Use Needles to Identify Common North American Coniferous Trees

Bright green needles on a Spruce Tree.

Ed Reschke / Getty Images

When trying to identify a tree, looking at its "leaf" is a major way to determine what species of tree you have. Knowing the difference between a "broadleaved" bladed leaf of a hardwood and a "needle-like" leaf of a conifer is important and is fundamental in the process of tree identification.

So, knowing that you have a needled tree and that they can grow singly or in bundles, clusters or sheaths of needles will be a big help in tree species identification. If a tree's foliage is a needle or group of needles, then odds are you are dealing with a coniferous evergreen. These trees are considered to be conifers and may be members of the genera and species that include pine, fir, cypress, larch, or spruce families.

Identification Basics

spruce trees from above

Baac3nes / Getty Images

To figure out what kind of tree you are trying to identify, take a look at the following groups of trees. How a tree's needle is arranged on a twig is of major importance in matching them with the correct arrangement of needles.

Use the following images for illustration. Some needles are fastened in bundles attached to the twig, some are attached as whorls to and around the twig, and some are ​​singly attached around the twig.

Trees With Clusters or Bundles of Needles

Pine tree needles close up

Gregoria Gregoriou Crowe fine art and creative photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Leaf clusters or bundles—botanically called fascicles in pine—are present on both pine and larch twigs. The number of adult needles per fascicle is important for the identification of these coniferous species, especially the pines.

Most pine species have fascicles of 2 to 5 needles and are evergreen. Most larches have multiple clusters of needles in whorls. If your trees have clusters or bundles or fascicles of needles, they will probably be either pines or larches.

Trees With Single Needles

Spruce tree branches with cones hanging.

Vladimir Kokorin / Getty Images

There are many coniferous trees that have single needles directly and singly attached to the twig. These attachments can be in the form of wooden "pegs" (spruce), can be in the form of "direct" cups (fir) and in the form of leaf stalks called petioles (bald cypress, hemlock, and Douglas fir).

If your trees have single needles directly and singly attached to the twig, they will probably be spruces, firs, cypress or hemlocks. Read on for more specific identification tips.

Identifying Common North American Conifers

larch leaves in sunshine
View of larch leaves.

Photos by R A Kearton / Getty Images

Bald Cypress

This tree looks like a needled evergreen in summer, but is deciduous and loses needles in winter, hence the name. Leaves are "narrow, flat, alternate, spiral around the stem, and do not have any banding." Foliage turns reddish-brown in fall.


There are various types of cedars, but all have flattened sprays of scale-like leaves that grow on or around the twigs. The leaves are intersect with each other (known as "decussate"), less than a half-inch in length, and can be prickly in some species.

Douglas Fir

Native to coastal areas of North America, these firs have needles that are upturned and not whorled. Needles are "singly wrapped around the twig and between .75 to 1.25 inches long with a white line underneath." They are deciduous, falling off in winter, and not prickly.


The needles have two white "racing stripes" on the underside. They're attached singly to the twig, giving the leaf a flat look. Each needle attaches to the twig with a tiny stem, so remember, "Hems have stems."


Larches have buds with clusters of soft, flat needles. They're also deciduous, losing needles in winter after first turning golden yellow. The leaves grow in tufts, also known as "spur shoots," off branches, with each tuft reaching two inches in length and having up to 30 needles per tuft.


As mentioned before, pine needles occur in fascicles of 2, 3, or 5 per bundle. In hard pines, the base of the bundle is wrapped in a paper-like substance that lasts for the fascicle's life. In soft pines, this wrapping is lost during the fascicle's first growing season.


Spruce stand out because its needles grow out of "sterigmata," or little projections on the stem that are best seen closest to the tree's trunk. These grow singly, not in clumps. Spruce also have a four-sided needle.

View Article Sources
  1. "Taxodium distichum." North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox.

  2. "Quick Key to Identifying Hemlock." Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry.