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!