Red pine and white pine are two species of pine tree that commonly grow together in eastern North America.
So if you live in a place that has both red and white pines, you may have wondered how to tell these two species apart.
The differences between red and white pines are subtle, but quite obvious once you know what to look for. Learning these two trees will also lay a solid foundation to confidently identify other types of pines too.
Watch this video for all the details, and read on for photo examples comparing red and white pine needles, cones, bark & more.
If you’re unsure about identification of pine trees vs spruce/fir/hemlock/etc, I’d recommend starting with my other article on coniferous tree identification.
1. Count The Needles
If you look carefully at the needles on a pine tree, you’ll notice their needles grow in long clusters coming off the branches.
A major key for pine tree identification is that different types of pines have different numbers of needles in each cluster. 2, 3 & 4 needled pines are all quite common.
White Pine Needles
White pine can be identified by counting 5 needles in each cluster on their branches. It is the only pine with this number, so if you count 5 needles it means that tree is a white pine.
In most cases you will only find this pattern in eastern north america, but some white pines may have been exported to other parts of the world for landscaping in human managed locations.
Red Pine Needles
Red pine only has 2 needles, compared to the white pine’s 5, which makes telling these species apart very easy by the needles.
Of course, this method only works if you can reach the needles, so it’s important to know the other ways to identify white and red pine too.
It’s also important to realize there are other species of pine trees with 2 needles such as:
- Austrian Pine
- Jack Pine
- Scots Pine
Luckily, red pine has lots of other great ID clues that can be used alongside counting needles.
2. Big Cones VS Little Cones
The cones of white pine are much longer and overall larger than red pine, which grow much smaller and rounder.
In spring look for cones in the trees starting to form. They’ll start off small and green, but once they reach their full sizes can help you identify the pine species.
Pine cones will gradually ripen into a more obvious brown color through the summer, but often get clipped down by squirrels storing green cones for food before they get a chance to ripen.
In autumn & winter look for brown cones on the forest floor. This is a great way to get a general sense of which pines may be growing in your area.
Just be careful when depending on cones for identification after they’ve fallen off the trees. Many locations have mixed stands of red pine and white pine growing close together.
Between wind, severe storms and squirrels moving cones around, it’s impossible to say which tree the cone came from unless it’s still hanging on the tree.
3. Red Bark VS Dark & Furrowed
The bark of red pine has a subtle yet distinctive red color that can be seen in the youngest saplings all the way up to old growth.
This red appearance changes somewhat throughout the life of the tree, but can be easily seen with just a bit of sensory practice comparing different ages of trees.
Young red pine bark is also quite flaky in addition to the red color. This flakiness is very distinct and unique to red pines.
As red pines get older, the flaky texture remains to a lesser degree, but the most obvious characteristic is the reddish color of the bark.
White Pine Bark
White pine bark has a smooth greenish color when it’s young, and becomes much darker gray with deep vertical furrows as it gets older.
Older white pines have bark that is dark gray & deeply furrowed. The lack of red coloring in the bark makes it very easy to tell old white pines from red pines.
4. Compare The Silhouettes
My favorite way to identify red pine from white pine is to compare the crowns of the trees for overall growth characteristics that can often be seen from hundreds of yards away.
At first these differences may seem too subtle to depend on, but if you practice looking and comparing tree silhouettes, the difference will become distinctly obvious.
The ideal scenario is to find a location where you can see both red pine and white pine together.
- Use the needles, cones and bark to positively identify these trees up close.
- Then move back and compare the general growth characteristics from further away.
Notice the canopy of this red pine has much more light penetrating than the white pine. It seems to leave a polkadot pattern on the blue sky.
- Start underneath and compare.
- Then move back 20, 50, 100 feet and repeat.
White Pine Silhouette
White pine has very distinctive arm branches reaching out to the horizon.
Red Pine Silhouette
This is in contrast to the red pine’s tendency towards a much more rounded canopy shape with branches reaching up like a fuzzy ball.
Eventually, looking for silhouettes will make it possible to identify white pine and red pine trees at long distances and with very brief assessments (less than a second or 2).
Even from hundreds of yards away we can easily identify these 3 white pines by the long outstretched arm-like branches.
Pine trees are a mast food tree so if you want to connect deeper with pines, I highly recommend investigating their masting cycles to better understand the role pines play in your local ecosystem.
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