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How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir ?

Understanding Conifers

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir trees

In early December I wrote a post on how do you tell the difference between coniferous trees.

This mostly outlined some of the similarities and differences between Tsuga sp. (hemlocks) and Pseudotsuga (Douglas fir). In addition it included a little information on Abies sp. (firs).

In this post I am going to look at fir and spruce (Picea sp.) trees. So how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir trees? First of all, spruce trees.

Picea species (spruce trees)
How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir trees

My little Collins book notes there are around 40 species of Picea – wow! I definitely don’t know all of them. None are native to the UK. The Norway spruce (Picea abies) is the most common in Europe.

The book describes them “an uncomfortable bunch”.  To help me remember botanically, I use spiky spruce so I can relate to the uncomfortable bunch description.

scaly spruce bark

Spruce needles are generally sharper than fir needles – ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘spiky’. Sometimes they are described as whorled, like a bottle brush. The Collins book also describes a thin, scaly bark.

In the last post I mentioned that neither Abies nor Pseudotsuga species have a peg whereas Tsuga species do. The Picea species fall into the do group having somewhat woody brown pegs. However, spruce needles have no petiole, unlike the hemlocks.

How do you tell the difference between spruce species ?

On a spruce leaves (needles) could be flat or angled. With the Norway they tend to be angled, sort of having four sides. Sitka needles usually are flat. In fact the Collins book describes Sitka needles as “much flattened”.

I have personally struggled with this as a differentiating feature between the two species. Occasionally the Norway needles seems a little more flat than angled. Perhaps this is down to practice.

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir
Picea sp. with pendent cones

Sitka needles are more spiky than Norway. Norway are green with very faint white lines. Sitka are paler on the underside.

The shoots of the Sitka are yellowy/whitish pale brown. Whereas those of the Norway are much darker, almost orangey-red. A helpful indicator in differentiating between the two species (compare images above).

The cones on spruce trees are pendent i.e. they hang down. The size of the cone varies. The Norway usually has larger, longer cones between 10-20cm. Cones have a sort of curve shape to them. You may notice in the images above. They are not hard like pine cones. In fact they are almost papery-like and squishy.

and some other coniferous and spruce notes…

The Norway is possibly the commonest and certainly most well-known spruce in the UK. It is the traditional Christmas tree. This is the species in Trafalgar Square in London every year.

Sitka, a North American species, is commonly grown by the forestry commission in wet forests. In fact it can be a little yellow if it doesn’t get enough water. It can grow quite well in Scotland but is rarer in drier areas south of the UK. Fast growing so popular for timber and paper production. Believed the third largest tree species in the world. The Douglas fir, mentioned in the previous post, is second largest.

And so, to help us answer how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir … we now need to look at the typical features of the fir.

Medicinal Uses:

Picea mariana more commonly known as black spruce is a popular essential oil. The oil is steam distilled from the needles. It is decongestant so beneficial for respiratory infections. Useful for nervous exhaustion. Energetically it is warming. I like it in vaporisation or inhalation when you are literally exhausted from coughing and spluttering.

It is reputedly beneficial in massage for muscle aches and pains and poor circulation although I personally haven’t used it in this way. It is an oil that I sometimes like the aroma of and other times detest.

Abies species (fir trees)
how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir

As already mentioned above fir trees have no peg. If you pull a needle off a small scar will be left. You can see a small green scar where I have pulled out a leaf from the Grecian fir (image to right). The scar can just be seen to left of the text on the twig. It looks like a sort of round sucker.

Cones on fir trees are upright and erect. Think of soldiers standing to attention. They disintegrate on the tree so you will rarely find a cone on the ground unlike spruce or pine cones. The featured header photograph for this post shows cones on an Abies (fir) tree growing beside the church in Foix in the Ariege. You can clearly see the upright cones.

Some different fir species…

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir

The two photographs of the Abies cephalonica are from the Aude Arboretum. This fir is more commonly known as the Grecian fir.

My little Collins book describes the Grecian fir as having almost perpendicular shiny green leaves all around the shoot “radiating stiffly”. The leaves are certainly shiny green.

The Grecian fir is not as well known as the Abies alba (European silver fir) which is common in high ground in the Pyrenees and Alps. The wood is white hence ‘alba’. Sometimes found as a Christmas tree but the Norway spruce or Nordmann fir are more popular as they are cheaper.

How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir

Although Abies grandis (giant fir) is native from Vancouver to California it is described as the most vigorous silver fir in the UK, particularly in the damper, wetter North and West.

It has citrus-grapefruit smelling leaves. The Collins book describes this a “delicious tangerine scent”. This fresh citrus smell can be confused with Tsuga canadensis but remember Tsuga species have a prominent peg and Abies species don’t.

Another indicator for the giant fir is apparently the twig shoots are quite dark brown, almost black in colour. Not a great indicator without comparison.

Medicinal Uses:

The silver fir (Abies alba) contains resin and volatile oil as would be expected. The essential oil or the resin are utilised medicinally.

The resin is recommended by Menzies-Trull as a liniment. The liniment he indicates externally for respiratory or rheumatic disorders and also for impetigo – a skin infection.

The essential oil he recommends for inhalation.

So to sum up … How do you tell the difference between spruce and fir …


I read this little mnemonic somewhere which I thought was quite helpful. “Picea Pegs Poke-Out, Abies ‘Asnt Any!” You just need remember that Picea is spruce and Abies is fir. Remember spruce has no petiole unlike the hemlocks.


Picea or spruce usually will have more spiky needles than the fir. I think of Spiky Spruce, Feathery Fir. Okay so Abies aren’t what you would call feathery, more leathery really, but they are more ‘feathery’ than the spiky Picea.


One of the simplest ways to answer how do you tell the difference between spruce and fir is with the cones. Look at the tree. Cones on a spruce are hanging down. You are likely to find them fallen on the ground. Those on a fir are upright. It is rare to find fir cones on the ground.


BSc (Hons) Herbal Medicine /
Diploma in Aromatherapy & Essential Oil Science

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