Use Needles to Identify Common North American Coniferous Trees

Bright green needles on a Spruce Tree.

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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

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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

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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 from 2 to 5 needles and are evergreen. Most larches have multiple clusters of needles in whorls. Note: Although a conifer, larch tree needles will turn yellow, and it sheds its needle cluster annually.

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.