May 3, 2010

Christmastree Confusion

Evergreens take center stage in snowy wintertime, but I love them best in spring, when they explode with bright new growth.
They all put out growth in spring that is full and fat and luscious.  Conifers (plants whose seeds are held in woody cones) only grow in spring; they don't continue growing during the summer.  So what you get for new growth is what you see by May.

Tell me this tree isn't saying "I love you" in sign language:
"I love you" is a combination of the American Sign Language letters for I, L and Y

Can anybody tell the difference between a pine, a spruce, and a fir?  Pinus, Picea or Abies?  It's all so confusing. They're all conifers. They're all Christmas trees.  So far so good.  But what the heck is the difference? (And we're not going into hemlocks, cypresses and other soft evergreens ... let's stick to the Christmas trees for now.)

The ancient Teutons called any tree with pointy evergreen needles fuhre, or "fir" --- short, simple, probably gutteral --- meaning cartload (lumber being the value of these trees to the ancients, not their green forms or needles).

The Romans called evergreen needled trees "Pinus" (logically pronounced pee-nus, but in English we've made an effort to mispronounce this word so it doesn't sound like what you are now thinking.)  Over time, if it was evergreen and needled from the northern parts of the empire, it was a fir, but it was called a pine further south.  Firs: northern Teutonic evergreens.  Pines: southern evergreens.
 Candles on a dwarf white pine, Pinus strobus.

Northern fir trees got classified as "Abies" in botanical Latin.  No one actually knows what Abies describes in Latin, although the Latin verb abire means "to rise".  Abies just means northern fir tree.  Then, in the Middle Ages a term started to be used that described the lumber from "a really high quality fir tree from Prussia"... northern Germany.  It started out as Pruce fir (from Prussia), and became "spruce".  But then for some reason these Prussian fir trees, simply a kind of fir, got their own Latin name, Picea, meaning "pitchy" or full of sticky resin. 
 Abies concolor, or white fir

Why the botanical split between Picea and Abies? The only difference between a spruce (Picea) and a fir (Abies) is that one has flat needles, but really, a spruce is just a high-falutin' fir tree that comes from Prussia.  That's it in a nutshell (or in a cone).

In fact Picea abies, the name for Norway spruce, admits as much.  Picea abies: Spruce-Fir, aka Fir tree from Prussia and Points North.  There you have it.
Bird's Nest Spruce, Picea abies nidiformis showing its spring explosion of buds for the year

A dwarf blue spruce, Picea pungens 'Montgomery'

Picea glauca 'Conica', Dwarf Alberta spruce, fattening up with new growth in spring

In the end, they're all pinaceae, pine-like trees with cones for seed vessels.  A fir is a cold weather pine.  A spruce is just a special kind of fir, from northern Europe.  When we see any one of these trees, we're likely to say: look at the conifers, or look at the evergreens, or look at the Christmas trees, without distinction.

And while they all serve nobly as winter beacons in the darkest part of the year, and they light up our holidays indoors, I think their best season is spring when they put everything they have into a full year's worth of new needles, candles, cones and tufts of green growth to rival any blooming flower.

(some of this info was taken from John Ruch in the 2005 archives of Stupid Questions)


  1. What ever you call them they are my favorite trees. Always green, seemingly so sturdy yet gentle. I will never read Pinus the same again. Ha..

  2. No wonder I couldn't tell the difference between spruces and firs. Living in the south most of my life I can tell a pine from the other two though.

    Huge numbers of Frasier Firs are grown in the mountains of NC for Christmas trees.

  3. Lisa, I agree, I love the evergreens.

    Sweet bay, now you know... a spruce versus a fir!


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