Why Do Pines Have Needles?

Pine Needles

By Sarah Wilson, MA, Healthy Planet Staff Writer

Needles provide major advantages to tough trees in tough conditions. Needles are leaves, just different-looking leaves the way a dachshund is a dog, just a different-looking dog.

What are some advantages that needles offer?

A Waxy Coating
Just as heavy skin cream helps keep our skin moist, the waxy coating on the needles helps prevent drying out in drought or windy situations.

Year-Round Energy Production
Most conifers hold their needles year round, earning them their common nickname: evergreen. Such trees can create energy through photosynthesis long after deciduous trees have dropped their leaves and well before those same trees leaf out in the spring. In harsh environments, such as high altitudes where there are short growing seasons, this gives them a distinct advantage and is one of the many reasons our highest slopes are ruled by conifers.

Winter Safe
That waxy covering over a needle-like shape means snow and ice quickly slip off, protecting the tree from breakage. I once was in the woods during an early fall snowfall. All night we were woken up by the loud breaking of the still-leafed tree branches shattering under the load. Not the pines; their branches simply drooped allowing the snow to fall away harmlessly.

Delayed Replacement “Cost”
There is a lightbulb in California which has been on since 1901. Think of the money such long-lasting bulbs would save you! That’s true for trees as well. When a pine doesn’t have to grow new needles yearly, it is saving resources. Pines are basically the tortoise to the deciduous trees’ hare. Sure, flat-leafed trees may grow faster but pines can tough it out longer.

As anyone with a pine in their yard knows, pines do drop needles; just not all at once and not yearly. Most evergreens hold their treasures for at least a couple of years and some for as long as a decade!

Nasty Taste
Pines defend themselves with a strong smelling and bad tasting resin. Each needle has resin ducts which help make their needles less appealing to most things that might otherwise eat them. When a tree is trying not to invest resources in replacing their needles, keeping those needles from being eaten is key.

These are just some of the reasons that pines quite sensibly have needles.

Nature is amazing.