Conifer trees are common sights during wintertime -- especially as ornamental holiday trees -- but it's tricky to tell the difference between a pine tree and a fir tree. Even when you figure that out, there are several types of pine trees to consider. Whether you are a budding tree expert or just want to impress your friends with how well you know your evergreens, distinguishing between pines and firs is a special skill you can use every winter.
- Skill level:
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Check for needle clusters. This is the most straightforward way to tell the difference between a fir tree and a pine. The needles of a fir tree are individually attached to the branch, while the needles of a pine tree are attached in clusters of two, three or five, depending on the type of pine.
Look closely at the needle clusters to tell the difference between common pine trees. Two-needle clusters indicate a red pine tree, three indicate a yellow pine and five indicate a white pine, according to Iowa State University Extension's article "Pine, Fir or Spruce Tree?"
Look for pine cones. Pine trees give pine cones their names, but spruce trees also have cones that are easily mistaken for pine cones. True pine trees have cones that feel thick and rigid. Meanwhile, fir trees have erect cones, and in the fall, they shed their scales, leaving just the upright stems.
Study the bark. This part is tricky, as both pine trees and fir trees have smooth bark, at least in their infancies. No matter what their ages, fir trees have sleek bark, though older firs start to show lines and markings. Meanwhile, pine trees have smooth bark when they are young, but as they age, their bark turns red-brown and flakes, most of the time.
Distinguish between bark styles on an ageing pine tree. White pines often maintain their smooth bark as they age, but other types of pine trees begin to flake and turn red-brown. Scots pines in particular have almost orange bark that peels as they age.
Tips and warnings
- Be careful not to mistake a spruce tree for a fir tree. Spruce trees have sharp, square needles, while fir trees have soft, flat needles. Fir trees also have smooth bark on their branches, in contrast with rough spruce tree bark.
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- Iowa State University Extension: Pine, fir or spruce tree?
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln: UNL Extension in Lancaster County: Pine trees or evergreens?
- University of California, Berkeley: Part I: Dichotomous key for identifying pine trees
- University of Saskatchewan: Fir, pine or spruce -- which do I have?