Identifying the Big Three Evergreens…Pine, Spruce and Fir!

This post, is in the spirit helping people understand the subtle differences in the common conifer species. The evergreens can be easily identified when you know what to look for. This article only go over the most common three which are also the easiest to confuse. Pine, spruce and fir trees.

Pines are some of my favorite trees. They are long lived trees and can tolerate most every type of soil out there. Because of this pines are some of the best trees for the urban landscape. For me, the two ways I can tell we are dealing with a pine tree are the cones and the needles. The cones will be thick, woody and wide. More like an apple or pear shape then a banana shape. The needles will have at least two needles per nod. A nod is the point where the needle or leafs connect to the branches or woody structure of the tree. When a deciduous tree drops leaves in the fall the nod is where leaf breaks away from the branch. Pines have groups of needles per nod. The grouping will be numbered in two’s, threes and fives. Different species of pine will have a different amount of needles per nod. Just know if it has more than one needles per nod, you have a high likelihood of that tree being a pine. The needles of a pine will be long, some needles can be over a foot in length for some species. The needles will also are “u” shaped, thin and wavy. The habit, or the shape of the canopy of pines, I find to be more rounded not pyramidal shape like most christmas trees. Unless you are dealing with a columnare variety then it will have a very narrow upright shape. But the number of needles per nod holds true so don’t let the shape throw you off to much.

Spruce are different in that they have one needle per nob. The needle are short and stout. They are not easily bent. If you touch the tips of the needles of the spruce you will find them to be painfully pokey. The cones of a spruce have a more papery texture then a woody one like the pine and are long and sledder which resembles a banana. Some spruce species have cones as long as bananas. Spruces also have a very pyramidal habit shape. (Classic evergreen triangle christmas tree shape.) Almost as wide as tall. They do well in landscapes but do have a higher water requirement then the pine. Some spruce species are considered riparian. Meaning they can to grow next to a river or stream. (I will sometimes say that riparian plants can tolerate “wet feet” because their roots are always in water.) They have very shallow roots so spruce can have access to water at the surface. They require more watering more often than pines but grow faster than pines do. Spruce are big trees that grow fast. To grow fast they need more water and don’t handle drought well.

Fir trees are the least planted tree of the big three evergreens. But can still have a place in our landscapes. Like the spruce they only have one needle per nod. But they have soft, flat non-poky needles. Deer will often feed on your fir tree without mercy often killing them. One strike against the fir. There are not a large amount of species of fir to choose from at your local nursery because they don’t adapt well to the urban landscape. If you live in sub-alpine environment they will do much better. Lower elevations and hotter summers stress most fir out to where they are unable to live long and prosper. The fir species that has found the most success in the urban landscape is the White Fir. (Abies concolor) Fir will have a pyramidal habit also like the spruce but is much more narrow at its base. More resembling a arrowhead then a triangle. The cones of a true fir, and I say true fir because we call some trees fir when they are not, aka the douglas fir. (Pseudotsuga menziesii) Cones of true fir trees are erect. They don’t hang down little fruit but point up to the sky. They are very beautiful and it is a dead give away. Cedar also have erect cone but they are spherical in shape and the fir cone is long and skinny again more like a spruce. Fir can also be extremely shade tolerant. Handy to know when deciding where to place a fir in your landscape.

There are many more conifers out there and thank goodness I have begun to seeing more and more different species out there in the urban forest. It helps to have as much biodiversity (different species of trees) in the urban forest as possible. Be creative in the choices you make in trees. Go the extra mile and pick out something different you can be proud of. If you like this article, (Episode #8 Pine, Spruce or Fir?) of the Hortoccult podcast is about on the same topic but you get to hear Brad and I riffing it up script free. Don’t forget to subscribe, like and share the blog and podcast. With that I leave you. Thank you so much for reading and Let’s Plant on Babylon!

Why are Botanical Names important?

Latin is a beautiful and painful solution when it comes to identifying plants. On one hand, it can entirely encompass the exact plant with the exact traits you are looking for. But it is also above most people’s “who gives a crap” level. A maple is a maple… well, not really.

When you see the Latin botanical name the first terms have to do with its distinction, or the genus. I think people can understand the genus because there is a larger margin of difference from genus to genus. For example, Maples versus Pines (Acer versus Pinus in the Latin) is the genus. But break it down even further and there are many differences among members of the same genus (Maples) and differences from the species (or Norway Maples). This is what Latin names do. They describe the plant in some way. The longer the name, the more features it is describing. Example… Columnar Norway Maple, Acer platanoides ‘columnare’. The first name is the genus, the second is the species, and third is cultivar. You can have a maple tree, but unless it says platanoides then it is not a Norway Maple. And you can have a Norway Maple but unless it has columnare then it’s not a skinny tall maple.  It’s a common tree but it is distinctly different from the plain old Norway maple due to the columnar. Columnar is Latin for column.  Platanoides is describing the flat disc shaped seed pod inside the helicopter shell. And acer literally means eager in Latin. So, when we are saying the Latin name we are saying that tree is the eager, flat disc shaped seed pod, skinny tall-shaped Maple. Or Acer platanoides ‘Columnare’ or Columnare Norway Maple. You are basically saying the same thing with all three.

This is an example of a botanical name versus common name. If you need to be exact, then use botanical names. Common names are tricky because everybody could have a different name for the same plant. Let’s switch to a perennial flower. “Forget me not” is a common name for Myosotis arvensis. But you could also call it mouse’s ear or Scorpion grass. These common names could describe one species or the entire genus. There are 74 unique species in the genus Myosotis. That is not even getting into if these species have cultivars. Using the name “forget me not” on all 74 species is not wrong, but it is not totally correct either. Most likely not all of the 74 are commercially available to have in your landscape so you would have to choose between them in a store. Then if it is similar to a genus it can be lopped in with that group.  Like Brunnera macrophylla is one of my favorite plants and its common name is perennial “forget me not.” Not related at all but because it has a similar blue flower it gets the name. My personal common name for it is just Brunnera so I’m not super strict. But when people go deeper with botanical names they’re not trying to be… how do I put this gently… douchey? They just what to be clear. Most of them understand that a lot of people really don’t care about the names that much and will not throw it in your face that you might not know what that specific cultivare is. If they do, then they really are douches. 



Perennial just mean lives longer than two growing seasons. It could be three seasons or 100 seasons. Annual is one growing season. Annuals typically do not make it through the winter months. Bi-annual is two growing seasons. First season it is storing energy. We call that a vegetative state. The second year is a reproductive state. After it reproduces, it dies putting all its energy in for the next generation. These three terms are so confusing for people. Don’t overthink it.  Have fun, try new plants in your garden, and remember to Plant on Babylon!

How Trees Move Water

 A question was put to one of my classes long, long ago, in a classroom far, far away: “How can water reach the top of a tree, 60 feet in the air without any pump?” This is where my brain started to hurt. At the time, I didn’t know anything about trees—this was why I was there.  Trees don’t have muscles to push the water through itself.  Trees know the properties of water and how to manipulate it to get what they need. 

First, water does two things we need to understand. Water clings to itself and also clings to other things. Water molecules like each other. When they touch, they hold hands. I think about watching rain hitting a window and the drops moving down get bigger as they absorb other drops. They are drawn together. However, they are also drawn to the window. They are not bouncing off the window and falling to the ground. Water hits the window and stinks to the window. These two actions of water are called adhesion and cohesion (holds to itself and holds to other materials). But water’s strongest hold is to itself more than to other materials.

Second, water wants to balance its solvents. Solvents are substances that will dissolve in water. There is an experiment that shows this. You take a plastic tube and bow it into a ‘U’ shape. Inside the tube at the lowest point, there is a membrane. A barrier that will let water in but not the solvent. Water is added to the tube at equal parts, so on each side of the membrane it is the same. Then on one side of the membrane you add the solvent. Water passes through the membrane to the solvent side making the water level higher on the solvent side. Water pushes itself high up the tube to try and balance the solvent equally, but because of the membrane, which is key, water could move higher.  Plants use membranes the same way. The membrane acts as a kind of door letting some molecules in and keeping others out. This process might sound familiar. The process is osmosis. Some water softeners use reverse osmosis to clean tap water. The solvent they use is salt.

Thirdly, we have something called evapotranspiration. The leaves at the top of the tree get a lot of sun. To keep them from wilting and dying they need a constant flow of water. Why? Because water evaporates out of the leaf all the time. Sometimes we just call it transpiring. It’s a little like sweating but for leaves. Remember, water likes itself. It has great self-esteem!  As water evaporates out of the leaf, it pulls more water up to the leaf like a chain. As long as the line is not broken, water will flow up from the ground, up the tree and out of the leaf.  All the nutrients for the whole tree flow up a super thin layer, not more than a few cells wide. This layer is just underneath the bark. It is the green you see when you cut into a branch. This layer of nutrient rich cells is called the cambium.

With that bit of information for your noggin, I leave you. If you like this, then there is more of the same on the podcast. Stay awesome to each other and Plant on Babylon!