Spruce, Pine, or Fir? 

Not gonna lie, for the longest time I called all evergreens pine trees. Conifers solely existed in Christmas tree world, and countless holidays went by without realizing that the oh, Tannenbaum I was trimming was actually a fir — tannenbaum meaning fir tree German.

Until the fateful day we brought home a blue spruce for Christmas…

One of the reasons we annually lug a real live tree into our living rooms is the smell, right? That unmistakable sharp, sweet, freshness that conjures up Christmas days of yore, and this tree was no exception — fragrant, shapely and silver-tinged, a holiday shrub that dreams are made of.

And then the needles began to fall, and the dream turned into a nightmare. Have you ever stepped bare-footed on a Lego? Yea, it’s like that, BUT SHARP. Like, an overlooked fragment of glass sharp, just nestled in the deep fibers of your carpet, lying in wait and no vacuum can touch them.

This spruce abuse stuck around for a few seasons and we swore off anything but firs for Christmases to come. But it was this rude introduction that got me to pay attention to evergreens in the first place.

So, How Do You Tell?

The Conifer family include pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks, larches (these are not evergreens), and true cedars. They all bear cones, most have a single, straight trunk, a conical shape, and appear dark green in color. In order to tell them apart, we’ve got to get a little but closer. 

Shake Hands with the Tree

Go on, grab a branch and introduce yourself.

Pine needles are long. They grow in clusters of two or more and the number in a packet tells you the kind of pine. Red pine has packets of two needles, pitch pine three, and if a twig bears needles in packets of five, it’s a white pine. I remember that because “white” has five letters.

PINE: Playful Packets of Pointy Pins

Let’s meet someone else. Spruces can be stand-offish, even stiff, so take care when sidling up to say hi. Pull off a needle, and roll it between your fingers (I dare you). If it rolls easily, it’s a spruce. Careful not to prick your fingers! 

SPRUCE: Spiny, Stiff, Sharp as a Syringe

Fir trees are much friendlier. Fir needles are softer and flat, and cannot be rolled between your fingers. If it feels flat and doesn’t roll easily, it’s a fir.

FIR: Friendly, Flexible with Flat needles

Hemlocks seem shy to me, their branches always drooping towards the earth. Hemlock needles are flat and short, with blunt tips. These needles are attached to the twig by a small peg or “stem,” such that when you pluck one off, it is left behind. 

HEMLOCK: Hanging Hems Have Stems!

Hopefully, this helps clear up any conifer confusion you may have had. Remember, the best way to get to know a tree is to introduce yourself!

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