Identifying Conifers | A Beginners Guide
Way back in the cold, dark days of early January 2019, I wrote an article on “10 Reasons why you should Be Foraging for Pine Needles”. And, without a doubt, this has been my most visited post by far. However, following this article, one question was raised on multiple occasions. Said question is, “how can I tell the difference between pine, spruce and fir?” So, to answer that specific question, I’ve written this beginners guide to help you identify them.
You’ll be pleased to hear that in today’s post, I’m addressing the above question in a manner that’s easy to follow. So don’t panic; it’s not my intention to go into long-winded descriptions of each of the trees. No, my aim here, is to share just a few points with you. The main point being, of course, how you can tell the difference between them. That said, should you wish more information on each tree, I’ve linked each of them to the Woodland Trust website.
However, before I move on, there are two pieces of information I would like to share with you. Such as, although we refer to conifers as having needles, those needles are in fact, their leaves. Also, there are only three conifers native to the UK. These are Scots Pine, Yew and Juniper trees.
Beginners Guide to Identifying Conifers
Now that that’s over with let’s get started…here’s a QUICK guide to help you differentiate between them in 3 easy steps :
So, let’s start by taking a look at Pine. These trees are unique, and this is because they’re the only conifer with needles that grow in clusters. You should bear in mind; however, that different varieties of Pine come in varying cluster bundles. And these grow in groups of 2 (Scots Pine, as in the photo above), 3 or 5.
Moving on, let’s take a quick look at the Spruce. Their single needles attach to the stalk with a woody projection. They’re the only needle, out of the 3, that you can roll between your fingers, as they have a unique square shape.
Last, but not least. Fir trees also have single, flat needles growing around the twig; however, unlike the Spruce, they’re attached with a “suction like” cup or cap. They also have two distinctive white stripes on the underside of their needles.
How easy was that!? Notably, all you need to remember is ‘Cluster’ Pine, ‘Square’ Spruce and Fir ‘Sucker’! And now you have no reason not to get up close and personal with a conifer tree of your choice!
A Sneaky Wee Recipe For You!
Lemon Posset & Pine Needle Shortbread
- 300 ml double cream
- 75 g caster sugar
- 1 large lemons zest and juice only
Pine Needle Shortbread
- preheat oven to 175°C
- 75 g fresh pine needles and/or tips –Douglas Fir or Scots Pine
- 150 g unsalted butter softened
- 75 g granulated sugar
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Pinch of salt
- 300 g plain flour
- Place the double cream and the sugar into a large pan over a low heat and bring to the boil slowly. Boil for three minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- Add the lemon juice and zest and whisk well.
- Pour the lemon cream mixture into 6 small glasses and refrigerate for three hours.
- Finely chop the pine needles in a food processor or coffee grinder. Remove any large pieces.
- In a large bowl, combine the pine needles, butter, sugar, lemon zest, and salt. Mix with a wooden spoon until creamy.
- Gradually add the flour, mixing thoroughly after each addition to form a buttery ball of dough.
- Divide the dough between 2 large sheets of wax or grease proof paper. Using the paper as an aid, roll each piece of dough into a 1.5-inch diameter sausage shape. Wrap in cling film and freeze for 15 minutes.
- Unwrap the dough and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds.
- To bake, place the cookies 1 inch apart on baking paper-lined baking sheets. Bake until the edges are golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
The Fir Cone Mice Legend!
“Indigenous legend in the Pacific Northwest tells of a great fire in the forest. All of the animals were fleeing from the encroaching flames, but the tiny mice with their short little mouse-legs were not quick enough to outrun the fire. In danger of being engulfed in the flames, they asked the strong and stoic Douglas-fir trees for help. The trees allowed them to climb up their thick, fire-resistant trunks and hide in their fir cones. The mice took shelter inside the cones and survived the terrible fire. And even today you can see the little hind feet and tails of the mice sticking out from beneath the scales of the fir cones.
Slightly More Than a Beginners Guide!
SCOTS PINE | (PINUS SYLVESTRIS)
- Uniquely, pine needles always grow in clusters from a single origin point on a branch.
- Scots pine needles grow in clusters of 2.
- Their needles tend to grow to greater lengths than other conifers. (Up to 16 inches!)
- Surprisingly, the needles are soft, not sharp.
- Other varieties of pine grow needles in clusters of 3s (yellow pines) or 5s (white pines).
Interesting fact – only pine tree needles grow in clusters.
NORWAY SPRUCE | (Picea abies)
- Spruce needles tend to be short and stiff. (they remind me of bottle washers!)
- Their needles grow from a single origin point and are attached to small, stalk-like woody projections.
- The needles are square and roll between your fingertips.
- They have a lovely lemony taste.
Interesting fact: Norway spruce became popular as a Christmas tree when Prince Albert introduced an old German custom of decorating the tree with lights.
DOUGLAS FIR | (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
- Douglas Fir was introduced to the UK in 1827 by Scottish botanist David Douglas.
- The needles are soft and flat with 2 white stripes underneath.
- These needles grow from a single point of origin like spruce, but are attached around the branch with, what is best described as a “suction cup”. Once you see it you’ll understand straight away what I mean!
Interesting fact: Douglas fir bark is non-flammable.
However, there are other trees that could easily be mistaken for pine, spruce or fir. But, once you’ve examined them for identification purposes, you’ll find they won’t fit the descriptions above. If that’s the case, it could be one of the following:
JUNIPER | (JUNIPERUS COMMUNIS)
Junipers have short, spiky needles and berries that are green when young, turning blue when mature. They also tend to grow more like shrubs or bushes.
Interesting fact: Juniper berries are the only spice that derives from conifers
HEMLOCK | (TSUGA HETEROPHYLLA)
Hemlock needles attach straight to the stem. They’re similar to the woody projections of spruce but much more delicate. Also, the needles of hemlock are flat. And, when you crush the needles between your fingers, you get a lovely grapefruit scent.
Interesting fact: this plant is not related to the highly toxic hemlock herb.
YEW | (Taxus baccata)
Yews can be mistaken for fir trees because of their similar flat needles. However, unlike the fir, the yew needle has a sharp point, with no white lines underneath. Also, they don’t grow cones, but instead, red berries with a visible hole in the centre, which houses the seed. The needles, along with the seed inside the red, fleshy berry, are highly toxic and shouldn’t be consumed under any circumstances.
Interesting Fact: There are 10 yew trees in Britain that are said to pre date the 10th Century! (Source, Woodland Trust)
CEDAR | Cedrus libani
Cedar needles grow in individual, rosette-like clusters from the branch and they’re often found in parks and gardens in the UK.
Interesting Fact: In the UK, cedar was planted in nearly every stately home and mansion from the 1740s onwards, however it is not commonly planted today.
The Woodland Trust have 2 great tree lists that might be of interest to you, click the links below to find out more:
Here’s hoping that this quick, easy guide is enough to get you outdoors to forage for conifer needles. Or at least enough to entice you to start the identification process. Why don’t you keep a growth dairy, and start taking some close-ups of the three trees throughout the seasons? Then, without even realising it, you’ll begin to differentiate between the cone growths and bark of each tree. Which, by the way, is an excellent rule of thumb for any plant you wish to learn. Observe and photograph it throughout the seasons, keeping notes along the way. Which reminds me, why don’t you take a peek at my post ‘My Top 3 Foraging Tips’.
And finally, take care and stay safe. And of course, don’t forget to subscribe!
Until next time, Susan & Caber