Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Native Evergreens
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 fort..

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 ship.

Four 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 parks.

Have a merry Christmas!

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