Christmas Conifers

How to Tell a Fir From a Spruce

When looking for the perfect Christmas tree, it can be helpful to know the difference between a spruce and a fir.
Photo: Kenburn Orchards

Question: In your article Myths About Christmas Tree Care, you mentioned that firs held on to their needles longer than spruces and thus made better Christmas trees. But how can I tell the two apart?

Juliette

Answer: I was assuming that readers could simply ask the salesperson on the Christmas tree sales lot to show them, but, true enough, the dealer could be busy or maybe you’re going out to a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm and it would be a long walk back to the sales desk to ask. 

If so, here are some handy pointers:

First, from a certain distance, the two trees certainly look very much alike. Both firs (Abies spp.) and spruces (Picea spp.) are evergreens with persistent narrow needles that are fairly short (unlike most pines), branches that form a whorl and a distinctly pyramidal habit. And both are native to the northern hemisphere, typically growing in mountains or in northern regions.

Up Close

The differences are more readily seen up close.

Pointed needles on a spruce.
You can tell this is a spruce by its stiff, pointed needles that aren’t flat like fir needles. Photo: zenseekers.com

First, the spruce has a 4-angled needle, meaning you can roll it between your thumb and forefinger. A fir needle is 2-angled and therefore flat, so you can’t roll it.

Or touch the tip of the needle. A spruce needle will be stiff, sharp and prickly while a fir needle is usually rounded or notched at the end. In the few species where it is pointed, the tip remains soft and flexible, not prickly.

Underside of fir needle with white stripes.
The underside of a fir needle shows two white stripes. Photo: Benjamin Zwittnig, Wikimedia CommonsThe underside of a fir needle shows two white stripes. Photo:

Also, the underside of the fir needle has two white lines; spruce needles don’t.

Finally, if you can see the bark (on commercially grown trees, it’s often totally hidden by branches), that of a spruce tree is usually rough; that of a fir tree will be smooth, at least on Christmas tree size specimens.

How to Tell From Afar

Mature spruces and firs both bear cones (which is why we call them conifers) and if they are at that stage in their life (younger tree rarely produce cones), you can tell the two apart from a distance just by looking at the cones. Not by their size, shape or color, which can vary from species to species, but by their habit: spruce cones are always pendulous while those of firs are always upright.

Best of luck searching for your perfect Christmas tree!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

4 comments on “How to Tell a Fir From a Spruce

  1. It is easier for us, since spruce are almost never available as cut Christmas trees, and are not grown for such locally. Even in landscapes, spruce are rare, and most of the rare spruce are blue spruce, which are easy to distinguish from firs.

  2. Could be further West. In the Northeast, its mostly fir.

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