Common Trees of New Hampshire and the North Woods

About a year ago, I started a paper, which attempts to describe all the trees found in New Hampshire, my home state.  I started this project as a school project, where I would just observe trees and their habitats and write what I saw, but it quickly morphed into an informal research paper focused on silvics and commercial uses of the described species.  I have enjoyed the writing, and now wish to share my work with some other people, which is why I have decided to post one tree a week onto this blog site. 

While reading, keep a few things in mind.  Firstly, I am not a professional forester.  I have been working on this as a high school life-sciences project so there are bound to be some places where my information is incomplete.  If you have anything to add, or notice a mistake in my writing, please comment; I, and likely anyone else who reads this, would greatly appreciate the added knowledge.  Secondly, I have neglected in-text citations, but links to my research can always be found by scrolling to the end of the post.  The silvics information for this paper comes almost exclusively from the United States Silvics Manual (available online at this link:, which I have used as a starting point for further research, generally including information on commercial uses, ecological or social benefits, and sometimes pests.  Thirdly, while some posts do include information on how to identify the species in question, I eventually considered this information redundant since it is available in many places online, and I was already linking to a YouTube series put out by SUNY-ESF professor, Don Leopold, which is the best free introductory tree I.D. course I have found.  There are also several archived webinars on the ForestConnect channel that are worth looking at, if you want to know how to identify common Northeastern trees.  Finally, I have titled this series Common Trees of New Hampshire and the North Woods because that is where I live and can observe trees most commonly.  However, I haven’t specifically limited this project to a certain geographical area.  I am a Florida boy by birth, so I may include some trees from the South, just for fun, and if any of you have a specific tree you would like to see on this series, please use the comments, and I will make it my next project.

I hope you enjoy reading,

Ely McLaughlin

Sugar Maple

  • Sample Location: An operating sugarbush on Three-Mile Hill (NH-18) just north of Franconia Notch State Park
  • Scientific Name: Acer saccharum
  • Type: Deciduous tree


Sugar maple is one of the most iconic trees of the Northeast, though it also grows extensively in the Midwest and is present in lesser quantities in the southern Appalachians and, at low elevations, as far south as central Tennessee.  It is nearly identical to the black maple (Acer nigrum) found throughout the Midwest and in parts of New York State, and is quite similar to the Florida maple (Acer barbatum) found in parts of the South.  Identifying sugar maple is quite easy, even when one takes into account the several other maple species that grow within its range.  The most distinctive features of the tree are its leaves, which are the five-lobed shape so often associated with the genus, Acer.  The leaves also are non-serrate around the edges, but can still be confused with red maple when the trees are young.  When in doubt, look for the veins that start at the base of the leaf.  Red maple should only have three, while sugar maple will always have five veins, even if the first and fifth lobes are poorly developed.  When leaves are absent, sugar maple can be identified by its bark, which breaks into long plates that peel from the sides, and by its buds which are long and pointed and have an orange color.  While identifying trees by bark is more difficult than leaves, it is also more accurate and, of course, is the only way to identify a tree when it is shipped to you in log form.

Sugar maple is almost exclusively a cold-climate tree and can grow in areas with an average annual temperature as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit.  It also requires abundant moisture, especially as you reach the southern end of its range, which is why it reaches its highest potential for commercial growth in the mixed hardwood forests of the Northeast, roughly from central Pennsylvania to central Maine, where precipitation averages about 50 inches a year.  Despite its general requirements for the cool, moist environment of the temperate forest, sugar maple is adept at handling extremes in temperature.  It has been known to survive temperatures as low as -40 degrees and as high as 100 degrees, but, depending on individual tree and site conditions, may be able to handle temperatures twenty degrees beyond either side of this range.  In New Hampshire, at the northeastern edge of its commercial range, sugar maple is typically found below 2,500 feet and is a major component of forests in the northern half of the state, typically found with American beech and yellow birch, as well as scattered specimens of other hardwoods depending on site.  The soils preferred by sugar maple range from sand to silt-loam with a pH of 3.5-7.3 (pH lowered over time by leaf accumulation), but are all moist and well-drained.  It generally does not do well on exceptionally dry soils, where pines and oaks tend to dominate, and is seldom if ever found in swamps, unlike its relative the red maple (also known as “swamp maple” in parts of the South).

Sugar maple seeds are winged and can be blown as far as 330 feet from the parent tree before landing.  They prefer temperatures of 34 degrees Fahrenheit (the lowest of any known forest species) to germinate, and can actually be killed by early thaws.  Once seeds germinate, they are very tolerant of shade, only being matched among hardwoods by the competing American beech tree, and exceeded by a few understory trees such as striped maple.  Sugar maple grows best as seedlings with 65% full sunlight, but can tolerate a shade range of 30-90% of full sun.  It copes with the low levels of light by largely limiting its growth to the spring, when the overstory trees are still bare of leaves.  In seedlings, as much as 90% of annual growth occurs during the first 18-24 days of the growing season (early to mid-May in the White Mountains), and sapling and pole trees are largely finished growing during the first five weeks of the growing season.  Sugar maple is a very slow growing tree, only averaging one inch of diameter growth per decade once it has reached sawlog size (>10 inches).  In younger trees, growth is quicker, but a 6 inch tree will still probably be over eighteen years old (according to a formula in page 3 of this document:  Because of the slow growth of sugar maple, an individual tree is likely to experience numerous disturbances throughout its life.  In a managed stand, logging is a common one, and equipment used to remove crop trees can easily break young seedlings that will provide the “advance regeneration” for the next forest.  In the case of sugar maple, seedlings will readily sprout back from the stump and quickly regain their original size.  Even larger trees will occasionally sprout, usually producing multiple shoots per stump, but it becomes less and less common as the tree gets older.  The maximum age of sugar maple is well over 350 years, and there are examples of trees that are suspected to be over 500 years old.  The largest sugar maple in New Hampshire is located next to a farmhouse in the Seacoast Region town of Exeter and is 102 feet tall with a crown diameter of 19 feet and is suspected to be 238 years old (having been planted in 1780).

Part of the amazing longevity of these trees is caused by their hardiness against insects and fungal diseases.  Very few natural pests will kill sugar maple, though several insects and fungal diseases can lower the timber value of individual trees.  Logging scars can provide entry points for several fungi causing root rot and similar ailments.  There are certain insects that will overwinter in, or eat, the buds of sugar maple, which can cause forking of the stem, thus decreasing the usable timber.  Forking and epicormic branching (branches sprouting from the trunk) are also possible if the tree is grown in the open or in an understocked stand.  This is prevented by managing dense stands, and only thinning when the trees are well established.  In northern hardwood stands, sugar maple shoots are preferred by deer over beech, thus leading to a regenerating forest transitioning to beech-dominant instead of the preferred maple overstory.  Another threat to sugar maple is road salt which is used extensively throughout its range and has been linked to tree dieback along paved roadways.

It is important to manage these threats, though, because sugar maple is one of our most valuable trees, with a mature stand often producing over 14,000 board-feet of timber per acre.  Trees larger than twelve inches in diameter are tapped to produce maple syrup.  All maple trees can be tapped, but sugar maple has by far the highest sugar content, as well as a late bud-break in the spring, and may produce over a quart of syrup per tap-per season.  Larger trees can take more taps, so an ancient sugar maple may be able to produce up to a gallon of syrup per year.  In addition to syrup, sugar maple can be used as a pulpwood, but is almost always allowed to grow to sawlog size.  The wood from sugar maple, known as hard or rock maple in the lumber industry, is one of the most valuable products of the northern forest.  It is exceptionally hard, strong, and has an aesthetically pleasing grain pattern which is highly varied depending on the tree, with rare grain patterns such as curly being highly sought after by woodworkers.  End uses for hard maple include anything that requires a strong, durable wood such as furniture, bowling pins, bowling alleys, butcher-blocks, pool cues, and even bows.  Recently, I heard a story from a landowner and sugarbush operator, who said that maple has even been used in baseball bats because of its great strength, but has never gained widespread favor for this purpose since it creates many splinters when it does break.  Interestingly enough, he also said that the 200 trees that border his field (mostly small-diameter) can produce 75-100 gallons of syrup per year.  This higher yield is caused by the topography of his land, which is a moderate south-facing slope.  The added sunlight caused by growing next to a south-facing field allows the sap to run more in the spring, and more sugar to be created through the leaves in the summer, than in a typical forest.  Sugar maple is also considered a “tone wood” which means that it is well suited for use in musical instruments such as drums, violins, and even the neck of the famed Fender Telecaster, the first production electric guitar and a staple in rock and country music bands for over half a century; it has been used by artists as influential as Pink Floyd and Waylon Jennings.  Finally, syrup is not the only food product to be derived from sugar maple.  It is a popular wood for smoking foods, most often pork products such as ham and bacon, and is used in the production of Tennessee whiskey, where charcoal made from sugar maple is used to filter the finished product before it is aged.  Identification of sugar maple  Identification of the similar black maple  Article on New Hampshire’s oldest sugar maple  Playlist of several hours worth of webinars relating to maple syrup production (start with the Maple Syrup Production fort the Beginner series). Wikipedia article on maple (see the uses section)


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Comment by Ely McLaughlin on March 31, 2019 at 9:41am

Balsam Fir

Image by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service,, Retrieved from:

  • Sample Location: Middle and upper elevations of Cannon Mountain, Franconia, NH.  Very common understory tree in northern NH white pine stands.
  • Scientific Name: Abies balsamea

Balsam fir is the only member of the genus Abies (fir) to grow in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, and one of only two to grow east of the Mississippi River (the other being Fraser fir which is found in the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee).  It is a reasonably small tree, typically only growing to between 40-60 feet tall with a d.b.h. of 12-18 inches.  The most distinctive feature of balsam fir, and the firs in general, is its “Christmas tree” shape which consists of a very symmetrical cone-shaped crown that reaches most of the way to the ground, especially on young trees.  This trait is shared to one degree or another by the spruces and hemlocks so it is necessary to inspect the bark and needles to correctly identify this tree.  The bark is very smooth and grey, broken only by the characteristic large and breakable blisters, which contain resin known as Canada balsam.  This resin is commonly used as a cement to attach specimens to microscope slides.  Most of the time, the needles are arranged symmetrically on either side of the twigs, but can occasionally be spirally arranged, covering the entire twig.  The easiest way to identify balsam fir, aside from its bark, is to look for the two parallel white stripes on the underside of the needle.

               Balsam fir is found in a number of sites, but requires cool moist environments.  Optimum growth is attained in areas that have a mean annual temperature of 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit with precipitation of 30-43 inches.  Conditions suitable for balsam fir are commonly found above 2000 feet in the mountains of New England and it will reach tree size as high as 4000 feet.  Above this elevation, the tree is typically only found in dwarf “krummholz” form, but will exist in this form as high as the summit-cone of Mount Washington (over 5,600 feet) in sheltered locations.  On some fir-covered mountains one can observe a rare phenomenon known as a fir wave.  When wind blows across an exposed slope, the upwind trees will quickly die of exposure when they reach maturity (typically between 60-70 years in these conditions).  When one tree falls, it creates an opening that exposes its downwind neighbor to the elements, and the cycle can repeat itself across an entire landscape, leaving long stripes of dead trees on the mountainside.  Because of the rather extreme weather conditions required, fir waves are only found in a handful of places across the world.  They can be found on the higher peaks of Maine, notable Mount Katahdin, on somewhere around 11 sites in the White Mountains, several mountains in the Adirondacks, and finally, in the Japanese Alps, where they were first studied.

               At lower elevations, balsam fir’s requirement for moist soil is much more critical, meaning that it rapidly becomes relegated to swamp and bottomland as you reach the southern edge of its range.  That being said, most areas of Coos County and northern Vermont are suitable habitat for balsam fir.  Notable roadside stands include the swampland along US-3 in Bethlehem, NH-116 in Whitefield, the upper and middle elevations of the Kancamagus Pass, where there are a number of fir waves, and a managed Christmas tree farm on US-3 in Columbia.

Because of its high susceptibility to diseases and animal attack, notably the spruce budworm, silviculturists should be cautious about managing for balsam fir; however, it is a highly shade tolerant species, nearly as much as sugar maple, and will grow in a mixed hardwood stand, providing a financial diversification of species, habitat for game birds such as spruce grouse, and possibly a quick payout because of its short lifespan.  Uses for balsam fir include lumber, where it is used as framing for light construction projects and fetches a comparable price to eastern white pine ($100-$175 / MBF).  It is also a desirable species for pulpwood and, along with red and black spruce, was largely responsible for supporting the northern New England paper industry through the 19th and 20th centuries.  Finally, balsam fir is one of the most popular Christmas trees in the United States and is grown extensively, both within and outside its native range, for this purpose.

For more information visit:  Tree identification  Uses of balsam fir  USFS Silvics Manual page for balsam fir  Article on fir waves


Comment by Ely McLaughlin on April 23, 2019 at 1:12pm

Eastern Red Cedar

Image by Jason Sharman, Vitalitree,, Retrieved from:

  • Sample Location: North Monroe Cemetery, Monroe, NH
  • Scientific Name: Juniperus Virginiana.

Eastern red cedar is a member of the juniper genus, a group of trees most often associated with the Mediterranean area of Europe and the Desert Southwest of the United States.  This particular species of juniper is widespread throughout the eastern United States, from southern Maine to north Florida, and then west to the start of the prairies.  It is a reasonably easy tree to identify because of its scale-shaped leaves, light stringy bark (similar to the bald cypress to which it is related), and finally, the small blue berries, which ripen in August, in New England.  Sometimes the bark can take on a slight reddish tint and because of that, and its red sapwood, it is not difficult to see how this tree got its common name.  Red cedar is typically a small tree, only growing up to 50 feet tall, and is incredibly intolerant of competition.  Because of this, as well as its need for a reasonably acidic soil, it is not particularly common in the wild forests of the Northeast where it will rapidly be out-competed by pines or hardwoods.  In portions of the South, however, it is the only type of tree that will grow on shallow limestone soil and forms forests known as cedar glades. 

The uses of eastern red cedar are highly varied, despite its small size and slow growth rate.  It is a popular tree for fence posts due to its high rot-resistance and is commonly used to make cedar chests for storing clothing because of its smell, which, while reasonably pleasant to humans, is considered quite noxious by moths.  Certain Indian tribes used the berries and leaves to relieve various respiratory disorders, including asthma.  Finally, The boughs were also sometimes used as temporary roofing.  It may also be the reason for the naming of the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  When the French explorer Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville made his trip up the Mississippi River in 1699, he saw a red pole which marked the boundary between two tribal hunting grounds.  He called this part of the river “le bâton rouge,” or in English, “the red stick.”  Because of red cedar’s rot resistance it would have made a perfect monument of this sort. 




Comment by Ely McLaughlin on May 27, 2019 at 2:04pm

Image by Ely McLaughlin

  • Sample Location: An impressive stand is located on NH-132 on either side of the New Hampton/Meredith town-line
  • Scientific Name: Tsuga canadensis


Eastern hemlock could easily be considered the redwood of the East.  Similar to these giants of the Pacific coast, eastern hemlock requires abundant moisture and a cool environment (it reaches its greatest size in the fog shrouded slopes of the Smoky Mountains), can tower over nearby trees, and will live for staggering lengths of time, it requires 250-300 years simply to mature and will live for upwards of 800 (exceptionally nearly 1000) years.  Eastern hemlock can be found from the Canadian Maritimes in the east, west through New England and southern Quebec, to the southern shore of Lake Superior, and then south along the Appalachian Mountains to north Georgia, with scattered populations occurring in northwestern Alabama, Indiana, and northern Minnesota.  It is a tall, large-girthed evergreen tree, which is easy to identify because of its short dark green needles that grow opposite from each other on the twigs, its small chestnut-colored cones, and its deeply-furrowed red bark. 

Eastern hemlock is the most shade-tolerant species of any tree in the eastern forests and can survive for decades (or centuries) with as little as 5% of full sunlight, though growth will be extremely slow in this environment; some trees even will stop growing all together if there is not enough light.  Though tolerant of shade, hemlock is not at all tolerant of drought and, in the Northeast, will typically grow in river valleys or near large bodies of water at elevations ranging from sea level to 2,400 feet, where the environment is kept cool and moist year round.  In the southern portions of its range, hemlock will grow in shaded valleys and north or east facing slopes at elevations ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 feet.  This is where the largest hemlocks have been found, with the records for diameter and height being held by two separate trees in the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina.  These trees measured over six feet in diameter and 173 feet tall, respectively.

Hemlocks will regularly measure more than 100 feet in height and are often found growing in pure stands.  Examples of these stands include the side of Fox Hill, the east side of Meadow Brook below Bridesmaid Falls, and the banks of the Gale River (all located in Franconia, New Hampshire), a managed stand on the north side of Mount Stanton in Bartlett, and around Pothole Falls on Bartlett Brook, also in Bartlett.  Hemlocks can form the densest stands, in terms of board-foot volume, of any forest type in the Northeast, sometimes reaching as much as 40,000 board-feet per acre, or nearly ten times the amount found in a typical hardwood stand, though the number of cull trees for timber can increase as the forest ages.  Because of the density of spacing, and individual tree crowns, very little light reaches the forest floor in a pure stand of hemlock, thus leading to a forest practically devoid of understory and a noticeably cooler microclimate than surrounding areas. 

When not found in pure stands, hemlock can be found along with white pine and the northern hardwoods.  It is most often associated with yellow birch, which requires precisely the same temperatures for seed germination (44-64 degrees).  Hemlock requires this temperature range for between 45 and 60 days for germination which means, when coupled with a number of other threats to seeds, only one out of every four seeds will become a seedling.  It is often seen growing on boulders and rotting logs, which retain heat for longer, but, if conditions are favorable, prefers course-textured soils of varying depths.  Unlike most trees, hemlock seedlings will not even survive if exposed to direct sunlight because of the ensuing moisture loss, but grow very slowly early in life.  A 1-inch d.b.h. tree can sometimes be 100 years old.  Once trees are 3-5 feet high, they respond well to release and may grow as much as 2.5 inches in diameter per decade.  Typically, a 100-year-old tree will measure about 13 inches d.b.h.

To regenerate a mature stand, it is important to scarify the soil or perform a prescribed burn in order to provide an adequate seedbed and remove competing hardwood seedlings.  Adult trees are resistant to small fires, but already established seedlings and saplings may be killed.  When managing for hemlock in a mixed hardwood stand, you should keep the stocking density proportional to the amount of hemlock present; the more hemlock, the denser the stand.  This serves to gradually remove the less shade-tolerant species that would otherwise compete for resources.  If hemlock makes up less than 15% of the composition of the forest, then you should focus on managing for the competing species.

Because of its slow growth and low-strength, rot-prone lumber, eastern hemlock is rarely managed for commercial timber production.  It is a decent pulpwood, but removing a 500-year-old tree and converting it to tissues would be a moral travesty, not to mention an exceptionally poor business decision if the investor had to wait this long for dividends.  Instead, hemlock is mostly kept for its aesthetic and wildlife importance (various animals shelter in hemlock forests and fish require the dense shade to keep rivers cool).  This wasn’t always the case, however.  Because of the tannins in its bark, hemlock was used in the leather industry for tanning hides.  This was especially common in the old-growth forests of southern New England and the Catskills, where it was largely responsible for the settlement of these mountainous and infertile regions.

Eastern hemlock has few naturally-occurring lethal pests.  Insects and molds will attack the seeds, seedlings will occasionally be browsed by animals, lightning will kill individual trees, and lightly stocked stands are subject to wind-throw because of this trees shallow root system, but these hazards are largely unimportant in forest management.  However, eastern hemlock is currently threatened by a small insect known as the hemlock woolly adelgid.  This insect feeds on the sap in the twigs and causes the tree to try and isolate the threat by shutting of sap-flow to the infested areas, eventually causing the needles on that twig to fall off.  As more of a tree is infested, it begins to starve itself and can be killed in as little as four to ten years.  This insect, a native of Asia, has no native predators and has spread from its original point-of-entry near Richmond, Virginia, throughout nearly half of hemlock’s native range.  It is already responsible for killing most of the giant hemlocks in the Smoky Mountains and has been found from Georgia to Maine.  In New Hampshire, it is currently found throughout the southern third of the state, in every county except for Coos.  The state originally responded by placing a quarantine on all hemlock logs in an infested town, but eliminated this quarantine on March 18, 2018 because of the insect’s habit of using birds and other animals for transport between trees.  Currently, there are a number of research projects that aim to curtail the spread of HWA, some of which appear to have promise, and cold temperatures have slowed the spread of this pathogen into the northernmost reaches of New England.  Tree identification  History of leather tanning in the Catskills  Article on large hemlocks in North Carolina  23-minute documentary on hemlock woolly adelgid  Silvics Manual


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