Spruce Up Your ID Skills

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

The potential Christmas tree before you is conical, its cones dangling from skyward-curving branches, scaly bark covering its tapered trunk. Short, four-sided needles radiate spirally from each twig – unlike hemlock and fir needles, which are arranged in horizontal splays, or longer pine needles with their twig-end tufts. This tree is undoubtedly a spruce…but which kind?

While trees of the Picea genus are easy to distinguish from other conifers, specific spruce species seem to vary only subtly. Fear not. Equipped with a few identification tricks, you can impress holiday guests – or at least call the devilishly spiky tree by its proper name when you direct expletives at it for assaulting you as you ski or snowshoe past.

You may want to start by eliminating the two most visibly distinct varieties found in the Northeast: the blue and Norway spruces, both benignly nonnative and often planted as ornamentals. The unique gray-blue coloring and symmetry of Colorado blue spruce make for easy identification. Pain is certain for those who hang ornaments without caution amongst the tree’s cruelly sharp, stiff needles, the longest of any spruce in the region. Norway spruce sets itself apart in several ways; its remarkably elongated cones can reach 8 inches, and its branchlets often droop downwards rather than bending upwards, as most spruce branchlets do. (You can remember this second feature by imagining the sad foreigner missing the European region from which he emigrated.)

If you remove a needle and attempt to roll it between thumb and forefinger, Norway and blue spruce needles will resist due to their diamond shape, while white, red, and black needles, being rounder in cross section, will all roll readily. Once you’ve established that the yet-unidentified needle does not belong to a Norway or blue, you might as well pinch and smell it. If the bruised needle releases a pungent odor evocative of cat urine or skunk (something to consider if you’re thinking about hosting it in your living room for a few months!), it almost certainly belongs to a white spruce. You may detect subtle hints of orange rind from the red spruce and a medicinal, menthol smell from the black spruce.

If you happen to have examples of each species available for comparison, remember that the three native New England spruces have both needles and cones that increase in length by alphabetical order – from black to red to white. The lengths of black spruce’s ovoid, nearly round cones and straight, stub-like needles max out at 1.5 and .5 inches, respectively, while the narrowly oblong cones and needles of white spruce can reach up to 2.5 and .75 inches. Red spruce falls somewhere in between.

With the exception of the Norway spruce, which hardly ever flies a blue-crossed red flag, the spruces tend to stay true to their names. The red spruce’s twigs take on an orange-brown ochre and its bark can tend toward a reddish hue, particularly beneath the scales; black spruce’s branches and hairy twigs take on darker browns and sootier grays; skinny, waxy needles and the pale bloom of hairless twigs combine to give white spruce foliage a wispier, lighter look.

If you’re still puzzled, the species of spruce you see may depend on the ground on which you stand. The non-native Norway and blue spruces tend to stick to lawns and open grassy strips bordering highways. Red spruce, the species with the southernmost range, comingles with balsam fir to make up the familiar spruce-fir forest of cold mountaintops and depressions. Red spruce can extend as far south as the swamps and peatlands of the Virginia-North Carolina border, but for the most part it co-dominates the northern boreal forest alongside the white spruce. The white takes over the more favorable riparian and alluvial zones, while the black occupies the wettest, windiest, boggiest sites. Both red and white are common pioneer species of abandoned agricultural land.

The often-stressful environments of black spruce can produce stunted trees with short, scarce branches, culminating in a scruffy and narrow or club-shaped crown. Even the healthiest specimens rarely match the dense, handsome crown of white spruce. Don’t get the impression that all white spruces are handsome, though, as this species sports those large, ugly, tumor-like galls, useful in some locales for immediate identification.

Whatever the specimen before you turns out to be, hang a mental label alongside those ornaments and know the forest that much better.

Jack Saul is a student at Williams College. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

 
Discussion
  1. Gary H → in NJ
    Dec 27, 2011

    That was great. Enjoyed the easy to read differences that will make my next trip into the woods more enjoyable.

  2. Ingrid Volikas → in Kokomo, Indiana
    Sep 26, 2012

    I am working with students in high school and we are identifying trees and it is difficult to determine which spurce trees are which.  Your website was extremely helpful.

    Ingrid Volikas

  3. George Ritz → in Bradford,Maine
    Dec 28, 2012

    Don’t forget about the frequent apparent hybridization between red and black spruce in various ecological regions in the northeast.  In North Central Maine we call them “blackish” or “redish” depending on the dominant parent. Manley’s index from New Brunswick is a common “metric” And you just thought you could tell them apart!

  4. Eileen Ferrer → in Mendham, NJ
    Dec 31, 2012

    Thank you for your article, but I must comment on your description of Norway Spruce as “benignly” non native.  We are seeing Norways reseed in natural areas in New Jersey, adding yet another non native threat to our woodlands.

  5. Ron Lehman → in Orangeville Ontario.
    Jan 24, 2013

    I have a white pine that lost branches on its southwest side because it was shaded by another white spruce growing next to it.  Bothe were planted in 1965.  I cut down the one causing the shade and now i want to add some small sprigs from last years growth to the trunk of the remaining tree to make it look better and fill out the blank space.  Is this possible?  Last winter I drilled a 1/8” hole 1-1/2” deep near where a branch had been cut off from cut a new shoot off that had grown the Spring before.  It was a very healthy shoot and I stripped the bark back 1-1/2” inserted it and sealed it with some pine gum.  I was a very mild winter last year and the transplant did not survive.  Can you help me with this as I would like to make my tree look beautiful again.

    Ron Lehman,  Orangeville, ON

  6. Bill Moldwin → in On Lake Huron, Pt. Sanilac, Michigan
    Apr 08, 2013

    I’ve got all five species described in the photographs, but still have had a hard time distinguishing between the red and white spruces until they began producing cones. Your explanation is extremely helpful.  Thanks much,

  7. Don Leister → in Richmond, va
    Jul 07, 2013

    Thank you for the excellent description of the spruces.
    I vacation each year in Maine and like to collect pitch from the evergreens for use in my violin varnishes. There are no spruces where I live in central Virginia.
    I have been collecting only spruce resin this year and would like to be able to identify the kind of tree that it comes from.

  8. Michael Norris → in Halifax, NS
    Sep 24, 2016

    Thanks for mentioning the menthol smell of the black spruce, I was perplexed as to what tree I had been looking at.

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