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

One of my earliest memories involves planting a spruce tree.

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!”

A large white fir tree fills image framed with a blue sky.

We link to vendors to help you find relevant products. If you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission.

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.

The secret to becoming the equivalent of a human dichotomous key for conifer identification isn’t much of a secret.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Close up image of the needles of an evergreen tree.

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, in the comments section 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).

In addition to your photo, please let us know what region you are in, whether the tree is in the wild or in your own backyard, and please give us as much detail about the tree as possible, such as how long the needles are.

I’ll get back to you as soon as possible with an answer!

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

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.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
293 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ilse O'Reilly
Ilse O'Reilly (@guest_828)
4 years ago

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

Susan
Susan (@guest_970)
3 years ago

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

Debbie
Debbie (@guest_1191)
3 years ago

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

Sharon
Sharon (@guest_5773)
Reply to  Debbie
1 year ago

Where did you take your course, if you do not mind my asking. THX! ~ Sharon

David
David (@guest_1307)
3 years ago

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 »

Paige
Paige (@guest_8756)
Reply to  David
1 year ago

Hi David – Do you think that tree could be a hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)?
 
“The individual leaves … of the hemlock … are flat and are marked by two white lines on the under side.”
 
 
Form and size: A large tree with a broad-based pyramidal head, and a trunk conspicuously tapering toward the apex. The branches extend almost to the ground.”
 
 
Other characters: The fruit is a small cone about ¾ of an inch long, which generally hangs on the tree all winter.”
 
 
Source: Studies of Trees by John Jacob Levison, 1914, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16116/16116-h/16116-h.htm#ch_i-ii
 
 

Last edited 1 year ago by Paige
David
David (@guest_1308)
3 years ago

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

Roy galley
Roy galley (@guest_1551)
3 years ago

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
Gina (@guest_1569)
3 years ago

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

victor beaudoin
victor beaudoin (@guest_1673)
3 years ago

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
Michael Springob (@guest_1931)
3 years ago

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 »

WRE
WRE (@guest_14276)
Reply to  Matt Suwak
2 months ago

Turpentine is NOT toxic!!! It has been used as medicine for thousands of years!!! The eminent doctors of antiquity, Hippocrates, Dioscoride or Galien, (and others) used the terpenic oil for its properties against lung diseases and biliary lithiasis and more. Look up Dr. Jennifer Daniels for more information!!

Adam Wertz
Adam Wertz (@adam-wertz)
Member
Reply to  WRE
2 months ago

This fairly reputable site (and many others) suggests that it is: https://www.drugs.com/npp/turpentine.html
Gailien and company also would have also prescribed mercury and drank regularly out of lead lined pipes.

Betsy Alles
Betsy Alles (@guest_2466)
3 years ago

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!

WRE
WRE (@guest_14277)
Reply to  Betsy Alles
2 months ago

Based on the descriptions above…it sounds like Red Pine!!