Identify and recognize 5 familiar coniferous trees by their needles

Get to know 5 popular conifers quickly and easily. I'll show you how to identify the conifers just by using their needles.

from Martin Gebhardt | Plants / fungi | reading time 5 Min
Updated on 02 October 2023 119.371 views 98% found this guide helpful
Identify and recognize 5 familiar coniferous trees by their needles

Martin Gebhardt

From Martin Gebhardt. Check out my “About me” page.


👉 The key facts from this guide

  • Learn how to identify spruces, firs, pines, yews, and Douglas firs by their needles.
  • Spruces have two white stomatal bands on the underside of the needles and a suction cup on the needles.
  • Firs have sharply pointed and hard needles.
  • Pines have multiple needles at the base of the leaf (usually two in Germany).
  • Yews have a needle tip with a small stem that transitions to the branch and a green scale at the end.
  • Douglas firs emit a lemon-like scent when their needles are crushed.

Do you know how to identify our most famous needle trees?

I didn't know - so I went on a journey.

In a forest I found all five representatives.

Now learn how to identify our native needle trees based on their needles.

The video guide

Watch my video where I introduce all five needle trees and how to recognize and identify them (in German).

The fir

The fir is widespread in Germany and all over the world. It grows 30 to 50 meters tall - sometimes over 65 meters.

It grows narrowly conical and an identifying feature is the upright cones.

A fir tree can live up to 500 to 600 years under favorable conditions.

Now let's look at the needles:

The needles of the fir are often rounded and not prickly
The needles of the fir are often rounded and not prickly

The two distinct white stomata stripes underneath the needles are visible on the lower picture.

The needles of the fir sit directly on the branch with a small suction cup
The needles of the fir sit directly on the branch with a small suction cup
Another type of fir with clearly visible suctions cups on the needles
Another type of fir with clearly visible suctions cups on the needles

Identifying firs by their needles

Distinct identifying features compared to the other listed needle trees:

  • Two distinct white stomata stripes on the underside of the needles
  • The needle base sits on the branch with a small suction cup

Other characteristics of the fir

Color of needles fresh green, green, bluish-green, grayish-green, glossy dark green, light green depending on species
Length of needles vary in length depending on the species of fir
Needle tip rounded
Underneath of needles two distinct white stomatal lines; needle base with suction cup on branch

Bushcraft and Survival Facts About Fir

The fir tree has some edible parts, such as:

  • the young, soft shoot tips (for example, as tea)
  • the cambium (cooked in spring)
  • flower buds as a spice
  • the seeds (for example, roasted)

The wood of the fir tree is similar to that of the spruce tree. Both woods are almost identical and very similar in their properties.

The Spruce Tree

The common spruce tree grows to about 40 meters high (in exceptions up to 50 meters).

The spruce tree is typical of its sharp needles, hanging cones, and straight, columnar trunk.

The spruce tree lives to be about 200 to 300 years old (exceptions are 500 to 600 years).

Now, about the needles:

The needles of local spruce trees are hard and pointed
The needles of local spruce trees are hard and pointed

Identifying Spruce Trees by Their Needles

Good distinguishing feature compared to other listed conifers:

  • The needles are hard and sharp (it really hurts, other common conifers don't sting as much)
  • The base of the needle is woody (not like a suction cup like the fir tree)

Additional characteristics:

Color of needles green, dark green, blue-green, gray
Length of needles 0.8 to 3 cm depending on the species
Tip of needles stiff, slightly pointed, pointed to very pointed depending on the species
Underside of needles sometimes two white stomatal bands

Bushcraft and Survival facts about spruce trees

The spruce tree has some edible parts, such as:

  • the cones
  • the cambium
  • the bud tips
  • the flower buds
  • the seeds
  • the needles

The energy-rich parts are the seeds.

For outdoor craftsmen, spruce wood is a great building and construction wood. It can be easily sawn, planed, drilled, sanded, and split.

The Pine Tree

In our native forests, you mainly find the black pine and the forest pine.

Pine trees can grow up to 30 meters (rarely up to 40 meters) high. Age: 200 to 300 years (individual specimens 500-600 years).

Pine trees usually have two needles at the base of the leaf. Other pine species have up to 5 needles at the base of the leaf.

Native pine trees are recognized by their needle bases having multiple needles
Native pine trees are recognized by their needle bases having multiple needles

Identification features of the pine tree

Distinguishing feature compared to other listed conifers:

  • Multiple needles at the base of the leaf (usually two to five)

Other features:

Needle color dark green, bluish-green
Needle length 4 to 7 cm long
Needle tip roundish to slightly pointed
Underside of needle no difference from upper side

Bushcraft and survival facts about the pine tree

The pine tree has some edible parts, such as:

  • the cones
  • new growth tips (e.g., for tea)
  • the seeds
  • the flowers

The energy-rich parts are the seeds.

Like the spruce, the pine tree is also a great building and construction wood for bushcrafters. It can also be easily worked and split with a knife.

The Yew Tree

The yew tree grows 10 to 15 meters tall. Occasionally up to 20 meters. This makes the conifer one of the smallest conifers in our forests.

Unfortunately, the yew tree only occurs sporadically or when actively planted.

Attention: The yew tree is poisonous due to the poison taxin. Needles, seeds, wood, even the sawdust when turning – everything is poisonous to us humans.

Did you know that deer and deer can eat yew trees without hesitation, but we humans can die from it? 30 to 50 needles are probably enough. The same goes for cows, goats, and horses: the risk of death is high if they eat yew trees.

The bark of the yew tree consists of a reddish-brown bark that later becomes scaly.

The needles are spirally arranged on the leading shoots. They grow in two rows on the lateral branches.

The needles of the yew tree are rounded and soft at the front
The needles of the yew tree are rounded and soft at the front

The seeds of the yew tree are surrounded by red flesh. But attention, these are not berries, even if it seems so at first glance.

The flesh wraps around the seed but does not completely enclose it. The seed protrudes from the top.

The seeds of the yew tree are surrounded by red flesh. But attention, these are not berries, even if it seems so at first glance.
The seeds of the yew tree are surrounded by red flesh. But attention, these are not berries, even if it seems so at first glance.
The underside of the needles has inconspicuous stomatal strips
The underside of the needles has inconspicuous stomatal strips

Identification Characteristics of the Yew Tree

A good distinguishing feature compared to the other listed conifers:

  • The end of the needle has a small stem that merges into the branch. At the end, a green scale sits on the branch.
The green scales are clearly visible in the picture
The green scales are clearly visible in the picture

Other characteristics:

Color of needles black-green, shiny
Length of needles 1.5 to 3 cm
Needle tip softly rounded
Underside of needles no to inconspicuous stomatal strips

Bushcraft and Survival Facts about the Yew Tree

The yew tree has NO edible parts as it is highly toxic.

It is said to be possible to eat the seed coat. It should taste sweet and syrupy.

However, I recommend that you don't. The risk of swallowing the poisonous seed or biting into it is far too high for the small amount of energy.

Also, don't make tea from the needles. The poison does not disappear through cooking or drying.

The yew tree is perfect for woodworking. It has flexible but hard wood. In the past, English longbows were made of yew wood.

The Douglas Fir

In Germany, the Douglas fir averages 30 to 40 meters in height and has a smooth, dark brown bark. In other countries, it can reach more than 60 meters and is one of the world's largest trees (New Mexico: over 900 years old and 90 meters tall).

The trunk diameter can reach up to 4 meters and the tree has a sleek, conical crown. The Douglas fir lives to be approximately 400 to 700 years old.

Let's take a look at the needles:

Unique: The crushed needles of the Douglas fir emit a lemon-like scent
Unique: The crushed needles of the Douglas fir emit a lemon-like scent
The needles of the Douglas fir are soft and non-prickly
The needles of the Douglas fir are soft and non-prickly

Distinguishing Features of the Douglas Fir

One good identifying feature of the Douglas fir compared to other listed evergreen trees:

  • If you crush the needles of the Douglas fir, they smell like fragrant lemon.

Further features include:

Color of Needles Green to blue-green
Length of Needles 3 to 4 centimeters
Needle Tip Sharp and pointed, but rounded soft needles
Underside of Needle Sometimes two distinct white stomatal bands are visible

Another feature is resin blisters on the trunk, which are predominantly visible on young trees.

Bushcraft and Survival Facts about the Douglas Fir

The Douglas fir has some edible parts, such as:

  • The cones
  • The young, soft twigs (e.g., as tea)
  • The flowers
  • The seeds (e.g., roasted)

The Douglas fir is also suitable for building wood and carving wood.

The shoots of the Douglas fir are soft and digestible. They taste like lemon and are best harvested in May and June.
The shoots of the Douglas fir are soft and digestible. They taste like lemon and are best harvested in May and June.

Summary

At a glance - How to recognize conifers by their needles:

Spruce white stomatal bands on the underside of the needles, suction cups on the needles
Pine several needles at base (usually two in Germany)
Fir sharp and hard needles
Yew Needle end with small stem that connects to the branch - a green scale sits on the branch at the end
Douglas Fir rub the needles and they will smell strongly of lemon or orange

Once you have internalized the unique characteristics of the conifers, it will be easy to identify them.

Take this knowledge with you into the forest and try to identify conifers on hikes and trips.

As you practice, you will become better and soon it will be effortless to recognize the different types of conifers.


And now let's talk about it. :-)

Which conifer do you find the most difficult to identify?

Do you know better characteristics for identifying conifers?

Take care, Martin
Martin Gebhardt

Author of the guide


Martin Gebhardt

Hey, I'm Martin. On my blog, you will learn the basics and numerous details about living in the wild. I think survival, bushcraft and the good life in nature are the keys to happiness. Find me here on Instagram or on YouTube. You can find more about my mission on the About Me page.

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