How To Identify Conifer Trees

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How To Identify Conifers

and tell the difference between fir, spruce and pine

Hello! In this tutorial, we are going to learn all about how to identify conifers. You will soon be able to tell your pine from your spruce, your spruce from your fir, as easy as abc. Are you ready? Lets get started!

how to identify conifers

Let's learn how to identify conifer trees

Hello! In this tutorial, we will look at some of the different types of conifers and learn how to identify conifer trees. Are you ready? Let’s get started!

At first, identifying conifers can seem like an impossible task – they are all dark green, with needly leaves and cones. But once you know what to look for, you will quickly realise that underneath that mass of green needles, they are all pretty different. In fact, learning how to identify conifers can be really quick and easy! Let’s have a look at them.

Types of conifer tree

First, let’s meet our most common types of conifer tree. There are 10 types of conifer trees you are likely to encounter. These are:

  • Cedar
  • Cypress
  • Fir
  • Hemlock
  • Juniper
  • Larch
  • Pine
  • Sequoia
  • Spruce
  • Yew

How to identify conifers

Next, let’s look at how to identify them. As with anything in nature, identification is easy once you know how. To identify any conifer tree, we need only pay attention to four little things – their leaves, cones, branches and bark. Easy! Now let’s see how this works in practice.

Identifying conifers by their leaves

When deciding to identify a conifer tree by looking at its leaves, the main things we need to pay attention to, are the size and shape of the conifer’s leaves, their texture and how they are attached to the twigs.

  • Size or length – Are all the tree’s needles the same length or are they different lengths? Are they long or short?
  • Shape – Are the needles round, square or flat?
  • Texture – Are the needles smooth and sleek or are they scaly? Do they have any surface (or undersurface) markings?
  • Attachment – Are the leaves arranged singly or in groups or clusters? Also, are they attached straight to the stem or are they joined to it by little pegs?

Identifying conifers by their cones

When using cones to help identify a conifer tree, we need to know its shape, flexibility, scale shape and position on the tree.

  • Shape – Is the cone egg shaped or elongated? Does it look sleek, bumpy or frilly?
  • Flexibility – Is the cone hard and woody or can you flex it (even a little bit)?
  • Scales – Are the scales thick or thin? Are they angular, rounded or wavy?
  • Position – Do the cones dangle down beneath the branches or stand up on top like candles?
  • Lastly – Does a conifer look like it has berries instead of cones? Or even, miniature cones?

Identifying conifers by their branches

This may not be the easiest way to identify conifers, but it as an additional clue that you can use. The main things to look for, are the location of the branches on the tree trunk, their bendiness and the general direction of the branches.

  • Location – Are the branches clustered at the top of the tree or spread along the whole length of the tree? Are they spaced apart or packed closely together?
  • Bendiness – Can you flex the branches or they they rigid?
  • Direction – Do the branches curve upwards or downwards? Or do they appear to stick straight out to the sides?

Identifying conifers by their bark

As with many trees, bark can only be used as a reliable clue when looking at younger trees. Because, as the tree matures and its bark thickens, it loses its quirks and identifiable personality.

  • Texture – Is the bark flaky, scaly or fibrous?
  • Colour – Does the bark look grey, red or brown?

Right! Are you ready to meet some conifers? Let’s get started!

How to identify pine trees

Pine needles – The easiest way to identify a pine tree, is by looking at its needles. Pine needles grow in little bunches called fascicles. Each fascicle is gathered at its base by a little twist or knot. The needles are all quite long, and they are round in cross section. If you look at their arrangements along the twig, you might also notice that the fascicles spiral along the length of the twigs. (Also, as a point of interest, the layer of pine needles you see lying on the forest floor, is actually called duff!)

Pine cones – The cones on a pine tree are another give away. They are egg-shaped, hard and woody and hang down below the branches.

Pine branches – While pine trees tend to be quite tall, they they actually have relatively few branches. The branches they do have, are bunched up near the very top of the tree, leaving a long length of bare trunk at the bottom.

Pine tree bark – Bark on pine trees has a characteristic plated pattern and a reddish colour.

How to identify spruce trees

Spruce needles – Spruce needles are short and stiff. They grow in ones and are attached to their branch by little wooden pegs. If you pluck a spruce needle off its branch, this peg is left behind. This makes spruce branches look quite scruffy (another clue!). They are also square in cross-section.

Spruce cones – Like pine, spruce cones dangle down beneath the branches. But, unlike pine, spruce cones tend to be long, thin and relatively bendy. They also have a much smoother, sleeker silhouette, compared to the more knobbly pine cones.

Spruce branches – Unlike the pine, whose branches are confined to the top of the tree, spruce branches can be found all the way up the tree, right from its tip to its toes. They tend to arch upwards and are wider at the bottom than at the top – making the spruce a perfect pictorial Christmas tree!

Spruce bark – The bark on spruce trees tends to be very rough and knobbly – especially on the branches, due to the little pegs left behind as the needles fall off. Although, the bark on the tree trunk is also rough and scaly.

How to identify fir trees

Fir needles – Like spruce needles, fir needles are also short and attached in ones to the branches. They could easily be mistaken for spruce, but, unlike spruce, the needles of fir trees are soft and flexible; flat in cross-section with two white lines underneath and instead of pegs, they are attached to their branches by round plates (which look a bit like mini suction cups).

Fir cones – In contrast to pine cones and spruce cones, fir cones can be distinguished by standing up on top of the branches – a bit like candles on a Christmas tree. They are also much more colourful and can be purple, blue, brown or black.

Fir branches – The branches of fir trees have a downwards arch to them and like spruce, can be found along the whole length of the trunk. The way to distinguish them, is the density of the branches – fir branches are more widely spaced than the packed in spruce.

Fir bark – The bark on fir trees is smooth and grey, becoming more furrowed as the tree matures and ages.

How to identify yew trees

Yew needles – The needles on yew trees, are flat, with pointed ends, and attached to their branches by little green stalks.

Yew cones – Unlike pine, spruce and fir, yews actually have small red berries. These have a characteristic cave in the surface of the berry, with the seed buried beneath (which is very poisonous).

Yew branches – The yew is a very dense, shrubby sort of tree and rarely grows as tall as the trees previously mentioned.

Yew bark – This is a dark, reddish brown colour, with lots of deep, flaky fissures.

yew tree berries

How to identify a hemlock tree

Hemlock leaves – The leaves of the hemlock are also flat, but unlike the yew, they grow in uneven lengths and are much softer and floppy – they give the tree a very feathery appearance. They have faint white bands underneath and like the spruce, are attached to their branch by little pegs (again, much finer than spruce pegs).

Hemlock cones – These tend to be oval in shape, with large, loose plates.

Hemlock branches – The branches of hemlock are soft, flexible and droopy, contributing to the tree’s graceful, feathery appearance.

How to identify a true cedar tree

Cedar leaves – The leaves of true cedars look much like pine – they are long, round and grow in clusters. But, they are shorter than pine needles and stiffer. They are also highly scented.

Cedar cones – These are very small and dainty compared to the cones already mentioned.

Cedar branches – In growth habit, cedar branches are very densely packed together.

How to identify a cypress tree

Cypress leaves – These are flat like fir, yew and hemlock, but, are characterised by a scaly, fern-like appearance. 

Cypress cones – These are small and round, and look a little bit like wooden berries.

How to identify a Douglas fir

Douglas fir leaves – The leaves of the Douglas fir, are short, soft, singular leaves with a white line underneath.

Douglas fir cones – These are down-turned like spruce cones – in fact, they look exactly like spruce, but have little mouse feet projections between their scales.

How to identify a larch tree

Larch leaves – Larch are medium length, round in cross-section and grow in rosettes. around the the branch.

Larch cones – Larch cones are small and often circular. They have a dainty appearance with frilly scales and grow on top of the branch.

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