At first glance conifer trees can all look the same. However, each variety of conifer has its own growing preferences and requirements. They also bring different benefits to your garden. Learning the skill of pine tree identification, as well as being able to identify the other types of conifer, can have numerous benefits for both you and your garden.
Pine tree identification can be a tricky skill to master. They are easily confused with both fir and spruce trees. However, by using the information laid out in this guide and with a little practice you will master pine tree identification in no time.
In addition to explaining the differences between the three main conifers, we will also look briefly at other conifer varieties, explaining both their similarities and differences. This additional information is designed to further help you in the identification process.
Making identification difficult, different types of conifers can look similar but there are some key differences.
What are Conifers?
Before discussing identification, I will first explain what conifers are.
Conifers are woody plant. They belong to the Pinophyta botanical group in the Pinopsida class.
The majority of conifer plants are evergreen. Helping to make conifer identification easy, conifers produce needle-like leaves and woody cones.
Some varieties, such as spruces, pines and firs are deciduous. However, this shedding of foliage is gradual. Many varieties can retain some needles and color throughout the year, giving the impression that they are evergreen.
The conifer is a fast-growing specimen that is common across the Northern Hemisphere. Many types can tolerate difficult growing conditions including exposure to freezing temperatures. Some, such as the pine or fir, are better suited to a warmer climate.
Most types of conifers produce needle-like leaves and cones.
With the exception of the yew most types of conifer are edible. Yews are highly toxic.
Yellow cultivars, such as Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa) should not be ingested by pregnant women. There is a small chance that ingesting these plants can trigger a miscarriage.
Pine Tree Identification: What You Need to Know
There are a few key features that can help with pine tree identification. Each of these small details helps to differentiate between a pine, fir or spruce tree.
A great aid to identification, looking at the needles is one of the easiest ways to determine between the spruce, fir and pine tree. Look closely at the needles, observing how they grow.
The needles help in the identification process.
The needles of the pine differ greatly to those of the spruce and the fir.
Pine needles grow in clusters, originating from a single point on the branch. The needle clusters usually form in spirals on the branch. Each type of pine produces needle clusters of different sizes:
- White types produce needles in clusters of 5,
- Red varieties produce needles in clusters of 2,
- Yellow varieties produce needles in clusters of 3.
The needles are typically soft and longer than those of other conifers. These needles can grow up to 16 inches long.
Spruce needles are typically short and stiff. Each needle emerges from its own origin point, not in clusters like those of the pine tree. This small difference can aid greatly in identification.
Spruce needles are typically small, woody and stalk-like. With 4 sides, they are squarer in shape than those of other conifers and, when removed from the tree, can be rolled easily between the fingers.
Finally, spruce needles look spikier than other types of conifer.
The needles of the fir are flat and soft. Aiding in identification, upon closer inspection you may notice two white stripes at the bottom of each needle.
Fir needles emerge from single points of origin and are attached to the branch in a suction-cup like manner. When removed from the branch the needles do not leave behind a woody projection or bump.
When conifers drop their leaves or needles it creates a layer of duff on the floor. This acts as a beneficial mulch, breaking down and returning nutrients to the soil. Conifer needles are a great way to enhance your garden’s ecosystem and enrich your soil.
Needles can make a beneficial mulch
Cones and Branches
While needles provide the easiest means of pine tree identification, the cones and branches of the different varieties of conifer can also provide some clues to aid in identification.
Conifers produce 2 types of cones:
- Pollen cones
- Seed cones.
Pollen or male cones are smaller than female seed cones. This applies to every type of conifer.
The female conifer cone varies in appearance between species and can be used to help with identification.
Pine branches grow from a single, circular area on the tree’s trunk. The branches turn to face upwards as they grow. This tendency aids in identification.
Typically, the pine produces fewer branches than the more densely covered spruce and fir. Some varieties of pie can produce long, drooping branches which gives the plant a slender appearance.
The cones of the plant hang down towards the ground as they develop. Initially green in color, the cones turn black or red-brown as they mature. The scales of the cone are thick and hard. Some pinecones can be small and oval or egg-shaped. Other varieties may produce more conical shaped cones.
Pinecones are larger than the cones found on other types of conifers.
Pinecones hang down from the branches.
Spruce branches also tend to grow upwards. Aiding in identification, the spruce is more densely covered in branches than the pine tree.
Spruce cones hang down towards the ground. They are smooth with thinner scales than the cones of other types of conifer. The cones of the spruce are also flexible in shape.
The fir produces wide lower branches that develop into a downturned shape. This is in contrast to other types of conifer tree.
Fir cones form looking upwards, like candle flames. This upward facing habit is in contrast to other types of conifers that produce downward facing cones. The direction of the cone is a key identification feature of the fir tree.
Initially green, blue or purple in color, the cones mature to a golden brown shade.
Some fir cones can grow up to 10 inches in height. The cones are typically long and conical.
Conical fir cones grow upwards.
Bark and Growth Habit
The bark can also help with the identification process.
Young specimens produce smooth trunks. As the plants age, the bark becomes flaky. The bark of these specimens also develop an orange-red color as they mature. Some varieties can appear silver in color. In contrast, other species can retain a smooth bark as the plant ages.
Most pine branches grow near the top of the tree. This provides another key to identification. The foliage of the pine tree opens into a large, wide or rounded canopy, similar to a loose triangular shape.
Pine bark flakes as it ages.
The wood from these specimens can be transformed into a good quality softwood that is popular in the timber industry.
A reliable addition to the garden, there are a number of plants that are suitable for planting under the pine tree to provide further color and interest.
The spruce grows in a typical conifer shape. Think of the ideal Christmas tree and you are almost certainly picturing a spruce.
To further aid identification, bear in mind that the loose bark becomes rough and scaly as the plant matures. Spruce bark is easily picked off the tree. Typically gray, some species can develop bark in shades of gray-brown, red-brown or dark green-brown.
Spruce bark roughens as it ages.
Firs typically grow into a classic, tall upright shape. They are similar in shape to a spruce, but typically have more room between the branches.
The bark on the young fir is gray and smooth. It furrows with age.
Which One Do You Want?
One of the reasons why you may be learning pine tree identification is that you want to add a conifer to your garden. As with all types of plants, certain types of conifers are suited to certain growing zones and conditions.
The pine tree thrives in acidic soil. If you are unsure a soil test kit provides an easy way to measure your soil’s pH level.
These specimens do best in a full sun spot and planted in well draining soil. After falling from the tree the needles provide an effective mulch, raising the pH level of the surrounding soil.
The irregular growth pattern of the pine tree means that it often thrives in remote, windswept or barren areas.
Common types of pine tree include:
- Western white (Pinus monticola),
- Virginia (Pinus virginiana),
- Eastern white (Pinus strobus),
- Sugar (Pinus lambertiana).
Different types of conifer are suited to different garden styles and climates.
A popular choice to provide a natural barrier against wind or rain, spruces tolerate a range of climates and soil types. However, they are at their best growing in cool climates and acidic soil.
Like the pine tree, the spruce prefers a sunny spot and well draining soil. As well as being a good windscreen choice, the spruce is also a good specimen plant.
Common types of spruce include:
- Blue (Picea pungens),
- Stika (Picea sitchensis),
- Norway (Picea abies),
- White (Picea glauca).
Firs have a shallow root system. This means that strong winds can uproot younger or smaller specimens. A Heavy Duty, Steel Staking Support Kit is easily installed and can help to keep your fir upright and in place.
Happiest in a mildly acidic soil that is rich in organic matter, firs tolerate full to partial sun environments. The shallow root system of the fir means that it is a good choice for planting in areas that have only a thin layer of topsoil. They are also a good choice for planting in rocky soils. These requirements can play a role in the identification process.
Common types of fir include:
- White (Abies concolor)
- Noble (Abies procera)
- Rocky Mountain (Abies lasiocarpa)
- Noble (Abies procera)
Other Types of Conifer
While the spruce, fir and pine are the most commonly grown types, there are many other types of conifer growing in North America. If the specimen that you are attempting to identify doesn’t appear to be one of the 3 main types it could be one of the following conifer varieties.
Hemlock is an attractive conifer variety.
Hemlocks are evergreen conifers, developing in a conical shape the branches often display a drooping or weeping habit. Weeping hemlocks can provide a striking focal point to a garden landscape.
Hemlock plants (Tsuga) are unique in the way that their needles attach to the stem. Like a spruce, the dark green, glossy needles of the hemlock are woody. However, the needles of the hemlock are both finer and flatter than those of the spruce.
Like many types of conifer, hemlock needles form in a spiral on the twig.
Hemlock cones are usually egg shaped or oval. However, some varieties can produce cylindrical or elongated cones.
Common hemlock varieties include:
- Western (Tsuga heterophylla),
- Mountain (Tsuga mertensiana),
- Eastern (Tsuga canadensis).
A popular landscape choice, the yew (Taxus) is often mistaken for a fir because of its flat needles. Unlike firs, yew needles are flat or lanceolate in shape with sharp points. They are not marked with white lines. Instead they are dark green and glossy.
A tendency to form as a small shrub makes identification of the yew fairly easy. It has also helped to make the plant a popular dwarf shrub for planting in full sun positions.
An evergreen conifer, the bark of the yew is a red-brown shade. It can become flaky as the plant ages. The cones are small, round and contain one seed.
Warning, be careful if planting a yew in your garden. All parts of the tree, including the red berries, are poisonous.
Many parts of the yew, including the berries, are poisonous.
Another evergreen conifer, Juniper (Juniperus) produces sharp, short, prickly leaves. Some juniper varieties can, as they mature, also develop scale-like leaves.
Juniper cones are soft and fleshy. They are similar in appearance to blue berries. Related to cedars and often grouped together, the Juniper is not a true type of cedar.
Common throughout the northern hemisphere, junipers emit an aromatic gin-like fragrance. The berries of the juniper are edible and can be used to make gin or as a spice.
Be careful when handling, some species produce mildly toxic berries.
Common types of juniper include:
- Western (Juniperus occidentalis)
- Creeping (Juniperus horizontalis)
- Rocky Mountain (Juniperus scopulorum)
A versatile plant that provides year round interest, our how to plant juniper guide is filled with useful information if you want to add this plant to your garden.
True types of cedar (Cedrus) are known for their hard, fissured bark and aromatic, fern-like soft foliage. The needle-like blue-green leaves develop in spiral clusters. When rolled between the fingers the needles emit a strong scent. The aroma of the cedar is used in aromatherapy and as a bug or moth repellent.
True cedars are native to the Hamalayas and Mediterranean. They are a popular ornamental landscaping choice in North America. True cedars are not to be confused with junipers and arborvitae. Highly aromatic plants, true cedars have needles not scales.
The cones of the cedar are barrel-shaped.
Common cedar varieties include:
- Atlas (Cedrus atlantica),
- Lebanon (Cedrus libani),
- Cyprus (Cedrus brevifolia).
Cedars are popular for their soft, fern-like foliage.
Blue Atlas Cedar
Similar in appearance to the pine tree, the needles of the blue atlas cedar are significantly shorter. A majestic choice for an ornamental plant, blue atlas cedar is popular for its gentle cascading blue-green branches.
Cypress (Cupressis) are evergreen specimens with soft scale-like leaves. Like the fir tree, the foliage of the cypress is flat and can give the foliage a feathery feel.
The cones of the cypress are brown and woody. Depending on the variety the cones range in shape from oblong to globule.
Some varieties such as the Goldthread Cypress are popular low maintenance, flowering shrubs, providing year round interest to the garden.
Related to both the cedar and cypress tree, the thuja (Thuja) grows in a conical shape. It produces soft scale-like, feathery leaves.
An evergreen specimen, thuja produces soft cones that are smaller than the cones of other conifer varieties. Thujas typically produce dense green foliage and smooth gray bark. The dense foliage of the thuja makes it a good choice for inclusion in a living fence.
Thuja is a popular hedge plant.
A reliable shade tree, the bald cypress-like arborvitae, produces flat, scaled needles. The branches are flexible and quick to develop.
The soft, feathery feel of the foliage adds texture to planting schemes while also providing lots of colorful interest, turning from bright green in the spring and summer to a bright copper-red in the fall.
The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga spp.) is not a true fir tree. It is also not a hemlock plant. The latin name of the plant translates as “false hemlock”. Instead the Douglas fir belongs to a genus all of its own.
Common across western North America as well as parts of Asiam the needles of the Douglas fir grow all around the branch providing dense, green coverageThe buds are cone shaped and brown.
A popular Christmas tree, the bark, needles and resin of the Douglas fir all have edible and medicinal uses.
Pine tree identification is a useful skill to master.
Conifer plants are not only a visually attractive addition to the landscape, many are also edible and have medicinal benefits. Learning the basics of identification, in particular pine tree identification can help you to decide which to add to your landscape. It can also be a useful skill if you are walking or foraging.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.