Fir vs. Spruce vs. Pine: How to Tell Them Apart

Fine Gardening - Issue 107

Telling the difference among conifers can be tricky. To me, they are all Christmas trees. But calling them such doesn’t really mark me as a discerning gardener. There is, however, a quick way to tell these three common conifers apart.

Look for the number of needles that come out of the same spot on a twig. If a twig bears needles in groups of two, three, or five, you can safely call it a pine. If the twig carries its needles singly, it’s a good bet you’ve got a fir or a spruce. Pull off a needle, and roll it between your fingers. If it feels flat and doesn’t roll easily, it’s a fir. If the needle has four sides and, thus, rolls easily between your fingers, it’s a spruce.

Spruce Fir Pine


Photos: Michelle Gervais

View Comments


  1. priiskilla 06/11/2014

    haha. This question popped up when I realized I referred to them all as christmas trees. Thanks for the concise article!

  2. aricampbell 08/21/2014

    oh hey i have all of these in my yard!! hahaha

    1. christophersigle 11/25/2014

      Plant some Blueberries around them..

      1. user-7007468 03/27/2015

        ..if you roll the berry and squeeze it gently and you hands and socks turn's a / slurpee b/ blue spruce c/ blueberry

      2. user-7008435 03/29/2017

        Why? For the dramatic effect? I agree, but would like to know

        1. taradonohoe 07/21/2017

          Conifers tend to slightly lower the pH ("acidify") the soil they grow in, and blueberries thrive in slightly acidic soil.

  3. albertinamel 11/29/2014

    I'm pretty sure they have their labels on the fir and spruce reversed. The one on the left looks like a blue spruce, and the one in the middle appears to be a Frasier fir. The pine is clearly a pine.

    1. Louisabt 12/01/2014

      You are right albert! The left is a blue spruce, the middle looks like a balsam fir, then one on the right a pine. Can't tell what species of pine

      1. Stuffedbear 07/05/2017

        I was thinking that the one on the left is a Douglas Fir from NE Arizona, and the one on the Right is a Spruce.

        1. user-7009029 01/12/2018

          Douglas-fir are not true firs. A whole different genus.

          1. Stuffedbear 01/12/2018

            I was unaware of that.

          2. Stuffedbear 01/13/2018

            Thank you
            I now have read up on that.
            Very interesting.

    2. Stuffedbear 07/05/2017

      I think you are wrong, the one on the left, to me looks like it is a Douglas Fir.
      However, I admit I am not an expert.
      What kind of Fir did you think it was?
      Also what part of the country do you live in?
      I am in North East Az. in what we call the White Mountains.

    3. user-7008875 09/07/2017

      Amazing, yet another site labelling pictures incorrectly and rendering the whole article useless. I saw this same issue with a site discussing walnut variations and came away more confused than before I read it.

      1. paulsamanthajacklin 12/03/2017

        Please may I ask what site had the article on walnut variations? I am also disgraced by the number of time people post inaccurate horticultural information on the internet.

  4. bread_sandwich 12/24/2014

    Ok. I'm making a potpourri, so can anyone tell me the difference between the scent a pine gives vs. the scent of a fir or a spruce? Come on experienced noses I know you're out there somewhere.

    1. Hoobs 02/15/2015

      a really nice scent could come from the white fir, Pinaceae Abies concolor. It smells like oranges!

    2. kattmandu 10/22/2015

      Bread -
      To me, a pine has a much more resinous, pitchy smell, more like turpentine, where a spruce or fir is more woodsy. But that's just my opinion

  5. Hoobs 02/15/2015

    Friendly fir, spikey spruce. Pine trees have leaves that come in bundles called fascicles; ponderosa pine have two and bristlecone pine have 5! Pine leaves are acicular (long, needle-like) and spruce and fir leaves are linear. I think (maybe) the picture on the right is a white pine? They have such thin, feathery leaves (needles), so that's my guess. Also, look for the cones. They differ greatly. Pine cones have an apophysis on each scale (that's the part of the scale that is visible when the cone is closed. Some species have armed umbos. The umbo is the protuberance (part that protrudes out) on the apophysis. The arming is a tiny little spike that can draw blood. Bristlecones bear their name due to this nasty little feature. To my knowledge (I'm a forestry student in Colorado), I don't think spruce and fir have umbos on the cones. Hey, I'm still learning! I hope this helps.

  6. user-7007499 04/11/2015

    My language only has one word for all these... and we have quite a lot of types despite being a boring-ass continental climate.

  7. kattmandu 10/22/2015

    The other thing that I remember in telling spruces from firs and pines is four S - the needles on a spruce are:

  8. black_brook 07/13/2017

    If the needles are flat it could also be hemlock.

  9. yogasadanaruruarchy 11/30/2017

    this is really helpfull :) ! thank you

  10. user-7729301 12/07/2021

    "Spikey Spruce, Friendly Fir" Spruce needles are spikey. Fir needles feel soft and don't prickle your fingers when you touch them.

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