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Spruces (Picea)

  • Spruce needles are generally stiff and sharp; about 1" long.
  • Each spruce needle springs from a tiny, woody peg.
  • Most spruce cones have papery thin scales.
  • Most spruce bark is thin and flaky.


Many people think that spruces, Douglas-firs, and the true firs look alike. Generally, they do, but look closer. Feel the needles. Spruces have stiff, prickly needles, while Douglas-firs and true firs have soft, flexible needles. Each spruce needle springs from a tiny, woody peg; in fact, this peg is one of the best ways to identify a spruce. Spruce cones hang down from the branches like those of Douglas-fir while true fir cones stand up, but spruce cones do not have Douglas-fir's pitchfork bracts. The scales of most spruce cones are papery thin--yet another difference. And spruce bark is scaly--Douglas-fir and the true firs have smooth or ridged bark.

There are approximately 40 different species of spruce in the world, but only 3 are native to the Pacific Northwest--and only 2 of those are common. Location is probably the best clue to their identity.

Sitka spruce: grows only along the Pacific coast, from northern California through southeastern Alaska, and only near sea level. Needles are often (but not always) flat in cross section and are typically very sharp. Needles point in two distinct directions: perpendicular to the twig and toward the tip. Most needles are 2 distinct colors: green above and blue-green to white below.

Engelmann spruce
: grows only in the Cascades and Rocky Mountains, from central British Columbia through New Mexico, and only at high elevations. Needles are typically square in cross section, and range from being very sharp to blunt. Most needles point toward the tip of the branch. Most needles are a single color, either all green or all blue-green.

Brewer spruce: Quite rare; grows only in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon and northern California. Needles are typically square in cross section and are blunt on their ends. Needles point toward the tip of the branch and each needle is a single color.

species page For more information on the spruces native to the Pacific Northwest, go to the species page or see "Trees to Know in Oregon".

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