When I started learning tree identification, one of my first goals was to find an easy method to quickly identify coniferous trees.
Most common types of coniferous trees can be easily identified by observing simple characteristics in how the tree grows, such as:
- How long are the needles?
- Are the needles soft or pokey?
- Do the needles grow in a flat plane or encircle the branch?
- What does the cone look like?
- Do the needles fall off in winter?
- Does the tree have scales rather than needles?
- Does the tree develop berries?
- What do the needles (or scales) smell like?
Compared to deciduous trees, conifers are a much easier place to start learning because they have less overall diversity and typically keep their leaves through the cold winters.
So here are some of the trees we’ll be covering today:
Let’s start at the beginning and get to know the mighty coniferous tree!
What Is A Coniferous Tree? (difference between coniferous and deciduous trees)
All trees on planet earth can be lumped into two broad categories: deciduous trees and coniferous trees.
Most people discern coniferous trees by the fact that they have needles (or scales) that stay on the tree all winter long. For this reason, coniferous trees are also known as evergreen trees. (though this is not true in every case, and we’ll get to exceptions in a later section)
The name “coniferous” actually comes from the fact that these trees make cones, which are their delivery device for seeds.
This is in contrast to deciduous trees, also known as broad-leafed trees (like maples & oaks), which have large paper-like fanned leaves that typically fall off the tree during winter and do not make cones.
(For more on the difference between coniferous & deciduous, check out my other article on coniferous vs deciduous forests)
The real challenge then, is knowing which type of coniferous tree you’re dealing with. So let’s talk about the most common types of conifers.
Pine Identification and the Difference Between Pine And Spruce
Pine trees are some of the easiest of all conifers to identify.
The main thing to look for are long needles coming off the branch in bundled sets typically ranging from 2 to 5 needles (these bundles also help indicate which type of pine it is).
Some common types of pines include:
- White pine
- Red Pine
- Jack Pine
- Lodgepole Pine
- Ponderosa Pine
However, when you’re first learning to identify pine trees it’s not essential to identify the exact species.
The most important thing is that you aren’t mixing up pines with spruces or other types of conifers, which is a common but easily fixed mistake.
Pine trees are the only conifers that have very long needles, so the biggest clue for telling pine trees from spruce, fir and hemlock is by the length of the needles.
Spruce needles are noticeably shorter than pine needles (1.5 – 2.5 cm) and have no clusters, so each needle connects directly to the branch.
These differences are incredibly easy to see when you get up close and study how the needles grow off the branch.
Some common types of spruce trees include:
- Red Spruce
- Black Spruce
- White Spruce
- Sitka Spruce
With practice you’ll also notice that pine trees tend to accumulate thick mats of needles underneath with a distinct pine smell that helps you identify much faster.
Luckily, most locations only have 1-3 specific types of pines or spruces, so once you tell these two groups apart, it’s very easy to narrow things down and identify the species.
Fir Tree Identification: Difference Between Spruce And Fir
If you know a tree bearing needles is not a pine, then the next most likely options are spruce and fir.
Spruce and fir trees are commonly misidentified because their needles are very similar in length & appearance. But it’s actually very easy to tell these trees apart too.
The easiest way to tell spruce and fir apart is by touching the needles and feeling whether the needle tips are sharp or soft.
The general rule is that spruce needles are sharp and pokey, while fir needles are soft and blunted. If you make a habit of routinely touching conifer needles, you’ll quickly learn to feel this difference.
Another tip is to use binoculars and study the cones growing high up in the tree. Fir tree cones grow upwards off the branch, while spruce cones grow down from above. Like this:
Some common types of Fir trees include:
- Balsam Fir
- Grand Fir
- White Fir
A common theme with all tree identification is that you need to start with careful observation up close. Then with practice you gradually become aware of more subtle clues that can be seen from longer distances.
Hemlock Identification: Difference Between Fir And Hemlock
Hemlock trees are commonly misidentified with fir because they’re a bit more rare and have very similar needle characteristics.
When I first learned to identify hemlock trees, I found the most important clue is the size of the needles.
Hemlock needles are noticeably shorter than fir, measuring at less than an inch in length, and sometimes as short as 1/3rd of an inch.
Fir needles also tend to curve slightly upwards giving a sense of volume to the needles, while hemlock needles grow on a completely flat plane.
A few more subtle traits that can help discern fir and hemlock:
- Habitat: Hemlock trees are significantly more tolerant of growing in shady conditions, typically growing in the sub canopy of an already established forest. Firs are more likely to be growing in forests with a good amount of partial or even full sun.
- Bent trunk leader: Hemlock trees have a distinctly bent trunk leader at the very top. Fir trees and all other conifers with healthy growth will have leaders that point straight up in line with the trunk.
- Cone size: Hemlock cones are also much smaller than fir cones.
Some common types of hemlock trees include:
- Eastern Hemlock
- Western Hemlock
- Mountain Hemlock
How To Identify Larch Or Tamarack
Larch trees are highly unique amongst conifers because they’re the only needle-bearing tree that loses its needles in winter.
The easiest times to identify larch trees is during fall when the needles turn bright yellow, and in spring when the needles are first emerging on the tree.
During winter, it’s very common for people to confuse larch trees with deciduous trees because the branches are so bare.
If there’s no snow, look at the ground beneath that tree. The presence of needles can alert you to the fact that it’s a larch and not deciduous.
Once the tree is old enough to produce cones, you may also see bare trees with cones during winter. At first you might think the tree is dead, but then in spring it comes back to life.
Even during summer, the larch needles are entirely unlike any other coniferous tree, growing in small clusters of 20 or more needles.
Some common types of Larch trees include:
- Eastern Larch (Tamarack)
- Western Larch
- Subalpine Larch
The name tamarack is most commonly applied to eastern larch. These trees are most common in the north, especially Canada.
How To Identify Cedar Trees
Cedar trees are fairly unique amongst conifers in that they do not have needles. Instead, cedars have a scaly green, almost fernlike foliage that is highly distinct from most other conifers.
Additionally, the bark rather than being scaly or deeply grooved, tends to run in stringy lines up and down the trunk. It peels quite easily and makes a very fibrous material.
(These bark fibers are excellent for making tinder bundles, which is exactly what I used in my bow drill video demonstrating primitive fire techniques.)
Cedars also have a distinctive smell that is very calming & meditative and used extensively in both traditional and modern aromatherapy as smudge or incense.
Because of their distinct appearance, cedars are some of the easiest coniferous trees to identify, however they can be confused with Junipers and cypress if you have those species in your area.
The two most common types of Cedar trees are:
- Western Red-cedar
- Northern White-cedar
Difference Between Cedar & Juniper
Junipers in general have a lot of diversity to their growth patterns.
Some Junipers like the ‘Common Juniper’ have small needles, which look and feel almost like miniature spruce foliage. Others like the Utah Juniper have scaly leaves that are very easily confused with cedars.
Two things to always remember about Junipers:
- They tend to grow short and shrublike rather than becoming full grown trees.
- They have small, blue, berry-like cones that are sometimes used in culinary or medicinal preparations.
The most confusing juniper is a tree called Eastern Redcedar, which looks a lot like a cedar tree, but IS actually a juniper (Juniperus Virginiana). It can grow as tall as 50 feet, so remember to look for those small blue berries to confirm.
Luckily most locations only have 1 species of wild Juniper, which actually makes them very easy to identify.
Some common types of Junipers include:
- Common Juniper (1-3 feet tall with short needles)
- Eastern Redcedar
- Utah Juniper
Other Rare Conifers To Know
There are a few other less common conifers to be aware of.
These trees only live in very specific areas, often requiring specific moisture and soil conditions.
Check your local resources if any of these trees are found in your area.
Yew – Pacific northwest. Similar to hemlock but bearing bright red berries. Needles are more pointed and lack the distinctly hemlock scent.
Redwoods/Sequoias – Western California. Huge trees grow taller and fatter than everything else in the world. If you see a stunningly massive tree in California, it’s probably one of these.
Baldcypress – Swampy areas in Southeastern USA
Cypress – Arid regions in Southwestern USA
Coniferous Tree Key: 6 Questions To Quickly Identify That Conifer!
The most important thing with coniferous tree identification is to keep it as simple as possible.
Start by learning the high-level differences between pine, spruce, fir, hemlock, larch, cedar & juniper.
This is simply a matter of asking a short series of sorting questions, which I’ve compiled into this easy-to-follow decision tree:
In most cases, these 6 questions are all you need to identify the basic grouping of any coniferous tree you could possibly encounter.
Once you know which type of conifer you’re dealing with, then it’s easy to narrow down the exact species by looking at local range maps for your immediate area.
Do you have any more questions about how to identify coniferous trees? Let me know in the comments!