An up close picture of a new growth on a pine.

Have you ever noticed how similar pine, fir, and spruce are in appearance? Not being able to easily tell which kind of conifer you’re looking at has always been a challenge. Today if you’re walking in the woods and wondering if that tree is a pine, spruce, or fir, you pull out your phone, snap a photo, and have an algorithm compare your photo to millions of others to determine that you’re looking at a fir, spruce, or pine tree. It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time. you learned to recognize the type of tree yourself and to help you remember the characteristics of types of trees, you’d have a mnemonic.

Take a fir tree for example. If you examine the needles on a fir tree, you’ll see that they are wider than those on a pine or spruce. They are also flat rather than round or square-ish and they aren’t especially sharp or pokey. They’re actually rather pleasant to run through your fingers. Fir needles tend to grow with an upward tilt and if you bend them, they will bend but not break. So, if the tree has needles that are fat, flat, flexible, and friendly, the tree is a fir.

In contrast, a pine tree has needles that grow in clumps rather than as single needles. Different types of pine have different size clumps of needles. Red pine has needles in clusters of two, yellow pine in clusters of three, and white pine needles grow five per cluster. Pine needles will bend politely if you try to shake hands with a pine. You need to beware of the points of a pine needle since they can poke into your skin. The needles grow out of a papery sheath. Pines will be plural, papery, pokey, but polite.

Spruce tree needles aren’t flat or rounded, they are square-ish in shape. They grow in a spiral around the branch. And spruce needles are very sharp and stiff. If it is sharp, stiff, spiraled, and square, it’s a spruce.

If you’re looking for a short mnemonic for how to recognize which type of tree you’re looking at try Fat, Friendly Fir, Plural, Pokey Pine, and Sharp, Spiral Spruce. Or you can create your own mnemonic. What would your mnemonic be?

As an interesting aside, the most common ‘fir’ tree on our Preserve, the Douglas Fir, isn’t actually a fir, pine, or spruce at all. It is a distinct species named after David Douglas, the botanist, who with his research partner Archibald Menzies, discovered it. Unlike other conifers, Douglas Fir cones grow pointing down and drop off whole.   

– Katha Miller-Winder, Education Committee