sierra Nevada Mixed Conifer (Type 243), and California Mixed Subalpine (Type 256).

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fraser fir cone
(MPF/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Fraser fir is a component of four forest cover types (10): Pin Cherry (Society of American Foresters Type 17), Red Spruce-Yellow Birch (Type 30), Red Spruce (Type 32), and Red Spruce-Fraser Fir (Type 34).

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Fir, Grand

Grand fir tree
(Sten Porse/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Grand fir is represented in 17 forest cover types of western North America: it is the predominant species in only one, Grand Fir (Society of American Foresters Type 213). It is a major component of six other cover types: Western Larch (Type 212), Western White Pine (Type 215), Interior Douglas-Fir (Type 210), Western Hemlock (Type 224), Western Redcedar (Type 228), and Western Redcedar-Western Hemlock (Type 227). Grand fir appears sporadically in 10 other cover types.

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Fir, Noble

noble fir tree
(MPF/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Noble fir is aptly named, for it is probably the largest of all the firs in terms of diameter, height and wood volume. It was first found by fabled botanist-explorer David Douglas, growing in mountains on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge, where exceptional stands can still be found. It loves these windy sites because it is one of the most windfirm trees, swaying grandly in even the most howling gales of winter.

Source: The Gymnosperm Database, C.J. Earle

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Fir, Pacific Silver

Pacific silver fir tree
Pacific Silver Fir Abies amabilis with immature cones, Crystal Peak Trail, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. (brewbooks/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Pacific silver fir is a major species in the forest cover type Coastal True Fir-Hemlock (Society of American Foresters Type 226). It is also found in the following types: Mountain Hemlock, Engelmann Spruce-Subalpine Fir, Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Western Redcedar and Pacific Douglas-Fir.

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Fir, White

White fir tree needles
Foliage underside. (Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)
The most common associates of California white fir in the mixed conifer forests of California and Oregon include grand fir (Abies grandis), Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), incense-cedar (Libocedrus decurrens), ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), lodgepole pine (P. contorta), sugar pine (P. lambertiana), Jeffrey pine (P. jeffreyi), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and California black oak (Quercus kelloggii).

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Eastern hemlock cones
(liz west/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)
Eastern hemlock is associated in the Northern Forest Region with White Pine, Sugar Maple,Red Spruce, Balsam Fir and Yellow Birch; in the Central and Southern Forest Region with Yellow-Poplar, Northern Red Oak, Red Maple, Eastern White Pine, Fraser Fir and Beech.

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Western hemlock trees
Young trees, near Mt. Rainier, Washington. (Alex O'Neal/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Western hemlock is a component of the redwood forests on the coasts of northern California and adjacent Oregon. In Oregon and western Washington, it is a major constituent of the Picea sitchensis, Tsuga heterophylla, and Abies amabilis Zones and is less important in the Tsuga mertensiana and Mixed-Conifer Zones.

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Eastern larch cones
Tamarack larch foliage and cones in August. The lighter brown cones are from the current season; the darker brown cones are mature cones from previous seasons. (Tim & Selena Middleton/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Black spruce (Picea mariana) is usually tamarack's main associate in mixed stands on all sites. The other most common associates include balsam fir (Abies balsamea), white spruce (Picea glauca), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in the boreal region, and northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis), balsam fir, black ash (Fraxinus nigra), and red maple (Acer rubrum) on the better organic-soil (swamp) sites in the northern forest region.

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Larch, Western

Western larch cones
(MPF/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)

Western larch is a long-lived seral species that always grows with other tree species. Young stands sometimes appear to be pure, but other species are in the understory, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) is its most common tree associate. Other common tree associates include: ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) on the lower, drier sites; grand fir (Abies grandis), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), western redcedar (Thuja plicata), and western white pine (Pinus monticola) on moist sites; and Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) in the cool-moist subalpine forests.

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Eastern white pine trees
(Joseph O'Brien/USDA Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0 US)
White pine is a major component of five Society of American Foresters forest cover types: Red Pine (Type 15), White Pine-Northern Red Oak-Red Maple (Type 20), Eastern White Pine (Type 21), White Pine-Hemlock (Type 22), White Pine-Chestnut Oak (Type 51). None of these are climax types, although the White Pine-Hemlock type may just precede the climax hemlock types, and Type 20 is very close to a climax or an alternating type of climax on the sandy outwash plains of New England (42).

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Pine, Jack

Jack pine cones
(Joseph O'Brien/USDA Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0 us)

Associated tree species, listed in order of presence on dry to mesic sites, include northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), red pine (Pinus resinosa), bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), quaking aspen (P. tremuloides), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), northern red oak Quercus rubra), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), red maple (Acer rubrum), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), white spruce (Picea glauca), black spruce (P. mariana), tamarack (Larix laricina), and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera). In the boreal forest the most common associates are quaking aspen, paper birch, balsam fir, and black spruce. In the northern forest they are northern pin oak, red pine, quaking aspen, paper birch, and balsam fir.

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Pine, Jeffrey

Jeffrey pine tree
Pinus jeffreyi foliage and cones, Big Bear Lake, California. (Ewen Roberts/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Incense-cedar (Libocedrus decurrens) is the most widespread associate of Jeffrey pine on ultramafic soils. Locally prominent are Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Port-Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), ponderosa pine, sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana), western white pine (P. monticola), knob-cone pine (P. attenuata), Digger pine (P. sabiniana), and Sargent cypress (Cupressus sargentii).

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Loblolly pine cones
Mature unopened female cones. (Marcus Q/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Loblolly pine is found in pure stands and in mixtures with other pines or hardwoods. When loblolly pine predominates, it forms the forest cover type Loblolly Pine (Society of American Foresters Type 81). Within their natural ranges, longleaf, shortleaf, and Virginia pine (Pinus palustris, P. echinata, and P. virginiana), southern red, white, post, and blackjack oak (Quercus falcata, Q. alba, Q. stellata, and Q. marilandica), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) are frequent associates on well-drained sites.

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Lodgepole pine tree
The needles are 4 to 8 cm (1.6 to 3.1 in) long in fascicles of two, alternate on twigs. The female cones are 3 to 7 cm (1.2 to 2.8 in) long with sharp-tipped scales. (Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)
Lodgepole pine, with probably the widest range of environmental tolerance of any conifer in North America, grows in association with many plant species. The lodgepole pine forest type is the third most extensive commercial forest type in the Rocky Mountains.

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Pine, Longleaf

Longleaf pine tree
(Crusier/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The principal longleaf cover types are Longleaf Pine (Society of American Foresters Type 70), Longleaf Pine-Scrub Oak (Type 71), and Longleaf Pine-Slash Pine (Type 83). Longleaf pine is also a minor component of other forest types within its range: Sand Pine (Type 69), Shortleaf Pine (Type 75), Loblolly Pine (Type 81), Loblolly Pine-Hardwoods (Type 82), Slash Pine (Type 84), and South Florida Slash Pine (Type 111).

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Pinyon pine tree
A single-leaf pinyon from Mono County, California. The short stature and rounded crown are typical of the pinyon. (Dcrjsr/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pinyon is a minor component of the following forest cover types: Bristlecone Pine (Society of American Foresters (Type 209), Interior Douglas-Fir (Type 210), Rocky Mountain Juniper (Type 220), Interior Ponderosa Pine (Type 237), Arizona Cypress (Type 240), and Western Live Oak (Type 241). It is an integral component in Pinyon-Juniper (Type 239) over a large area. However, as the type extends westward, pinyon is replaced by singleleaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla) in Nevada and some localities in western Utah and northwestern Arizona. Southward along the Mexican border, Mexican pinyon (P. cembroides var. bicolor), recently given separate species status as border pinyon (P. discolor), becomes the dominant tree in the woodlands.

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Pine, Pitch

Pitch pine cone
(Crusier/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0)

Pitch pine is the major component of the forest cover type Pitch Pine (Society of American Foresters Type 45) and is listed as an associate in nine other types: Eastern White Pine (Type 21), Chestnut Oak (Type 44), White Pine-Chestnut Oak (Type 51), White Oak-Black Oak-Northern Red Oak (Type 52), Shortleaf Pine (Type 75), Virginia Pine-Oak (Type 78), Virginia Pine (Type 79), and Atlantic White-Cedar (Type 97).

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Pine, Ponderosa

Ponderosa pine tree
(Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ponderosa pine is an integral component of three forest cover types in the West: Interior Ponderosa Pine (Society of American Foresters Type 237), Pacific Ponderosa Pine-Douglas-Fir (Type 244), and Pacific Ponderosa Pine (Type 245). Interior Ponderosa Pine is the most widespread type, covering most of the range of the species from Canada to Mexico, and from the Plains States to the Sierra Nevada, and the east side of the Cascade Mountains. Ponderosa pine is also a component of 65 percent of all western forest cover types south of the boreal forest.

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Pine, Red

Red pine tree
(timmenzies/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In parts of the northern Lake States, Ontario, and Quebec, red pine grows in extensive pure stands and in the Northeast and eastern Canada in small pure stands. More often it is found with jack pine (Pinus banksiana), eastern white pine (P. strobus), or both. It is a common component in three forest cover types: Red Pine (Society of American Foresters Type 15), Jack Pine (Type 1), and Eastern White Pine (Type 21) and is an occasional associate in one, Northern Pin Oak (Type 14).

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Pine, Shortleaf

Shortleaf pine sapling
Shortleaf pine sapling. (Jason Sturner/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)
Shortleaf pine is now considered a major component of three forest cover types (Society of American Foresters, 16), Shortleaf Pine (Type 75), Shortleaf Pine-Oak (Type 76), and Loblolly Pine-Shortleaf Pine (Type 80). Although shortleaf pine grows very well on good sites, it is generally only temporary and gives way to more competitive species, particularly hardwoods. It is more competitive on drier sites with thin, rocky, and nutrient deficient soils. With the species' ability to grow on the medium and poor sites, it is not surprising that shortleaf pine is a minor component of at least 15 other forest cover types.

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Slash pine trees
(a.dombrowski/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Slash pine is a major component of three forest cover types including Longleaf Pine-Slash Pine (Society of American Foresters Type 83), Slash Pine (Type 84), and Slash Pine-Hardwood (Type 85).

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boy holding up large sugar pine cone
A sugar pine cone held by a boy, showing its size. (OakleyOriginals/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Sugar pine is a major timber species at middle elevations in the Klamath and Siskiyou Mountains, and the Cascade, Sierra Nevada, Transverse, and Peninsula Ranges. Rarely forming pure stands, it grows singly or in small groups of trees. It is the main component in the forest cover type Sierra Nevada Mixed Conifer (Society of American Foresters Type 243).

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Pine, Virginia

Virginia pine cones and needles
Pinus virginiana (Virginia Pine) new growth and pollen cones along the Mount Misery Trail in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, New Jersey. (Famartin/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Virginia pine often grows in pure stands, usually as a pioneer species on old fields, burned areas, or other disturbed sites. It is a major species in the forest cover types Virginia Pine-Oak (Society of American Foresters Type 78) and Virginia Pine (Type 79). It is an associate in the following cover types: Post Oak-Blackjack Oak (Type 40), Bear Oak (Type 43), Chestnut Oak (Type 44), White Oak-Black Oak-Northern Red Oak (Type 52), Pitch Pine (Type 45), Eastern Redcedar (Type 46), Shortleaf Pine (Type 75), Loblolly Pine (Type 81), and Loblolly Pine-Hardwood (Type 82).

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Eastern redcedar tree
(Quadell/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pure stands of eastern redcedar are scattered throughout the primary range of the species. Most of these stands are on abandoned farm lands or drier upland sites. The forest cover type Eastern Redcedar (Society of American Foresters Type 46) is widespread and therefore has many associates.

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Redwood trees
These trees were just 60 years old in 2010. (Sverrir Mirdsson/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Redwood is a principal species in only one forest cover type, Redwood (Society of American Foresters Type 232), but is found in three other Pacific Coast types, Pacific Douglas-Fir (Type 229), Port-Orford-Cedar (Type 231), and Douglas-Fir-Tanoak-Pacific Madrone (Type 234).

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Spruce, Black

Black spruce tree
(MPF/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Black spruce most commonly grows as pure stands on organic soils and as mixed stands on mineral soil sites. It is a major component of forest types with white spruce, balsam fir (Abies balsamea), jack pine (Pinus banksiana), and tamarack and also grows in association with paper birch (Betula papyrifera), lodgepole pine (P. contorta), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), balsam poplar, northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis), black ash (Fraxinus nigra), American elm (Ulmus americana), and red maple (Acer rubrum).

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Colorado blue spruce tree
Foliage of the cultivar 'Glauca globosa'. (Andy Mabbett/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Colorado blue spruce is most frequently associated with Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) and Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine and with white fir (Abies concolor) on wet sites in the central Rocky Mountains. Blue spruce is seldom found in large numbers, but on streamside sites it is often the only coniferous species present.

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Spruce, Engelmann

Engelmann spruce tree
(Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.5)

Engelmann spruce most typically grows together with subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) to form the Engelmann Spruce-Subalpine Fir (Type 206) forest cover type. It may also occur in pure or nearly pure stands. Spruce grows in 15 other forest types recognized by the Society of American Foresters, usually as a minor component or in frost pockets.

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Spruce, Red

Red spruce tree
(Robert(H. Mohlenbrock/USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database/USDA NRCS/Wikimedia Commons)
Pure stands of red spruce comprise the forest cover type Red Spruce (Society of American Foresters Type 32). Red spruce is also a major component in several forest cover types: Eastern White Pine; White Pine-Hemlock; Eastern Hemlock; Sugar Maple-Beech-Yellow Birch; Red Spruce-Yellow Birch; Red Spruce-Sugar Maple-Beech; Red Spruce-Balsam Fir; Red Spruce-Fraser Fir; Paper Birch-Red Spruce-Balsam Fir; Northern White-Cedar; Beech-Sugar Maple.

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Spruce, Sitka

Sitka spruce tree
(MïK/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Sitka spruce is commonly associated with western hemlock throughout most of its range. Toward the south, other conifer associates include Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Port-Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), western white pine (Pinus monticola), and redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Shore pine (P. contorta var. contorta) and western redcedar (Thuja plicata) are also associates that extend into southeast Alaska. Toward the north, conifer associates also include Alaska-cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa)-trees that are usually found only at higher elevations toward the south.

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White spruce forest
Picea glauca taiga, Denali Highway, Alaska; Alaska Range in the background. (L.B. Brubaker/NOAA/Wikimedia Commons)
Eastern Forest- The forest cover type White Spruce (Society of American Foresters Type 107) (40) is found in either pure stands or mixed stands in which white spruce is the major component. Associated species include black spruce, paper birch (Betula papyrifera), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), red spruce (Picea rubens), and balsam fir (Abies balsamea).

Western Forest- Associated tree species in Alaska include paper birch, quaking aspen, black spruce, and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera). In Western Canada, subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), balsam fir, Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), jack pine (Pinus banksiana), and lodgepole pine (P. contorta) are important associates.