What’s the Difference Between Pine, Spruce and Fir Trees?



Coniferous forest in front of a mountain range. Lake in foreground.

Coniferous Forest in the Cascade Mountains


Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree! When you think of a Christmas tree or any “evergreen” tree, do you ever wonder what the difference is between the types, or species? You may have heard the terms pine and spruce, hemlock and fir but never really could tell one from the other. Well, let’s take a look.

Common “softwoods”, these trees are relatively less dense than their hardwood counterparts, such as oak, maple, hickory and ash. What makes a hardwood versus a softwood is a little more complicatedly and can be found here, but let’s consider the cone-bearing, or coniferous, trees as softwoods and look at some of the differences.

You will find a variety of what are often called “evergreen” trees, but are actually types of pines, firs, spruces, and hemlock trees. All these trees are evergreen, meaning they are never without some green “leaves”, no matter the season, but not all evergreen trees are pines, spruces, firs, etc. To be more accurate we will refer to them as conifers. Common across the US and Canada, these trees are the traditional “Christmas Tree” types with needles and cones and mainly shaped like a pyramid. Most of Canada’s trees are conifers. In fact, over 50% of all Canadian trees are spruce species and if you’ve ever flown over Canada, you may have found yourself in awe at the sheer number of the green spires that stretch from coast to coast.

The woodlands of the United States are somewhat more diverse in composition and distribution. The eastern half of the United States has a greater percentage of hardwoods, led by oak and hickory forests, whereas the western states enjoy a majority of pines, firs and spruces covering their woodlands.

To tell the difference between a pine tree, a fir and a spruce, you can start by looking at the needles. Needles are found either in clusters or individually attached to the stem of a branch. Also, they will be either round or flattened. Further, you will find them either attached to the stem or to a small wooden peg.

Close up of a fir branch showing its needles

Fir Tree branch


Pine trees will have needles grouped in clusters- either 2, 3 or 5 needles. Interestingly, a red pine will have three needles and a white pine will have five needles, which can be remembered by the fact that RED has three letters and WHITE has five. Pine cones are very hard, woody and rough.

Spruce trees are the most numerous conifer in North America. They can be distinguished by their needles, which are squarish, rather than flat or round and which attach to little wooden pegs. Spruce cones are smoother and more flexible than pine cones and usually “drape” downward from the trees. Allegedly, the oldest living tree in the world is a Norway Spruce tree in Sweden, at over 9,500 years of age!

Fir trees have cones that stand up on branches instead of hanging. The cones are similar to spruce cones, softer and more flexible than pine cones. The major difference can be found in the needles of the fir which stick out individually from the branch. The Douglas fir is the most numerous of the fir tree varieties in North America and is a popular choice as a Christmas tree.

Tsuga, or Hemlock tree. Closeup of branches covered with snow on the needles and cones.

Hemlock Tree 


A couple other conifers of note include the hemlock and the sequoia. The hemlock tree will have branches that stick out horizontally from the trunk. The needles are typically much softer and laid out is a flat pattern. The sequoia is the family to which the Coast Redwood belongs. These redwood trees, found on the west coast of the US produce some of the tallest trees in the world including one named Hyperion, which hold the current record as the tallest know living tree, at more than 380 feet!

Redwood Highway in California showing cars on a road between giant sequoia trees

Redwood Highway

Next time you are camping, test see if you can use your new knowledge to name your local trees!