Beginners Guide to Identifying Conifers – In 3 Easy Steps

Beginners Guide to Identifying Conifers – In 3 Easy Steps

March 13, 2019 0 By Foragers Folly

Identifying Conifers | A Beginners Guide

Way back in the dark days of early January, I wrote an article on “10 Reasons why you should Be Foraging for Pine Needles”. Without a doubt, this has been my most visited post by far. Why don’t you pop over and take a look at it? However, following this article, there was one question that I was asked on multiple occasions. Said question was, “how can I tell the difference between pine, spruce and fir?” Therefore, to answer that specific question, I’ve written a beginners guide to identifying the 3 conifers.

So, in today’s post I’m addressing the question in a manner that’s easy to follow. Don’t worry, though, it’s not my intention to go into long winded descriptions of each of the trees. No, my aim, 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.

2 Factoids!

However, before I move on, there are two pieces of information I would like to share with you. For instance, although we refer to conifers as having needles, those needles are in fact, their leaves. Also, there are only 3 conifers native to the UK. These are the, Scots Pine, Yew and Juniper trees.

Beginners Guide to Identifying Conifers

Now that that’s over with, let’s get started…here’s a REALLY QUICK guide to help you differentiate between them in 3 easy steps :

Beginners Guide to Conifers - Pine

First, let’s take a look at Pine. These trees are very unique, as they are the only conifer whose needles grow in clusters. Bearing in mind, of course, that different varieties of pine come in varying cluster bundles. They are either clusters of 2 (Scots Pine, as in the photo), 3 or 5.

Beginners Guide to Identifying Conifers - Spruce

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 rather unique square shape .

Beginners #guide to Identifying Conifers - Fir Tree

Last, but not least. Fir trees also have single, flat needles growing around the twig, however, unlike the Spruce, they are attached with a “suction like” cup or cap. They also have 2 distinctive white stripes on the underside of their needles.

How easy was that!? Notably, all you need to remember is ‘Cluster’ Pine, ‘Rolling’ Spruce and ‘Sucker’ Fir! And now you have no reason to not get up close and personal with a conifer tree of your choice!

Fir Cone Mice!

The following story and photograph has been shared by a Forager’s Folly follower, Kate Riley, from a post she originally shared to Facebook…

“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 themselves 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 to Identifying Conifers

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. (unique point)
  • 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 can easily be rolled between finger tips. (unique point)
  • 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 a spruce, but are attached around the branch with, what is best described as a “suction cup”. (unique point) Once you see it you’ll understand straight away what I mean!

Interesting fact: Douglas fir bark is non-flammable.


Other Conifers

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)

Beginners Guide to Identifying Conifers - Juniper

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)

Beginners Guide to Identifying Conifers - Hemlock

Hemlock needles attach straight to the stem. They’re similar to the woody projections of a spruce but much finer. Also, the needles of a hemlock are flattened. 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)

A Beginners Guide to Identifying Conifers - Yew

Yews might be mistaken as 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 an obvious 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:

Trees Native to Britain and Common Non Native Trees

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

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