Identify Spruce Trees

The Most Common North American Spruces

Spruce tree
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A spruce is a tree of the genus Picea, a genus of about 35 species of coniferous evergreen trees in the Family Pinaceae, found in the northern temperate and boreal (taiga) regions of the earth. In North America, there are 8 important spruce species mostly important to the timber trade, the Christmas tree industry and to landscapers.

Spruce trees grow at either high altitudes in the southern Appalachians to New England or at higher latitudes in Canada and the higher elevations of Pacific coastal mountains and the Rocky Mountains.

Red spruce occupies the Appalachians into upper Northeastern states and provinces. White and blue spruce trees mainly grow throughout most of Canada. Englemann spruce, blue spruce, and Sitka spruce are native to the western states and Canadian provinces. 

Note: Norway spruce is a common non-native European tree that has been extensively planted and has naturalized in North America. They are primarily found in areas of the Northeast, the Great Lake States and Southeastern Canada and the best are cut for New York City's Rockefeller Center annual Christmas Tree.

Identification of the Common North American Spruce Trees

Spruces are large trees and can be distinguished by their whorled branches where needles radiate equally in all directions around the branch (and look very much like a bristle brush). The needles of spruce trees are attached singly to the branches sometimes in a spiral fashion.

On firs, there is a distinct lack of needles on the bottom side of its twig, unlike spruces that carry needles in a whirl all around the twig.

In true firs, the base of each needle is attached to a twig by a structure that looks like a "suction cup". 

On the other hand, each spruce needle is situated on a small peg-like structure called a pulvinus. This structure will remain on the branch after the needle drops and will have a rough texture to the touch.

The needles (with the exception of Sitka spruce) under magnification are clearly four-sided, four-angled and with four whitish stripe line.

The cones of spruce are oblong and cylindrical that tend to be attached to limbs mostly at the top of the trees. Fir trees also have similar looking cones, primarily at the top, but tend to stand upright where spruce hangs downward. These cones do not drop and disintegrate attached to the tree twig. 

The Common North American Spruce

  • Red spruce
  • Colorado blue spruce
  • Black spruce
  • White spruce
  • Sitka spruce
  • Englemann spruce

More on Spruce Trees

Spruces, like firs, have absolutely no insect or decay resistance when exposed to the outside environment. Therefore, the wood is generally recommended for indoor housing use, for sheltered support framing and in furniture for cheaper structural construction. It is also used when pulped to make bleached softwood kraft.

Spruce is considered to be a significant North American timber product and the timber trade gives it names like SPF (spruce, pine, fir) and whitewood. Spruce wood is used for many purposes, ranging from general construction work and crates to highly specialized uses in wooden aircraft. The Wright brothers' first aircraft, the Flyer, was built of spruce.

Spruces are popular ornamental trees in the horticultural landscaping trade and enjoyed for their evergreen, symmetrical narrow-conic growth habit. For the same reason, non-native Norway spruce is also extensively used as Christmas trees.

The Most Common North American Conifer List