Know Your Evergreens: how to tell the difference between a pine, spruce, and fir tree.

Jeana Cadby
January 6, 2020

Sturdy, resilient evergreen trees make excellent privacy screens and wind breaks, as they are long lived, tolerate cold climates, and maintain attractive foliage all year. 

Trees that sustain year-round foliage are often referred to as ‘evergreen’, with most colloquial references applying to coniferous evergreens such as pine, spruce, and fir trees. Cold-weather tolerant evergreen trees maintain needles which shed continuously, rather than seasonally, an adaptation to low nutrient and resource availability in harsher climates. This allows trees to perform well in various soil types and growing conditions. 

Southwestern White Pine at Garden Gate Nursery in Boring, Oregon.
Southwestern White Pine on left and Oregon Green Austrian Pine on right at Garden Gate Nursery in Boring, Oregon.

Pine, spruce, and fir trees also display an extraordinary range of shapes and sizes, and make excellent ornamental additions to diverse landscapes. However, unlike many other popular landscaping trees, leaf/needle color and length or overall tree size are are not very reliable means of identification. The distinguishing characteristics of these evergreen trees can be found in needle and cone shape, bark characteristics, and shedding habits. 

Pine Trees

Lush, evergreen foliage, bursting with verdant green color, draped around stiff and unruffled growth, gently softens the sturdy structure of the pine tree. Beauty is found not only in the visual aesthetic, but can be experienced through the subtle yet unmistakable smell of fresh pine. These attractive specimens offer that fresh look all year-round, flourishing in acidic soil conditions. The adorable Mugo Pine, ideal for rock gardens and small spaces, is a nice example to display the range of size and shape found within pines. 

Close up photo of the Vanderwolf Pine tree crown.
Close up photo of the Vanderwolf Pine tree crown.

Identifiable Characteristics of Pines

One of the most identifiable characteristics of pine trees can be found by inspecting the needles. Pine tree needles are arranged and attached to the branches in clusters, often in groups of two, three, or five. This is exemplified in the classic Christmas tree specimen, the Eastern White Pine, a good all-around evergreen, also used for windbreaks and wildlife habitat. 

The classic pine-cone is also a good tool for pine tree identification, often woody, rigid and offering attractive added interest. Young cones are usually green and flexible, hanging downwards and falling whole from the tree at maturity. An excellent specimen to exemplify the diverse beauty of pine cones is the Oregon Green Austrian Pine, a low maintenance pine with consistent, natural expression of gorgeous color. 

Spruce

Bursting with breathtaking color, the gracefully poised spruce tree is an exceptional treat, with year round spectacular. Spruce trees maintain excellent shape, typically pyramidal and upright, although the diversity within spruces is exciting to explore. The tall growing, Norway Spruce is a beautiful example of a classic low maintenance spruce, with pyramidal shape. On the other hand, the pint sized crowd favorite Little Gem Norway Spruce grows in a very tight round ball with short dark green needles.

Identifying Spruce Trees

Spruce trees can be identified by looking at the needles, which are are individually attached to each branch, and easily break apart upon inspection. These needles are sharply pointed, square, and easy to roll between fingers. Take a closer look on the small and rounded Globosa Spruce with bright blue needles, which beautifully accent the natural landscape, and exemplify the wondrous range of color found in the spruce foliage. 

Needles on spruce trees are tightly nestled against their branches, attached by a woody peg, which remains on the branch even after needles have been shed. The remaining branches feel rough to the touch, due to these residual scars. Although needles will drop continuously throughout the year, expect year-round color to persist when trees are planted in ideal conditions. 

Weeping Norway Spruce trees here at Garden Gate.
Weeping Norway Spruce trees here at Garden Gate.

Spruce cones contain scales, which appear narrow and feel flexible. However, the real attraction for spruce trees remains in the stunning diversity of color and shape. For example, the Dwarf Serbian Spruce is an excellent accent specimen, with small blue-green needles with silver on the underside giving it a unique appearance.

Fir Trees

The durable and handsome fir tree is often only a seasonal treat, as these hardy specimens make wonderful Christmas trees. Fir trees are also beautiful when used in the landscape, often used as sturdy windbreaks or winter accents. Diverse color and size options are a treat to explore. 

Photo of the Abies koreana Korean Fir from Lestat (Jan Mehlich) on Wikimedia.
Photo of the Abies koreana Korean Fir from Lestat (Jan Mehlich) on Wikimedia.

How to Identify Fir Trees

Identify fir trees through closer inspection of the needles. Individual fir needles are attached directly to the branch, and are generally very sharply pointed, flexible, and more difficult to break apart upon inspection. Soft and flat fir needles also cannot be easily rolled between the fingers. Cones appear upright on branches, which have smooth bark, and lack the rough texture found on spruce trees. 

Evergreen trees are a diverse group, and include many excellent landscaping options. Conifers also include redwoods, hemlocks, cypresses, yews, and junipers, which also make excellent landscaping trees. Additionally, the Green Giant Arborvitae is a fast growing pyramidal evergreen with a beautiful green color. These evergreens are tolerant of temperature extremes, including some dry conditions, and can be used as a specimen, accent tree or hedge. Check out our catalog for more information on our favorite evergreen trees. 

Summary

Sturdy and resilient evergreen trees are long lived, tolerate cold climates, and maintain attractive foliage all year, often thriving in various soil types and growing conditions. Pine, spruce, and fir trees have extraordinary range of shapes and sizes, and can be distinguished by needle and cone shape and other growth habits. What is your favorite trick to identifying evergreen trees?

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