Identifying Conifers by Their Needles

closeup of spruce fir needles in low light

Treehugger / Autumn Wood

On true pine trees and larches, needles are arranged and attached to the branches in bundles or clusters with two, three, or five needles per bunch, however, the needles of other conifers including spruce, fir, and hemlock trees are not grouped in these clusters and thus they can only be identified by other traits of the needles, branches, and bark.

Spruce and fir have their needles attached individually to the branches using different attachments called pegs, suction cups, and stalks, which are never bundled. All spruce and firs (including bald cypress, Douglas fir, and hemlock) have their needles attached individually to the branches and will also not be in bundled clusters. 

So, if your tree does have single needles that are directly and singly attached to the twig, you will often likely either have a fir tree or a spruce tree. These twig attachments will be in the form of wooden pegs for spruce and in the form of direct cups for fir. Conifers with leaf stalks called petioles will be bald cypress, hemlock, and Douglas fir trees.

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Identifying the Major Firs

Fir needles and cones

Robert Vidéki/Doronicum Kft. /

Fir needles are typically short and mostly soft with blunt tips. The cones are cylindrical and upright and the shape is very narrow with rigid, upright, or horizontal branching as opposed to "drooping" branches on some spruce trees.

Fir tree needles are soft and flat and are affixed to the twig with attachments that resemble suction cups instead of pegs or stalks. These needles are arranged in two rows and grow outward, curving up from the twig to form a flattish spray. 

When you are trying to identify fir trees, look for erect and upturned cones growing off branches. However, be aware that there are over 50 species of these trees worldwide, with small differences between them. So while you may have been able to identify the genus of the tree (Abies), there are still many more ways to classify these trees.

Common species of firs in North American include balsam, Pacific silver fir, California red fir, noble fir, grand fir, white fir, ​Fraser fir, and ​Douglas fir.

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Identifying the Major Spruces

Spruce tree with cone and needles

Dave Powell/USDA Forest Service (retired) /

All spruce trees have sharp-pointed needles that are often 4-sided or diamond-shaped in cross-section and have four whitish striped lines. These needles are attached to the twig with wooden pegs called a pulvinus, which can also be referred to as a sterigmatum.

The arrangement of the needles are whorled and radiate equally around the branch and have the look of a bristle brush, and the cones growing off these branches are downturned.

One can generally identify spruce trees by their overall shape, which is typically narrowly conical. These trees are often used as Christmas trees, in colder northern states and Canada as they are native to northern temperate and boreal (taiga) regions of the earth.

Spruce has many species within the genus, Picea, but there are about eight important species in North America including the red spruce, Colorado blue spruce, black spruce, Sitka spruce, white spruce, and the Englemann spruce.

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Identifying Trees with Needles Attached to Leaf Stalks

Douglas fir
Douglas fir Leaf Stalks. Creative Commons/

There are several conifers that have needles that are flattened and attached to the twig with leaf stalks — which are also called petioles by some botanists. These slender stems support and attach the larger single needle to the branch.

If the needles and twig fit this description you will probably have either a Douglas Fir, bald cypress or hemlock tree. However, further observations of the shape, size, and growth of the cones and tree itself will be required to determine not only the genus but the species of the individual tree.

Much of the northeastern United States is covered in these types of conifers, many of which take hundreds of years to reach full height and maturity. Although most grow quite tall, trees like the Eastern hemlock often droop, which is a defining characteristic of that particular species of hemlock.