There are ten maple species in Canada, but it is the sugar maple that is most commonly thought of as our national tree. A stylized version of its 5-lobed leaf - one of the country’s most recognizable icons - adorns the Canadian flag. Its leaves are 7 to 13 cm in diameter, and like all maples turn a colourful red-gold in the fall. The bark of the young sugar maple is smooth, gray-brown but turns scaly and furrowed with maturity.
The sugar maple is known the world over as the source of the sweet sap used in the production of maple syrup – a unique Canadian delicacy. Each spring this sap is collected from the trees and boiled to produce maple syrup, some of which is further evaporated to create maple sugar.
[34 liters of sap = 1 liter of syrup or 3.6 kg of sugar]
The tamarack boasts one of the widest ranges of all North American conifers. It is common in all Canadian provinces and ranges into the Northwest Territories near the Arctic Circle. Unlike most conifers, the tamarack is deciduous. While confers tend to lose about one-third of their needles each year, the larch drops all it’s needles each fall. In spring new soft, flat needles grow in dense, brush-like clusters at tips of short, spur-like shoots. Tamarack bark is thin, scaly and gray to reddish brown.
Tamarack is extremely durable and rot-resistant; tannin from its bark is used for tanning leather. Porcupines feed on the inner bark, snowshoe hares browse on its seedlings and red squirrels eat the seeds. Birds common to tamarack stands include the song and white-throated sparrow, veery, common yellowthroat and Nashville warbler.
Commonly known as subalpine fir, this species is native to the mountainous Yukon interior where it skirts the treeline, the coast of southeastern Alaska, and western Alberta and British Columbia. The alpine fir is an evergreen covered in 2.5 to 4.5 cm blue-green needles with rounded, notched tips. At maturity the bark is gray-brown, scaly and furrowed.
The alpine fir can reach a height of 33 m but is often twisted and contorted near the treeline where it’s picturesque snow-laden boughs often droop to the ground and take root. Small mammals, birds and larger species such as elk, moose, woodland caribou, bighorn sheep, and black and grizzly bear seek shelter in alpine fir habitats.
Newfoundland & Labrador
One of the six principal species of the Boreal Forest, black spruce is common across Canada including the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. Black spruce grows best in boggy locations where it can reach heights of 10 to 13 m. Its dark green needles are not prickly, but plump to 4-sided in cross-section and about 1 cm long. The outer bark is reddish brown, the inner bark is olive green when fresh.
Black spruce is known as Canada's paper tree. It’s long fibers add strength to pulp and paper products. For centuries black spruce has been used to make healing salves from the exuded resin, beverages and aromatic distillations and binding material for building birch bark canoes. Birds that depend on black spruce habitat for food and cover include the spruce grouse, ruby-crowned kinglet, pine grosbeak, pine siskin and crossbills.
Red spruce is characteristic of the Acadian Forest in eastern Canada and the eastern part of Ontario’s Great Lakes-St Lawrence Forest. It is a medium-size tree that can grow to be more than 400 years old. It’s needles are similar to those of black spruce [link] but longer; the bark is dark gray to brown and inner bark is reddish brown. Red spruce grows best along the edge of streams and bogs where it can stretch to 21 m tall.
The wood of red spruce is ideal for making stringed musical instruments such as pianos, guitars, mandolins, organs and violin bellies. Historically, its exudates was used to make chewing gum and it’s sweetened tea was fermented to treat scurvy. Particularly in winter, the red spruce provides cover for deer and moose, small game such as ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare and woodcock, and various song birds.
Prince Edward Island
Red oak is common in most of the Maritimes (excluding Newfoundland), southern Quebec and Ontario. It has been extensively planted as an ornamental because of its symmetrical shape and brilliant red fall foliage. The leaves are large, up to 12 cm wide and 20 cm long; the bark is dark-brown to black, ridged and furrowed. The tree grows 15 to 21 m tall with a base of up to one metre.
Red oak produces a high quality, attractive wood used in furniture and flooring. Another key feature is its signature capped acorn. For Natives these were a vital source of protein, fat and starch that, unlike chestnuts and white oak acorns, could be stored over the winter due to their high tannin content. They remain an important food for source for squirrels, deer, turkeys, mice, voles and birds.
Balsam fir grows extensively across a wide range in the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, much of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and parts of Alberta. Balsam needles are flat, usually blunt or notched at the tip. The young bark is often blistered with resin; on mature trees the bark turns gray to reddish brown and in scaly plates.
True firs have dense, compact, often spire-like crowns. This makes them highly popular for the traditional Christmas tree market, and thus one of the more important conifers in Canada. Oleoresin from the bark blisters is used for mounting microscopic specimens, cementing optical systems, and in the production of medicinal compounds and spirit varnishes. Balsam fir stands provide food and cover for moose, white-tailed deer and black bear.
Yellow birch, the most valuable of native birches, is found in parts of Newfoundland, the Maritimes, southern Quebec and Ontario. It is easily identified by the yellowish-bronze exfoliating bark for which it is named; the inner bark gives off a wintergreen aroma. Yellow birch is the largest of its species in eastern Canada, reaching a height of 25 m and base of 2 m. Though slow growing, these trees can live up to 150 years among other hardwoods and conifers in the moist well-drained soils of uplands and mountain ravines.
Yellow birch is one of the principal hardwoods used in the distillation of wood alcohol, acetate of lime, charcoal, tar and oils. In the forest, it is an important browse plant for deer and moose; other wildlife feed on its buds and seeds.
Eastern White Pine
Eastern white pine is found in Newfoundland and the Maritimes, and in both southern Quebec and Ontario, comprising the southern tip of Canada’s Boreal Forest. Easily identified by its bundles of 5 needles, 7 to 13 cm long, its gray bark is marked by rectangular blocks. This is the largest of the Northeastern conifers, growing to a height of 23 to 30 m in moist, sandy loam soils; often forming pure stands.
By the late-1800s, great stands of Canada's eastern white pine had been cut and shipped overseas for the rebuilding of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. There was concern that this extreme harvesting and subsequent disease would wipe out the species but fortunately the majestic eastern white pine has survived.
Songbirds common to white pine plantations are the yellow-bellied sapsucker, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, pine warbler, pine grosbeak and the red crossbill. Mammals such as porcupine, red and gray squirrels, mice and white-tailed deer also enjoy an eastern white pine habitat.
White spruce is widely distributed across Canada from Newfoundland to British Columbia and north to the Arctic Circle. Its needles are similar to black spruce [link] twice as long (2.5 cm) and most often crowded on the upper side of the branch. The outer bark is ash brown; exposed inner bark is silver. White spruce forests play and important role in maintaining soil stability and watershed values.
During the settlement of Canada, white spruce provided shelter and fuel for Natives and European settlers of the northern forest. Its roots were used for lashing birchbark baskets and canoes, and boughs for bedding. Spruce pitch (resin) and extracts from boiled needles were used for medicinal purposes.
White spruce stands are a source of cover and food for the red squirrel, spruce grouse, marten, wolverine, lynx and wolf.
White birch has a wide range across Canada from coast to coast and into the Northwest Territories. The branches of the young trees are dark, reddish-brown to black. It’s the mature trees with their distinctive papery white bark that give this species its nickname: paper birch. Resourceful Natives discovered that the layered bark could be peeled into long strips and lashed together to create the famous birchbark canoe – a Canadian icon.
This is a species of forest edges, and the shorelines of lakes and rivers. It is one of the first species to colonize areas cleared by fire or logging. It also provides important browse for wildlife and birds including the redpoll, pine siskin, chickadee and ruffed grouse.
Lodgepole Pine is native to western Alberta and most of British Columbia. Its needles are bunchied in pairs, 2.5 to 7.5 cm long. Inland, this species grows tall, slender and straight to heights of 25 m; along the treeline and the coast, the trees are often contorted and shrubby.
Since this is a closed-cone tree the dispersal of its seeds is well adapted to forest fires. The cones of the pine are sealed with resin, trapping the seeds inside. When a fire burns through the forest, the heat melts the resin and the seeds fall out to germinate in the ashes and the nutrient-rich soil. Thus the forest is regenerated.
The tree was named ‘lodgepole’ by explorers Lewis and Clark when they discovered the Great Plains Indians using the pines as support for lodges and tepees. Coastal Indians used the more contorted variety for medicinal purposes: the pitch was applied open wounds and the buds chewed to relieve sore throats.
Western Red Cedar
Western red cedar is characteristic to the Coast and Columbia Forest Regions of British Columbia. Its foliage is a dark, lustrous green; the bark is dark reddish-brown, fibrous, shreddy and vertically ridged. In moist bottomland soils trees of this species can stretch to heights of 45 to 60 m with a diameter of 1 to 2.5 m. Cathedral-like western red cedar groves are havens for outdoor enthusiasts mesmerized by these towering trees.
Its size, durability and straight grain make this an important timber tree. Practically all shakes and shingles are made of red cedar and it is considered one of the better boat and canoe building woods. In thin veneers, it is the principal wood selected for covering racing shells. Western red cedar is a favored species wherever lumber is exposed to conditions favoring decay.
Illustrations by Wendy Mairs