Fragrant pine needles are modified leaves.
Unlike the soft, flat leaves of broadleaved plants, many evergreens have evolved an entirely different sort of leaf, the needle.
Most plants with needles need very little water, which means they are called xerophytes. These plants also tend to grow at higher elevations. Each tree produces millions of needles over the course of its life. The physiological characteristics of needles are an adaptation that allow evergreens to thrive where other plants would perish.
Benefits of needles
Conifer needles have many characteristics that allow them to hang on to the water absorbed by the roots:
The dark green color of most needles also aids in collecting the sun’s energy.
Anatomy of a needle
Even though needles look very different from classical leaves, they still have many of the same structures and functions. For example, needles perform photosynthesis. The stomata, used in gas exchanges and moisture level control, are arranged in lines, down the length of the needle, or in small patches.
Needles often grow in clusters, called fascicles. There are also single needle fascicles. The number of needles found in a single facile can help you identify the species. At the base of needles, you will see a sheath, called the fascicle sheath. This sheath can be persistent, as in hard pines, or deciduous, as with soft pines.
Most needle-bearing trees are evergreen, though there are a few deciduous species. Just as the leaves of deciduous trees change colors and fall in autumn, the needles of many evergreens also change color and fall, it’s just not as obvious. This is a natural occurrence, much like citrus June drop. Most evergreens hold onto their needles for 2 or 3 years. Discarded needles are usually those found closer to the trunk. If needles are lost elsewhere on the tree, or if needles are discolored, it can indicate fungal disease.
Needle pests and diseases
Pine wilt can also cause discolored needles. Pine wilt is caused by pinewood nematodes, which attack the vascular tissue. Pinewood nematodes move from tree to tree by catching a ride on pine sawyer beetles, in a behavior called phoresy.
Pine needles are a favorite food of some moth and butterfly species, as well as the pine sawfly. Goats will eat pine needles, too, but you wouldn’t want to drink the milk they produce after that snack. It’s nasty.
Acidic pine needles
There is a popular misconception that pine needles can be used to acidify soil. While it is true that fresh pine needles are slightly acidic, and a thick layer of needles on the ground can interfere with the growth of competing hardwoods, the dried needles, often called pine straw, are not acidic. While they will improve soil structure by adding organic material as they decompose, pine needles will not, I’m sorry to say, acidify your soil.
Pine needles can be steeped in boiling water for a refreshing tea that is high in vitamins A and C. Pine needles have long been used to make baskets, trays, and other crafts. Here is a pine needle basket made by my grandmother.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!