Native Pine Trees in Illinois


Champaign, Ill. (WCIA)

We’re talking native pine trees today with Ryan Pankau, Horticulture Educator.

In Illinois forests, winter is time of little foliage since most of our native species are deciduous.   However, there a few native conifers that inhabit our state, many of which are evergreen, providing a much needed dose of green during winter.  Although some of these species are quite rare in nature, several appear in the landscape more often than you many know.

Illinois has a total of 8 native conifers although several among their ranks are extremely rare and confined to the far northern or southern portions of the state.  Native conifers to Illinois include eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), white pine (Pinus strobus), bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), jack pine (Pinus banksiana), tamarack (Larix laricina), red pine (Pinus resinosa) and shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata). 

Interestingly, both tamarack and bald cypress are deciduous conifers, meaning they lose their needles each fall.  Although bot species provide great beauty in a forested setting, they don’t stand out in the wintertime like their evergreen counterparts.

Based on my experience, the list herein is in my estimated order of relative abundance within natural areas of Illinois.  Among the rare species later in the list, I am less familiar with the distribution of the more northern species and may have a few somewhat out of order.  However, it is safe to say that tamarack, northern white cedar, jack pine, red pine and shortleaf pine are all very rare in natural areas, with all but white cedar listed as threatened or endangered in Illinois. 

In addition, tamarack, jack pine, red pine and shortleaf pine are all very rare, even nonexistent, in cultivation making their numbers within the state extremely limited. Northern white cedar is in the genus Thuja which we often refer to collectively as arborvitae.  It is the only arborvitae native to Illinois and there are many cultivars of this species, with Morton Arboretum listing a total of 53 among their collection alone.  Therefore, numbers of Northern white cedar are somewhat skewed in Illinois when you consider plants in cultivation and possibly cultivars in the count.  Tamarack, or larch, also has many a good number of cultivars, often with other non-native species, making it somewhat more common in cultivation as well.

Both white pine and bald cypress are quite common in cultivation as poplar urban trees throughout the state.  They are the most abundant native conifer species in cultivation that have not been extensively bred to produce

With its evergreen needles, white pine makes an excellent visual buffer or screen as well as a wonderful shade tree at maturity. It does well in well drained soils and full sun, but does tolerate less than optimal conditions.  On the down side, it has a very low tolerance for salt spray from roadways in winter and a propensity for girdling roots if planted too deep.  In rural areas, its young shoots are like candy to browsing deer making protection a must. However, once established on a good site this tree is really hard to beat making it one of my most recommended evergreens to plant in Illinois.

Bald cypress is one of my favorite urban trees, often planted as a specimen or massing.  It tolerates harsh urban conditions and puts on a beautiful, rusty-orange fall display each year.  The novelty of a deciduous conifer is a major draw for most folks and when combined with its adaptability and relatively fast growth rate, it’s a sure bet for most sites.

Eastern red cedar is the most abundant conifer in our state, likely occurring in every county.  It is a pioneer species meaning it invades disturbed or unmowed areas quite regularly, occurring naturally in a variety of locations on the landscape.  By nature, pioneer spices tolerate very tough conditions making it quite adaptable to a variety of site condition and uses in the landscape.  This evergreen is the only conifer native to central Illinois and I think it is quite under planted.  From an ornamental standpoint, it can sometimes be less symmetrical in form than a typical conifer but, in my opinion, its sometimes spreading or open habit is some of its allure.  It has beautiful blueish-green berry-like fruits (which are actually modified cones) that provide additional winter beauty and attract birds.

If your goal in 2020 is to plant an Illinois native conifer, consider white pine, bald cypress or eastern red cedar as they all make wonderful landscape trees.  However, keep in mind that the only truly native to our area is the much under planted eastern red cedar.

With attractive and abundant blue-green fruits the often under planted eastern red cedar is a wonderful landscape tree with unique form and adaptability to a wide range of site conditions.

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