Conifer Confusion: An Identification Guide for Pine, Spruce, and Fir Trees

One of my earliest memories involves planting a spruce tree.

Can you differentiate a pine from a spruce? Our handy guide can help: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/identifying-conifers/
A young pine (not a spruce!). Photo by Matt Suwak.

We grew up in a very rural part of Pennsylvania, so when I say that my dad and I drove his pickup truck into the woods, I literally mean we drove his pickup truck into the woods.

He was on the search for a tree to plant in the front yard, and after a bit of hunting he found the one he wanted. Carefully digging it up from the ground, he placed it in the bed of the truck.

Excited me looked through the rear window at that tree, and I said, “Cool pine tree!”

My dad kept his eyes on… well, not on the road. I guess on the field… and he said to me, “That’s not a pine tree. It’s a spruce.”

From that point on, I became enthralled with identifying trees and plants – especially with noting the differences between pine, spruce, and fir trees.

Can you tell the difference between a yew (like the one pictured) and other types of evergreen? Explore our guide: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/identifying-conifers/
A yew. Photo by Matt Suwak.

The secret to becoming the equivalent of a human dichotomous key for conifer identification isn’t much of a secret. Like almost everything else in life, learning the difference between pine, spruce, and fir requires an investment of time and energy.

Luckily, this is one of the fastest lessons you can learn, and it pays back in surplus.

In this article you can expect to see some pictures paired with descriptions and an organized approach examining the nuggets of information. You’ll learn the steps to conifer identification in order of most to least helpful. Lastly, there will be a brief look at other conifers that are not pine, spruce, or fir.

Now, let’s get to it.

The First Step: Let’s Narrow It Down to the Needles

Without doubt, the most important information to identify whether a tree is pine, spruce, or fir is observed in the needles. This is the most helpful and beneficial tool to add to your repertoire, and that’s why it’s first!

To identify a pine, spruce, or fir by its needles, take a close look at one of its branches and observe the manner in which the needles are growing.

Pine

These needles are especially unique among this trio of trees.

Closeup detail of pine needles. | GardenersPath.com
Photo by Matt Suwak.
  • Always grow in clusters from a single origin point on a branch.
  • Are often sensually soft and tend to grow to greater lengths than other conifers.
  • Always grow in clusters of 2 (red pines), 3 (yellow pines), or 5 (white pines).
  • Can grow to be up to 16 inches long!
  • The wind blows through pine needles with a characteristic and soothingly beautiful whooshing sound.
Closeup pine needles. | GardenersPath.com
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Spruce

  • Like my favorite cocktails, these needles tend to be short and stiff.
  • Unlike the needles of a pine, these tend to grow from a single origin point and are attached to small, stalk-like woody projections.
  • Needles are often square and can easily be rolled between fingertips when removed.
Learn to compare different types of conifers with these visual clues: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/identifying-conifers/
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Fir

  • Needles are soft and flat.
  • Grow from a single point of origin like a spruce, but are attached to the branch in a manner resembling a suction cup.
  • When the needles are removed they do not leave behind a woody projection.
  • Tend to have two white stripes on the bottom of each needle.
Fir needle shape close up. | GardenersPath.com
Photo by Matt Suwak.

So, let’s say you’re stuck in the field and are trying to identify what type of tree you are looking at. The easiest way to figure that out is to observe the needles; only pine tree needles grow in clusters. At the very least, you can deduce whether a tree is pine or… something else. Not a bad start!

The Second Step: Cones and Branches Further the Study

Although less definitive for identifying these three conifers, examining the cones and branches of a tree offers more helpful hints.

Pine

  • Branches tend to be upturned, but are fewer in quantity than on a spruce or a fir.
  • Tend to grow from a single, circular area on the trunk of the tree.
  • Cones often begin developing with a green color, then turn reddish-brown or black.
  • Fully developed cones are stiff and woody, and certainly inflexible.
  • While developing, cones hang towards the ground.

Spruce

Closeup spruce needles look different from other conifers. | GardenersPath.com

  • Branches tend to grow in an upturned direction.
  • Cones tend to develop into a smooth and flexible shape, with thin scales.
  • Cones hang towards the ground.

Fir

Fir tree cones forming. | GardenersPath.com
Fir tree cones forming in an upward orientation.
  • Possess wide lower branches and develop into more of a downturned shape.
  • Cones can be purple, green, or blue, before changing to a golden brown.
  • Most notably, cones grow upwards like candle flames.
Comparing pine and spruce cones. | GardenersPath.com
Pine cone on the left, spruce cone on the right. Photo by Matt Suwak.

That last point is an easily identifiable feature of fir trees, one that’s excellent to keep in mind!

Although the branches of these three conifer trees do not possess instantly identifiable characteristics, their cones can aid more definitively in identification.

Just like a pine tree is unique in that its needles grow in clusters from a single origin point, a fir tree is unique in that its cones grow upward like candle flames.

The Third Step: Bark and Growth Habit

Here’s another piece to the puzzle: examining the bark and overall appearance of a healthy tree is an excellent addition to our identification key.

Pine

Pine, fir, spruce, hemlock, cedar, yew... suffering from conifer confusion? This article will help you to become an evergreen identification pro: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/identifying-conifers/
White pine. Photo by Matt Suwak.
  • Bark of young trees tends to be smooth, growing flaky with age.
  • Have an open and rounded canopy developing into a loose triangular pattern.
  • Have been described as “jagged lollipops.”

Spruce

Do you know the difference between a spruced pine, and a fir tree? We can help to resolve your conifer confusion, for good! Read more now or pin it for later: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/identifying-conifers/

  • Tend to develop rough and scaly bark because of woody projections that hold the needles to the tree.
  • Typically grow into a “perfect” conifer shape.
  • Ask a child to draw a Christmas tree, and they’ll give you a pretty good silhouette of a spruce!

Fir

  • Bark on young trees is usually smooth and gray, becoming furrowed with age.
  • Often develop into a tall and upright “classic” shape.
  • Shape is similar to a spruce, but with a little more room between the branches.

It’s difficult to identify these trees based on the characteristics of bark and growth habit alone, but these features can be beneficial in further identifying a tree.

Which One Do I Want in My Landscape?

A question often ignored by identification keys pertains to why a tree is, or should be, growing in a certain area. It can also lend aid towards identifying what tree you are examining, based off of the conditions and the location where it is growing.

Pine

The needles of pine are unique in comparison to other conifers. | GardenersPath.com

  • Tend to prefer well-drained soil and to receive lots of sun.
  • Like an acidic soil.
  • Fallen needles will raise the pH of the soil around the tree.
  • Needles act as a very effective mulch.
  • Tend to thrive in barren, windswept areas.
  • Irregular growth pattern lends itself to these more remote areas of a landscape.

Spruce

When I was growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a line of spruce trees designated an intentionally planted buffer against windblown snowdrifts.

Spruce windscreen | GardenersPath.com
Windscreen of spruce.
  • Prefers well-drained soil and lots of sun.
  • Can tolerate a range of soil types and climates.
  • Prefer cooler areas and more acidic soil.
  • Work exceptionally well as a windscreen.
  • Work very well as specimens in the landscape.

Fir

  • Will grow in a full sun to partial shade environment.
  • Prefer mildly acidic soil high in organic matter.
  • Develop shallow root systems.
  • Perfect plants for areas with only a thin layer of topsoil, or rocky areas.

Other Conifers

I find it wild to consider that very few of the guides I’ve examined give any attention to trees that look like they could be a pine, spruce, or fir, but are actually something else entirely. If the tree you’re identifying doesn’t fit as a pine, spruce, or fir, it is probably one of these!

Hemlock

Hemlock with new growth at the ends of branches. | GardenersPath.com

Hemlock trees have needles uniquely attached to the stem. It is similar to the stalk-like woody projections of a spruce but much finer.

Detail of hemlock needles. | GardenersPath.com
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Also, the needles of a hemlock are flattened.

Yew

More easily identified because yew tends to form small shrubs, yews could be mistaken as fir tree because of their flat needles.

How are your evergreen identification skills? We'll teach you how to pick out a yew like this one, and differentiate it from other types of evergreens. Read more now or pin it for later: https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/identifying-conifers/
Photo by Matt Suwak.

Unlike the fir, the yew needle is usually sharply pointed, with no white lines beneath it.

Cypress, Arborvitae, and Juniper

Bald cypress | GardenersPath.com
Bald cypress

Cypress and arborvitae tend to develop flat, scaled needles and have rather flexible branches. Junipers have short, spiky needles.

Arborvitae | GardenersPath.com
Arborvitae

The best way to decide if it’s a juniper is to grab a handful of foliage. If it hurts, it’s a juniper!

Cedar

Needles tend to be fern-like and have a strong scent when rolled between your fingers.

Cedar | GardenersPath.com
Blue Atlas cedar.

The needles are similar to those of pine trees, except they are much shorter.

It’s also important to keep in mind with this particular type of conifer that naming conventions for plants can be confusing. I’m still in the habit of referencing plants by their common name, but the only way to be truly accurate with the variety of plants out there is to use their Latin, or botanical, name.

All true cedars are in the family Pinaceae and are of Old World origin, in the genus Cedrus.

In the New World, early settlers discovered trees with the same properties of cedar (rot resistance and a pleasant smell) and decided that, hey, these trees must be cedars, too. However, all New World trees we commonly call “cedar” are of the family Cupressaceae, often referred to as cypress.

We’re familiar with trees like Alaskan cedar and western red cedar, but they are cedars in name only. It’s a convention we see all over the place; tulip poplars aren’t poplar trees and Douglas fir are not true firs.

True cedars have short, stiff needles, while the New World plants display characteristics more like juniper and arborvitae.

Wrapping Up

There we have it! Identifying pine, spruce, and fir trees can be a tricky business, but with a handy identification key like this at your disposal, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

Bookmark this page and visit it whenever you have a tree to identify. And take this open invitation to send us pictures of any conifers you have difficulty identifying, via the comments below. Simply click on the camera icon below the comment box and you can upload up to three photos at a time (up to 6 megabytes each). I’ll get back to you as soon as possible with an answer!


Don’t forget to Pin It!

A collage of photos showing different type of conifer trees including pine, spruce, and fir.

Photos by Matt Suwak, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

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About Matt Suwak

Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.

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Ilse O'Reilly
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Ilse O'Reilly

This was great thanks.
The best breakdown of conifer identification for the novice.
Nailed it!

Susan
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Susan

Thank you for posting. I feel less stupid now. smile

Debbie
Guest
Debbie

Just took a day-long course on conifers. A lot of material was covered. You broke the varieties down so well. Thank you.

David
Guest
David

Hi, very good article. However, it doesn’t explain a species of conifer I have seen in two places, about 7 miles apart, near Atlanta. I can’t match these features to any tree, can you help? The trees grow in clusters with small trees nearby, and are maybe 40 feet tall. Top limbs angle upwards and bottom limbs sag to ground. Tree has thin, peeling bark. Needles grow to about 2 inches, are flat and pointed on the end, and remain flat attached to the branch. They are glossy green on top and below have a green middle stripe with wide… Read more »

David
Guest
David

Oh, to add to that long comment, the cones grow downward.

Roy galley
Guest
Roy galley

Great but I still can’t figure out my one
I have pictures of a juniper I’d like identified if possible.. ? Nobody else I’ve asked has been able to identify it.

Gina
Guest
Gina

Great article, super helpful! I used to live in a home with huge redwoods, they were magnificent!

victor beaudoin
Guest
victor beaudoin

In New Hampshire we have a lot of evergreen/pine trees that grow about 10 to 12 feet tall, then they shoot out 2, 3 or 4 major trunks out of the main trunk. Is this a kind of
white pine or does it have another name?

Michael Springob
Guest
Michael Springob

I have read an article on making spruce tea. It mentions that a Yew tree closely resembles a spruce. Can you give me any tips or characteristics that can help me identify the difference? I have looked at other articles on this, but this read is the closest to helping me I have found. The article on spruce tea says the Yew needles are toxic to humans, where spruce is high in vitamin C. However, spruce needles have turpentine and should not be consumed too often for this reason. Might you have any information that would validate this at all?… Read more »

Betsy Alles
Guest
Betsy Alles

Trying to ID an old pine with long needles (2 per bunch, 6-8”), red bark and large wide gorgeous cones. I have photos but can’t attach them. I’m in Washington State on Olympic Peninsula. Thanks!

Tom Surlas
Guest
Tom Surlas

I have two trees crowding our sidewalk. They were seven to eight feet tall, twenty-four years old and began to get a dry spot in one, so I used a tree trimmer to cut two feet off the top and trim branches with hand trimmers to strip all but left stubs leaving a skeleton which is eight to ten inches around at ground level and thick with smaller roots. Do you know if it is characteristic for it to be a thick and deep trunk? I will attempt to use a come-along attached to a hook on CRV car frame… Read more »

Lindsay Holmes
Guest
Lindsay Holmes

Dear Mark, could you identify the variety of Fir tree shown in the first picture of the article – the one you and your dad dug up and transplanted to your yard? Thank you.

Janice Dougherty
Guest
Janice Dougherty

I got a post-Christmas “rescue” evergreen, something with short, dense needles (and a red bow) from a supermarket. It was very dry and looked like it had been spray painted. No label or insert. Now it seems a little fuller. I’ve watered it and kept it in my kitchen window, but I think it needs to be transplanted outside. It’s only about 9 inches tall, but hey, it’s March and the ground is not frozen (some early bulb flowers are already sending up inquiring shoots). Thanks for your directions on categories.

Ray Wilson
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Ray Wilson

Hi Matt, I would just like to thank you for a very useful guide. I’ve searched many sites but found yours by far the easiest to follow. I have just started to try and identify the many conifers that are planted at a local scout camp that used to be a hall and gardens. Just to give you some idea of the trees planted here, some of the easier ones are Monkey Puzzle, Cedar of Lebanon, and Noble Fir. But as I have said, there are many, so this may take some time. If I do get stuck, I will… Read more »

Rod
Guest
Rod

From Australia: Just moved into a 4-year-old house, great neighbourhood, a lot of magnolias (it’s called Magnolia Estate).

Think I have a pine? Tree is about 4 meters high, top of tree points skyward, lower droop. Needles are singular and round, about 1 mm dis.

Previous owner was Russian. Can you assist in identifying?

Allison Sidhu
Admin
Trusted Member
Allison Sidhu

Thanks for reaching out, Rod! Can you send us an email or visit our FB page and post some photos? What area of Australia are you located in? With a little more detail, we should be able to help you to get the bottom of this!

Editors note: please no longer email or use the FB page for identification requests. Photos now can be attached directly to these comments by select the camera icon below the message box.

Tiffanie
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Tiffanie

What kind of tree??

Mike Quinn
Admin
Member
Mike Quinn

Hi Tiffanie was there supposed to be a photo attached? There’s an icon below the message box that looks like a camera. Click on that an you can load up to three at a time.

Jeff Schreur
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Jeff Schreur

Can you tell me what kind of tree this is?

Mike Quinn
Admin
Member
Mike Quinn

Matt Suwak here’s Jeff’s photos:

What kind of evergreen tree.jpg
Unkown evergreen tree.jpg
Dara Davis
Guest
Dara Davis

I’m no longer with the tree that I’m hoping to identify but have a few pictures. Am I right to guess this is some variety of fir tree, since the young cones are growing upwards like candle flames?

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Kathy Caine
Guest
Kathy Caine

Hey there, very helpful except I am dealing with seedlings. Some relatives visited us in the San Francisco Bay Area and left pine cones on our patio. They opened and seeds popped out and we tossed them in a large 18″ wide circular pot with who knows what kind of soil. A couple years later we have 50 plus seedlings that need to be thinned and repotted but we don’t really know what soil, etc. because we can’t find seedlings that look similiar online. They are soft and very blue and about 12″ to 18″ tall now. Single stalk. Any… Read more »

Kathy Caine
Guest
Kathy Caine

I think my picture was too large, trying again!

seedlings.jpg
Marsha
Guest
Marsha

Matt your article was very informative. My question is we just had a 40 yr old maple tree taken down as its roots were damaging our house. They planted it in the middle of our front yard. My question is, is there an evergreen tree or shrub we could plant in its place that will provide some privacy but not turn into a giant? My husband doesn’t want a tree, but wants an easy landscape to work with. I can’t get used to no tree looking out our bedroom window. Could there be an evergreen shrub we could plant instead?

Dave
Guest
Dave

Hi Matt
I’ve been struggling to identify this pine with clusters of 5 needles. Perhaps you can help me. This is in BC, Canada

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ColbyCat
Guest
ColbyCat

So I bought a house with this tree in the front. It was small-ish then (maybe 6′ tall, putting up Christmas lights was fairly easy) but in just 2 years it takes two strings of lights and I have to throw them to reach the top. can you tell what it is and do you know how it could be trimmed without hurting it? It’s fixing to invade my parking space, help!

ColbyCat
Guest
ColbyCat

Oops! Here’s the picture

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Paul
Guest
Paul

We are trying to figure out what kind of evergreen. It has been here at least five years and is about 7 feet tall. It’s only gotten slightly bigger in the last five years

Paul
Guest
Paul

Can’t seem to post photos of 7’ evergreen

906C38A8-1A42-48F6-A67F-2017B822EC54.jpeg
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CASSANDRA BEANE
Guest
CASSANDRA BEANE

This was awesome! Now being %100 sure I have a spruce in my front yard, I can figure out what type of one. Happy

Kathleen R Sayer
Guest
Kathleen R Sayer

Hi Matt:
Are the attached photos good enough for you to tell me what I have growing in my front yard? This seedling appeared about 6 – 8 months and is now (May) around 20 inches tall. I hoped it was a cedar so I could try bonsai with it (?); I noticed however it has thorns in the lower half of its “trunk.” I sincerely appreciate your rapid reply to my query so I can transplant it right away if it’s worth saving …..
Kath
Santa Maria, California

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Pete
Guest
Pete

Hello,
I’m struggling to identify this tree. Can you please help. Thank you so much!

Peter Hajj
Member
Peter Hajj

Hello,
I’m struggling to identify this tree. Thank you so much for your help.

Mindy
Guest
Mindy

Matt,
There are two photos of the same spruce tree. Can you tell me which spruce this is?

The third photo with a white building in the background is one I’d like to plant at my home. Can you identify it for me?

Thank you.

Mindy

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Bob
Guest
Bob

could anyone help me with the identification of this tree please TIA

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Shazi
Guest
Shazi

This was great description. Could you help me identify this plant please . It is getting brown from the back and I don’t how to treat it

Brian
Guest
Brian

Hi I am trying to identify the tree in our garden, can anyone help me please? The photo is on its side, the cones go upward not hang down

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