How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir ?

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir ?

Understanding Conifers

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir treesIn early December I wrote a post on how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees.

This mostly outlined some of the similarities and differences between Tsuga sp. (hemlocks) and Pseudotsuga (Douglas fir). In addition it included a little information on Abies sp. (firs).

In this post I am going to look at fir and spruce (Picea sp.) trees. So how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir trees? First of all, spruce trees.

Picea species (spruce trees)

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir treesMy little Collins book notes there are around 40 species of Picea – wow! I definitely don’t know all of them. None are native to the UK. The Norway spruce (Picea abies) is the most common in Europe.

The book describes them “an uncomfortable bunch”.  To help me remember botanically, I use spiky spruce so I can relate to the uncomfortable bunch description.

scaly spruce bark

Spruce needles are generally sharper than fir needles – ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘spiky’. Sometimes they are described as whorled, like a bottle brush. The Collins book also describes a thin, scaly bark.

In the last post I mentioned that neither Abies nor Pseudotsuga species have a peg whereas Tsuga species do. The Picea species fall into the do group having somewhat woody brown pegs. However, spruce needles have no petiole, unlike the hemlocks.

How do you tell the difference between spruce species ?

On a spruce leaves (needles) could be flat or angled. With the Norway they tend to be angled, sort of having four sides. Sitka needles usually are flat. In fact the Collins book describes Sitka needles as “much flattened”.

I have personally struggled with this as a differentiating feature between the two species. Occasionally the Norway needles seems a little more flat than angled. Perhaps this is down to practice.

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir
Picea sp. with pendent cones

Sitka needles are more spiky than Norway. Norway are green with very faint white lines. Sitka are paler on the underside.

The shoots of the Sitka are yellowy/whitish pale brown. Whereas those of the Norway are much darker, almost orangey-red. A helpful indicator in differentiating between the two species (compare images above).

The cones on spruce trees are pendent i.e. they hang down. The size of the cone varies. The Norway usually has larger, longer cones between 10-20cm. Cones have a sort of curve shape to them. You may notice in the images above. They are not hard like pine cones. In fact they are almost papery-like and squishy.

and some other coniferous and spruce notes…

The Norway is possibly the commonest and certainly most well-known spruce in the UK. It is the traditional Christmas tree. This is the species in Trafalgar Square in London every year.

Sitka, a North American species, is commonly grown by the forestry commission in wet forests. In fact it can be a little yellow if it doesn’t get enough water. It can grow quite well in Scotland but is rarer in drier areas south of the UK. Fast growing so popular for timber and paper production. Believed the third largest tree species in the world. The Douglas fir, mentioned in the previous post, is second largest.

And so, to help us answer how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir … we now need to look at the typical features of the fir.

Medicinal Uses:

Picea mariana more commonly known as black spruce is a popular essential oil. The oil is steam distilled from the needles. It is decongestant so beneficial for respiratory infections. Useful for nervous exhaustion. Energetically it is warming. I like it in vaporisation or inhalation when you are literally exhausted from coughing and spluttering.

It is reputedly beneficial in massage for muscle aches and pains and poor circulation although I personally haven’t used it in this way. It is an oil that I sometimes like the aroma of and other times detest.

Abies species (fir trees)

how do you tell the difference between spruce and firAs already mentioned above fir trees have no peg. If you pull a needle off a small scar will be left. You can see a small green scar where I have pulled out a leaf from the Grecian fir (image to right). The scar can just be seen to left of the text on the twig. It looks like a sort of round sucker.

Cones on fir trees are upright and erect. Think of soldiers standing to attention. They disintegrate on the tree so you will rarely find a cone on the ground unlike spruce or pine cones. The featured header photograph for this post shows cones on an Abies (fir) tree growing beside the church in Foix in the Ariege. You can clearly see the upright cones.

Some different fir species…

How do you tell the difference between spruce and firThe two photographs of the Abies cephalonica are from the Aude Arboretum. This fir is more commonly known as the Grecian fir.

My little Collins book describes the Grecian fir as having almost perpendicular shiny green leaves all around the shoot “radiating stiffly”. The leaves are certainly shiny green.

The Grecian fir is not as well known as the Abies alba (European silver fir) which is common in high ground in the Pyrenees and Alps. The wood is white hence ‘alba’. Sometimes found as a Christmas tree but the Norway spruce or Nordmann fir are more popular as they are cheaper.

How do you tell the difference between spruce and firAlthough Abies grandis (giant fir) is native from Vancouver to California it is described as the most vigorous silver fir in the UK, particularly in the damper, wetter North and West.

It has citrus-grapefruit smelling leaves. The Collins book describes this a “delicious tangerine scent”. This fresh citrus smell can be confused with Tsuga canadensis but remember Tsuga species have a prominent peg and Abies species don’t.

Another indicator for the giant fir is apparently the twig shoots are quite dark brown, almost black in colour. Not a great indicator without comparison.

Medicinal Uses:

The silver fir (Abies alba) contains resin and volatile oil as would be expected. The essential oil or the resin are utilised medicinally.

The resin is recommended by Menzies-Trull as a liniment. The liniment he indicates externally for respiratory or rheumatic disorders and also for impetigo – a skin infection.

The essential oil he recommends for inhalation.

So to sum up … How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir …


I read this little mnemonic somewhere which I thought was quite helpful. “Picea Pegs Poke-Out, Abies ‘Asnt Any!” You just need remember that Picea is spruce and Abies is fir. Remember spruce has no petiole unlike the hemlocks.


Picea or spruce usually will have more spiky needles than the fir. I think of Spiky Spruce, Feathery Fir. Okay so Abies aren’t what you would call feathery, more leathery really, but they are more ‘feathery’ than the spiky Picea.


One of the simplest ways to answer how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir is with the cones. Look at the tree. Cones on a spruce are hanging down. You are likely to find them fallen on the ground. Those on a fir are upright. It is rare to find fir cones on the ground.

How do you tell the difference between coniferous trees ?

How do you tell the difference between coniferous trees ?

Understanding Conifers

how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees
description of Douglas fir from Aude Arboretum

I should probably title this trying to understand conifers. What a minefield! For the last year or so I have attempted to get to grips with conifers. What is the difference between a fir and spruce, a tsuga and pseudotsuga, a cedar and larch and then pines, cypress, juniper and yew ….. Yikes! So how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees ?

Although only three native conifers in the UK, Scot’s pine, juniper and yew, there are tons throughout Europe. Of course, our three native conifers have all been used medicinally. Many of the European, and indeed worldwide, conifers are medicinal too. Naturally I am keen to learn more about them but first of all it would help to be able to identify them.

So … how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees ?

Tsuga sp. – hemlocks
how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees
Tsuga canadensis – front and underside of leaves (needles)

First up I’ll have a look at the Tsuga species. More commonly known as hemlocks. To my knowledge they are all native of North America. I don’t believe any are European. However, I may be wrong there.

My little Collins British Tree Guide tells me there are ten species. I certainly haven’t actually met ten Tsuga species. They are in the Pinaceae family which includes cedars, firs, spruces, larches and of course, pines.

The photos of the Tsuga canadensis here were taken at the Aude arboretum. T. canadensis is more commonly known as eastern hemlock. I’ll use this species for descriptions.

What do I know or what have I learnt?

how do you tell the difference between coniferous treesMy little book recommends one should look at shape, shoots, colour and leaves to identify.

Tsuga species have a prominent peg. So what does that mean?

Well if we have a look at the close up of my photo of Tsuga canadensis you can, hopefully, see the leaves are coming out from a little sort of perch, or peg. The leaves also have a small stem, or petiole.

The leaves are short and flat. Dark green and shiny, or glossy, on the top. On the underside (see close-up) they are light green with two very visible white lines.

Leaves of this particular species are mostly pectinate. This means they are comblike. On the close up where they are nearer the tip they are less comblike. In the other image above you can see the lower leaves (needles) are indeed more comblike than those nearer the tip.

so … how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees within the hemlock species ?

As I said I don’t know many of the hemlock species but I have learnt a little about identification. If trying to differentiate between eastern hemlock and western hemlock (T. heterophylla) apparently the leaves of the western variety are less pectinate (comblike). Also the eastern hemlock twig is described pubescent. This means the twig has sort of short soft hair. Whereas the western hemlock twig is described wooly.

In addition, the western hemlock smells sour like the poisonous hemlock plant. The eastern hemlock is much fresher some suggest a pine or lemony aroma. Crush a leaf to check.

how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees
cones from a Tsuga sp.

Furthermore western hemlock is generally a taller tree with a single trunk and low sweeping branches. Other Tsuga species tend to have multi-trunks.

Finally the cones of Tsuga species are small, never more than 3cm. The eastern hemlock usually no larger than 1.8cm and the western hemlock around 2.5cm. The image of the cones shown here I took last year. It is a Tsuga species but I am unsure which species.

Medicinal Uses

I have never used a Tsuga species medicinally and know little of its medicinal value. However, native American Indians apparently utilised it for its astringent and antiseptic properties.

Indeed Menzies-Trull, a UK herbalist, describes the main pharmacological action as astringent. In addition, he adds antiseptic as well as anti-microbial and anti-fungal, against candida. In particular he discusses Tsuga canadensis.

He describes the bark as being an original ingredient of an days-gone-by pick-me-up tonic known as Composition Essence. I thought oak bark was utilised in the essence with ginger and chilli. However, I suspect there were a few variations of Composition Essence.

Pseudotsuga menziesii – Douglas fir

Next up the Douglas fir. I love the cones of this tree. The foliage is described similar to a fir (Abies sp.). Commonly it is called Douglas fir but it is not a fir-tree. Nor is it a hemlock (Tsuga sp.) hence the Pseudotsuga. Confused? Me too.

So … how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees that are not firs or hemlocks but have similarities to them ?

how do you tell the difference between coniferous treesMy little Collins book states there are 5 species of Pseudotsuga. It is evergreen like the hemlocks and firs. Native to North America.

However, whereas the Tsuga species have a prominent peg, neither Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga sp.) or indeed, actual firs (Abies sp.) do. So, no peg!

Leaves are soft, flexible and slender, unlike fir-tree leaves (or needles). They have narrow white-green bands on the underside. Hence, Pseudotsuga. The French description above also describes them soft in addition to light green and shiny.

the cones …

how do you tell the difference between coniferous treesAnd so to my favourite part, the cones. The cones of both the fir (Abies sp.) and the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga sp.) are both larger than 3cm so larger than those found on a hemlock species.If you have a cone it is fairly easy to recognise it as a Pseudotsuga. First of all, if on the tree, cones are pendent i.e. they are hanging down. On a fir-tree (Abies sp.) they are erect.

If you look at the photo I took of a cone at the Aude Arboretum you will see prongs protruding out. The French description at the top describes the cones as medium-sized with thin scales between which are bracts.

My little Collins book describes this a three-pronged snake’s tongue. Not liking snakes very much myself I prefer to think it is a friendly little critter trying to hide but his tail and two back legs are sticking out. Once you have set your eyes on one of these cones it is hard to forget.

Medicinal Uses

I have used Douglas fir essential oil. It has a pleasing crisp, fresh and uplifting aroma. As you might think it is useful for colds and sniffles. The freshness provides clarity.

I do remember reading that native American Indians utilised the tree medicinally by infusing young leaves. Occasionally resin was utilised. One action in particular springs to mind…. younger shoots worn in footwear apparently stops sweating feet and prevents athletes foot! Perhaps, like the Tsuga species, the Pseudotsuga have an anti-fungal action too.

Finally a Douglas fir was at one time listed as the tallest tree in the UK. The tree was in the Caledonian forest in Scotland. Whether it is still the tallest tree I know not.

I guess the fir and the spruce, the cedar and larch and the rest of the coniferous trees will need to wait another day…