Nature Bulletin No. 173-A December 12, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
There are few native evergreens in this region. Your Christmas tree --
unless it is one of those glistening imitations -- is likely to be a young
spruce, balsam fir, or Scotch pine from Wisconsin, Michigan,
Minnesota or Canada, perhaps a Douglas fir from the northwest.
Long years ago, at Christmas time in many parts of rural Illinois, it
was customary to search the hillsides and pastures for a well-shaped
young cedar to be brought home as a Christmas tree. Or, if there was
none, a young oak. They were decorated with strings of popcorn,
cranberries and tinsel, chains of colored paper, and lighted with
candles wired to the branches.
Red cedar, a juniper, is the most common native evergreen in Illinois
and Indiana. It is usually small, straight, narrow and conical in shape.
It has two kinds of dark green pointed needles (leaves): one kind about
1/2 inch long; the other very short and scalelike. The male and female
cones (flowers) are borne on separate trees. The fruits are little bluish
berrylike cones eaten by many birds in winter. The reddish aromatic
wood is useful for pencils and moth-proof chests and closets. Cedar
fence posts are famous for their durability.
The earliest surveyors of Cook County recorded the kinds of vegetation
encountered as they ran their lines. Their notebooks contain several
references to pines and cedars, chiefly near the lake. Gurdon S.
Hubbard, speaking of Fort Dearborn in his autobiography, said: "Back
of it flowed the Chicago River which, as late as 1827, emptied into
Lake Michigan at a point known as "The Pines", a clump of a hundred
or more stunted pine trees on the sand-hills about a mile from the
Presumably, those and the pines observed by surveyors were Jack
Pines. That conifer, found on poor sandy soils on the Waukegan dunes
and in the Illinois Beach State Park, never became more than a small
scrubby tree in this region. It has small cones and short stiff curved
needles growing in pairs -- bundles of two.
Thousands of years ago there were white pine forests here. At the
Dunes State Park in Indiana there are a number of native white pines,
and "blow-outs" along that southern shore of Lake Michigan have
uncovered the stumps of white pines smothered and buried, 5000 or
more years ago, by the moving sands. There are a few large old white
pines along the ravines and lake bluff at Glencoe.
There are some big white pines at Starved Rock State Park, and some
fine stands at White Pines State Park. Some of the older trees are 80
feet tall with trunk diameters of 24 inches or more. The lower
branches tend to die and drop off, but the upper plumelike branches
grow out horizontally like the spokes of a wheel.
This tree has long blue-green needles that grow in bundles of 5, and
long large cones. Like all pines, the male and female flowers are borne
separately on the same tree. Its wood, being soft, light, even-textured
and remarkably durable, has always been in great demand. The
buildings in early Chicago and the farm buildings in northeastern
Illinois were built with white pine lumber from the great forests that
grew in the lake states. They enabled this city to rebuild after the great
fire in 1871. White pine trees became the masts for many a sailing
native evergreen shrubs, now rare in the Chicago region, are: the
Arbor Vitae or White Cedar, which prefers wet places and has short,
pointed leaves growing in flat sprays; the Trailing Juniper, found in
dense carpets on the Waukegan dunes; the Common Juniper, growing
as prickly mats on sandy barrens; and the American Yew on limestone
cliffs at the Starved Rock, White Pines, and Apple River Canyon state
Have a merry Christmas!
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Update: June 2012