There are hundreds of different conifer species in several families, so it can be hard to know which is which. Learn how to properly identify conifer trees, including pine, fir, spruce, hemlock, juniper, cedars, and more!
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What are Conifer Trees?
Conifers are evergreen trees with needles or scales as their leaves. There are many species of conifers within several families. Conifer trees grow worldwide in temperate regions.
Most conifers are more or less edible and usable, with one big exception of the Yew family, which is highly toxic. There are a few other species that are questionably toxic or otherwise not edible, but not to the same degree as Yew.
Because of this, it’s very important to properly identify and research the conifers that grow in your region before using.
I’m going to go over the most commonly found conifer families and species that are used for edible and medicinal purposes, and how to identify them. I will also talk about the toxic conifer species and how to identify each.
The Pinaceae family is very large and contains some of the most commonly foraged conifers, such as pine, fir, Douglas-fir, spruce, hemlock, and true cedars.
Pine Tree Identification
Pine trees (Pinus spp.) have needles that are bundled in clusters of 1-7, with 2-5 being most common, depending on the species. The needles are often longer than those of other conifers, but not always.
The needles and branches grow in a spiral pattern. New spring growth at the tips of branches are brown or whitish and scaly, sometimes called “candles.”
The bark of most pine trees is thick and scaly, but in some species it is thin and flaky. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) has scaly bark that resembles puzzle pieces.
Pine cones are woody and brown with spirally arranged scales, hanging downward. The seeds are small and winged.
Many species of pine trees produce edible pine nuts, most notably the Piñon pine (Pinus edulis).
Some other common pine species in the United States and Canada are:
- Western white pine (Pinus monticola)
- Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)
- Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana)
- Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda)
- Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana)
- Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)
Those are just a select few, as this is a huge genus!
One thing to note is that Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), and potentially other yellow pines, should not be used internally by pregnant women, as there is a small chance that they could cause miscarriage.
Fir Tree Identification
Fir trees (Abies spp.) have needles that attach to the branch by a base that looks like a tiny suction cup.
The needles are soft and flattened, and usually have two white lines on the underside. Fir needles tend to point upwards, but this is not always the case.
One distinguishing feature of fir trees is that the cones do not hang downward, but stand up straight like candlesticks. Mature cones can be brown, blue, purple, or black in color, depending on the species.
Fir trees are popular as Christmas trees.
Some common species of fir trees in the United States and Canada include:
- White fir (Abies concolor)
- Grand fir (Abies grandis)
- Noble fir (Abies procera)
- Rocky Mountain fir (Abies lasiocarpa)
- Basalm fir (Abies balsamea)
Douglas-fir Tree Identification
Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga spp.) is not a true fir tree. Its Latin name means “false hemlock,” so it’s not a hemlock tree either, but its own genus all together.
Douglas-fir trees, particularly Pseudotsuga menziesii, are very common in western North America. There are also a few species in Asia.
The needles of Douglas-fir trees grow all the way around the branch, and the buds at the end of the branches are brown and cone shaped. These buds are one good way to identify Douglas-fir.
The cones are brown and have a characteristic “mouse tail.”
Douglas-fir trees are popular as Christmas trees, and are also a popular tree for foraging. They have many benefits, and all parts of the tree have edible and medicinal uses, including the needles, bark, and resin.
Spruce Tree Identification
Spruce trees (Picea spp.) have four sided needles that attach to a small peg on the branch. The woody peg remains when the needle is removed.
Most species of spruce trees have stiff and pointy needles that are sharp to the touch. The needles grow around the branch.
Spruce cones hang downwards, and have thin scales and a smooth, somewhat flexible shape.
Some common species of spruce trees are:
- Blue spruce (Picea pungens)
- Norway spruce (Picea abies)
- Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis)
- White spruce (Picea glauca)
Hemlock Tree Identification
Hemlock trees (Tsuga spp.) have short and flat needles of varying length on the same branch. This is usually the best way to identify them.
The underside of the needles of some hemlock species have two white lines.
It got the name “hemlock” because it smells similar to poison hemlock when the needles are crushed, but the species are entirely unrelated.
Hemlock bark is scaly and usually deeply grooved. The cones hang downward and vary in size.
They produce light green tips in the spring, similar to spruce tips.
There are around ten species of hemlock, with the most common in the United States and Canada being:
- Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)
- Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
- Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)
True Cedar Tree Identification
Cedars cause a bit of confusion because there are several conifer genera and species that use the common name “cedar,” but they aren’t all true cedars. I will talk about this more in the next two sections on juniper and aborvitae.
Here we will discuss true cedars (Cedrus spp.), which are native to the Himalayas and the Mediterranean region. They are also common in yards and parks as an ornamental landscaping plant in North America and other regions.
True cedars have needles, not scales.
Like true fir trees, true cedar cones grow upwards.
Cedars are highly aromatic and are often used for their scent in aromatherapy and to repel bugs and moths.
There are only four main species of true cedars:
- Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica)
- Cyprus cedar (Cedrus brevifolia)
- Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara)
- Lebanon cedar (Cedrus libani)
The Cupressaceae, or cypress family of conifers includes junipers, aborvitae (also known as thuja or cedar), and redwoods.
Juniper Tree Identification
Juniper trees (Juniperus spp.) are common throughout the northern hemisphere.
Junipers have needle or scale like leaves, depending on the species. Some have needles when young that turn to scales as they mature.
They have a distinctive aromatic “gin-like” scent and produce blue seed cones known as juniper berries.
The berries are astringent, antiseptic, antiviral, and diuretic, making them beneficial for the kidneys and urinary tract.
Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) is actually a juniper and not a cedar or arborvitae.
Some other common juniper species in the United States and Canada include:
- Western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis)
- Rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)
- Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
Arborvitae (Thuja or Cedar) Tree Identification
Aborvitae (Thuja spp.) are also commonly known as cedar, but they are not the same a true cedars. They are native to North America and Asia.
Aborvitae have scaly leaves and reddish brown bark. The cones are small and sometimes resemble the berry like cones of junipers.
Like true cedars, they are highly aromatic and are often used for their scent in aromatherapy and to repel bugs and moths.
Aborvitae have a lot of medicinal benefits, being antimicrobial, antiviral, and antifungal. They are best used externally as a tincture or infused oil to be used on warts, fungus, and ringworm.
There are two native North American species: Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) and Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis). They have been traditionally used to make tea, but are high in thujones which can be toxic in large doses.
Aborvitae are not recommended for internal use, unless under close supervision by a health professional.
Redwood Tree Identification
Redwood trees (Sequoioideae spp.) naturally occur in northern California and Oregon, with another species that grows in China.
They have been cultivated in botanical gardens and parks around the world.
Redwoods and sequoias are very large trees with thick reddish bark and small cones.
Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) grow natively on the northern Californian and southern Oregon coast. They have short and flat needles at the base of the tree, becoming more scale-like towards the top of the tree.
Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) grow natively in groves in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. They have scaly, awl shaped leaves.
Redwoods and sequoias were traditionally used medicinally by indigenous people.
Taxaceae Family (Toxic)
The Taxaceae, or Yew family of conifers are highly toxic and should be avoided.
Yew Tree Identification (Toxic)
Yew trees are common and grow nearly worldwide.
Most species of Yews have red berries that have edible flesh, but the seed inside is deadly toxic.
The needles are spirally arranged and have pale green or white bands on the underside.
Make sure that any evergreen conifer tree that you are foraging for edible or medicinal uses is NOT in the Yew family!
Using Conifer Trees
Most conifer trees have both edible and medicinal uses. Many of them can be used interchangeably in recipes, as they have similar benefits.
For a full list on how to use conifer needles, see my post on 30+ Conifer Needle Recipes.