Spruce trees are evergreen conifer trees, part of the gymnosperms or naked seed plants.
They are all part of the Pinaceae family, which evolved about 155 million years ago. The Picea genus, to which all the different types of spruce trees belong, is closely related to the Pinus or pine genus, having diverged from them only 65 million years ago after the dinosaurs went extinct.
There are 38 different species of spruce trees worldwide.
Spruce trees can be more challenging than other trees to identify, but once you learn some general identifying features, you will put a name to them in no time!
Spruce trees are cool climate trees that grow in north temperate and boreal regions, with few species able to grow south of USDA zone 7. The southernmost spruce tree is the Taiwan Spruce (Picea morrisonicola) which grows at the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5° north.
Spruce Tree Identification (With Photos)
How to Tell a Spruce From Other Pinaceae
The Picea genus can usually be distinguished from the other members of the Pinaceae family (pines, true firs, Douglas Fir, hemlocks, etc.) by their sharp needle-like leaves that are attached to the tree via a stalk-like pulvinus or widening of the leaf base. The pulvinus looks a lot like a leaf stalk and is often described as peg-like because of its usually woody appearance.
Other members of the family attach to the branches and twigs with their own unique form of attachment. Pine trees attach to the branches in little bundles known as fascicles of 2 – 5 (rarely 1-7), Douglas Fir and hemlocks have petioles (leaf stalks), and true firs attach directly to the twig as though ‘suction-cupped’ onto them.
Identifying Spruce Trees by Pulvinus
The pulvinus on spruce trees looks similar to a petiole or leaf stalk, though it usually appears woodier and peg-like. Sometimes it can look more similar to a Douglas Fir petiole than the woody pulvini typically seen in spruce. As a result, you may also need to use other identification tools.
When the leaves fall off, the woody pulvini typically remain attached to the branches creating a rougher appearance than is seen in most other members of the Pinaceae family.
Identifying Spruce Trees by Leaves
The leaves of spruce trees are arranged spirally around the twigs and are not flattened into rows like those of true firs or hemlocks often are. Sometimes the leaves will be directed forwards, or sometimes less radially spreading on the lower side, but they are always radially arranged overall.
The leaves are also typically four-sided and can be rolled in your fingers, while those of pine, firs (true and Douglas), and hemlocks typically do not. Note, however, that there are exceptions to those general rules across most genera. In spruce, for example, the Sitka spruce is more triangular in cross-section and does not roll easily in your fingers.
The cross-section of the leaf can be useful in helping identify spruce trees and spruce species for those that do not follow the general rule. Note you do not necessarily have to do a cross-section like seen in the photo below (though they can be fun!). Just know that a four-sided leaf will roll in your fingers, flattened ones will not, and three-sided leaves will only roll a little and with significant effort.
The leaves of spruce also tend to be sharp-pointed, with some species able to nearly pierce your skin when touched. Others are blunt, obtuse (wide-angled), or acute.
My 11-year-old son came up with his ouch test for spruce where he touches the needle-like leaves, and if it hurts, he says, “ouch, spruce,” and then he knows it is not a fir or a Douglas Fir. Another one people sometimes use is “friendly fir,” meaning that the fir does not hurt to the touch. Of course, exceptions exist since not all spruce leaves have pointy tips, and some firs do. But it does work fairly often and should always be used in conjunction with other tools described here.
Identifying Spruce Trees by Stomata
To help identify the different species of spruce trees, we can often turn to the stomata on the leaves to aid us in this task. Stomata are small pores or openings in the leaf surfaces that allow for gas exchange with the atmosphere.
In spruce trees, these pores are typically coated with wax making the stomata more conspicuous. In some species, there are so many stomata that the entire leaf appears glaucous. In others, there may be prominent stomatal lines or bands of several lines, sometimes separated by an angle or a ridge. In yet others, there may be no conspicuous stomatal lines on one or more of the leaf surfaces.
Identifying Spruce Trees by Cones
Spruce trees are monoecious, with separate male and female cones found on the same tree. The female or seed cones are usually found in the upper crown only, and the male or pollen cones are found a little lower but still in the upper crown on the same tree.
The seed cones may begin erect like true firs but always hang downwards when pollinated. From a distance, they can appear very similar to Douglas Fir. Still, they can easily be distinguished by their lack of protruding bracts seen in the Douglas Firs and the fact that they are almost all restricted to the top of the crown and seldom appear on the lower branches like the Douglas Firs often do.
Spruce seed cones often appear quite similar from a distance, unlike the significant variability seen among the Pinus or pine genus. Some have different colors when young, and some are more round, but most are fairly narrow and uniform between species, so seed cones alone are not a useful identification tool.
The cone scale morphology is the most useful feature for identifying the species professionally. The scale length, width, length: width ratio, the length of free scale (the distance from the imprint of the seed wing to the tip of the scale), and the percentage free scale (length of free scale as a percentage of the total length of the scale) are all useful tools. This, however, is fairly complex and too tedious for all but the most persistent amateurs or professionals.
So, we are not going to get into the scale measurements here. Luckily, we can make some observations of leaf, stomata, cone, bark, and habit, which, when taken together, can usually determine the species with enough accuracy for most purposes.
Spruce pollen cones are typically egg-shaped, somewhat ellipsoid, or almost round, small (compared to seed cones), and often appear red when immature. Like other conifers, there is not much variation in them between species, so they are rarely used to aid in identification.
Identifying Spruce Trees by Habit and Form
Spruce trees are typically fairly tall trees when they mature (60 – 200 ft or more). They usually have a conical to narrow pyramidal form that is sometimes spirelike. Occasionally the crown may be flattened, but this is usually a result of wind shear.
Spruce trees have whorled branches that may ascend, descend or grow horizontally, often with ascending tips. These factors are sometimes variable but can still be used to help identify the different species.
Spruce twigs, when young, vary in color, thickness, whether they are pendant (hang down) or not, whether or not they have hairs on them, and sometimes what those hairs look like. These can also be useful tools in identifying different species.
Identifying Spruce Trees by Bark
The bark of spruce trees is typically fairly thin and scaly, often with rounded or circular scales. It can be brownish, reddish, or grayish, and sometimes can be pinkish or almost black. Rarely is it thick or develops irregular grooves or furrows. Bark alone is never a reliable identification tool, but when combined with other morphological features, it can help determine the species.
Identifying by Spruce Trees by Winter Buds
Sometimes the winter buds found at the branch tips can also be used to aid in identification. Spruce buds tend to be rather small, but they do have some important variations between species. They are typically egg-shaped, but they may have tips that are acute (angular), obtuse (wide-angled), rounded, or even sharp-pointed. They may be resinous or not, and some have scales that have pointed tips, are hairy, or bend outwards (recurved).
18 Different Types of Spruce Trees & Their Identifying Features
1. Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens)
Colorado Blue Spruce is probably the most well-known spruce in the world, certainly in North America, where it is often planted as a landscape specimen in parks, gardens, etc. There are more cultivars of this species than any other spruce tree.
They are tall or medium-sized trees with a broadly conical crown and gray-brown scaly or irregularly grooved bark.
Branches are slightly to strongly descending. The stout, usually hairless yellow-brown twigs are not pendent.
Winter buds are dark orange-brown, ¼ – ½” with rounded to acute tips.
Leaves are blue-green with stomata on all surfaces, giving them a waxy or glaucous appearance. They are 0.63 – 1.2” long, rigid, slender, four-sided in cross-section, and have sharply-pointed tips.
Seed cones are 2 – 4.7” long and up to 1.2” wide with elliptical to diamond-shaped stiff scales that are widest below the middle and have an uneven margin at the tip.
Other Common Names: Colorado Spruce, Blue Spruce, Green Spruce, White Spruce
Identifying Features: The glaucus blue-green narrow, four-sided spiny-tipped leaves of the Colorado Blue Spruce are its most distinguishing feature. Only Meyer’s Spruce tends to have leaves that resemble it, but its leaves are thicker and have an obtuse to almost acute tip that is never sharp-pointed, and its seed cones tend to be shorter and slightly wider than the Colorado Blue Spruce. It is frequently mistaken for White Spruce which has whitish sharp-pointed leaves, but their shorter leaves are not as blue, and their cones are also shorter.
Native Area: Former USA endemic of the Rocky Mountains of southern and western Wyoming, eastern Idaho, south to Utah, northern and eastern Arizona, and southern New Mexico
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 60 ft (to 164 ft) tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
Fat Albert Colorado Blue Spruce (see below)
2. Fat Albert Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’)
The Fat Albert Colorado Spruce is a popular cultivar created from the Colorado Blue Spruce and, as such, shares most of the same common features.
It has a naturally dense pyramidal growth form and is a popular choice as a Christmas tree or for gardens and landscapes.
It has bold silver-blue leaves and dense branches that grow to ground level and extend horizontally from the trunk.
It is a slow-growing, smaller tree, making it a good choice for smaller landscapes where you want to fill bare corners or provide some height to the backdrop of lower shrubs and plants.
It’s extremely cold-hardy and tolerant of many soil conditions, including road salts and urban pollution, and will even tolerate partial shade.
Other Common Names: Blue Spruce
Identifying Features: Fat Albert Colorado Blue Spruce looks very much like the Colorado Blue Spruce with its glaucus waxy blue-green leaves, but it is a much shorter tree with a much more dense pyramidal habit than the parent strain. Its branches extend horizontally from its trunk and grow down to ground level, and are densely covered with silvery blue-green leaves.
Native Area: N/A
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 10 – 40 ft tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
3. Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmannii)
Engelmann Spruce has a narrow pyramidal to spirelike form and short, compact horizontal branches with ascending or descending tips. It does not self-prune and, in forests, has dead lower branches, while open-grown trees grow to near ground level.
It is the most common high-elevation spruce in the Rocky Mountains, where it forms krummholz shrubs at the tree line.
Bluish-green leaves are four-sided and acute-tipped but not sharp-pointed, 0.8 – 1.2” long, with two broad bands of stomata on the lower surfaces and several thin lines on the upper surfaces.
The bark is very thin, grayish-brown on young trees, becoming purplish-brown to russet and irregularly broken into loosely attached scales when mature.
Seed cones are light brown when mature and 1.5 – 2.4” long.
Its wood is used in lumber and for musical instruments, and it’s a terrific landscape tree in cooler climates (zones 2 – 5).
Other Common Names: White Spruce, Mountain Spruce, Silver Spruce
Identifying Features: Engelmann Spruce is a tall tree with a narrow pyramidal to spirelike form and compact horizontal branches with ascending or descending tips, and four-sided and acute-tipped leaves that are not as sharply pointed as other spruce. The young twigs are finely hairy, differentiating them from White Spruce which has hairless twigs and more sharply pointed leaf tips. It is sometimes mistaken for Blue Spruce which has distinctive blue-green glaucous leaves that are very sharply pointed, or for Douglas Fir, which has abundant cones with protruding bracts that are forked like a snake’s tongue.
Native Area: Central British Columbia, southwest Alberta, Canada, south through the USA through Washington, Oregon to extreme northern California, east to central Montana, south to southern New Mexico.
USDA Growing Zones: 2(1 if protected from wind) – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 70 – 130 ft (to 200 ft) tall, 15 – 30 ft spread
4. Red Spruce (Picea rubens)
Red Spruce are tall trees with relatively broad pyramidal to narrowly conical crowns with horizontally spreading branches with ascending or upcurved tips.
Twigs are stout, not pendant, yellow-brown, and hairy.
The bark is often reddish-brown but is sometimes gray-brown.
Shiny yellow-green leaves are not glaucous, 0.4 – 1.2” long, four-sided, and somewhat flexible with sharply pointed tips and stomata on all surfaces. Leaves are forwardly ascending to upcurved and, on the lower side, are often twisted at the base.
Winter buds are chestnut-brown with an acute tip, and the lowest scales are hairy and taper to a fine point.
Seed cones are 0.9 – 2” long, oblong-ovoid, green or purplish-green becoming brown or reddish-brown when mature. The scales are stiff, broadly fan-shaped, and widest near the tip.
Shade tolerant when young, it prefers cool and moist habitats. It’s susceptible to acid rain and doesn’t work well in urban areas.
Other Common Names: Yellow Spruce, Eastern spruce, West Virginia Spruce, He Balsam, Blue Spruce, Épinette Rouge (French Canadian)
Identifying Features: Red Spruce usually has characteristic reddish-brown bark, but it may also be gray-brown, plus shiny yellow-green four-sided 0.4 – 1.2” long leaves that are sharp-pointed and often twisted at the base on the lower side of the twigs. It differs from Norway Spruce which usually has hairless orange-brown twigs and scaly or flaking bark, and from Black Spruce which has shorter branches, blunt-tipped leaves, and crooked or glandular hairs rather than steeple-shaped hairs, and from White Spruce which has slender, hairless twigs and descending to drooping branches.
Native Area: Southeastern Ontario, eastern Quebec, and Nova Scotia, Canada, west to the Adirondack Mountains and south throughout New England along the Appalachians to western North Carolina in the USA
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 6 (7 with protection)
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 130 ft tall, 15 – 30 ft spread
5. Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis)
Sitka Spruce is the second most basal species of spruce next to another North American endemic, suggesting the genus likely evolved in North America.
It’s the tallest spruce and the third tallest conifer species globally, reaching 330 ft tall.
They have a narrowly conical crown and grayish-brown to orange-brown bark that often has thin, rounded scales.
Branches are somewhat descending, and the stout pinkish-brown twigs are not pendant.
Buds are reddish-brown, 0.2 – 0.4”, with a rounded to obtuse top.
Leaves are blue-green to light yellow-green, 0.47 – 1.2” long, rigid, with acute to sharply-pointed tips, and flattened or broadly triangular in cross-section. The lower surface is darker with very narrow or no stomatal bands, while the glaucous upper surface has conspicuous stomatal bands separated by a ridge.
Seed cones are 2 – 4” long with elliptic to narrowly diamond-shaped rigid scales with an uneven margin tip.
Other Common Names: Tideland Spruce, Coast Spruce, Yellow Spruce
Identifying Features: Sitka Spruce is the tallest spruce in the world with a narrowly conical crown, grayish to orange-brown bark with rounded scaly plates, somewhat descending branches, and rigid pointy-tipped blue-green to light yellow-green leaves that are flattened or broadly triangular in cross-section instead of the usual four-sided leaves, and have few or no stomata on the lower surface. They are often confused with coastal Douglas Fir, but that one’s protruding scales that are forked like a snake’s tongue will quickly distinguish the two. Sometimes people mistake them for Colorado Blue Spruce, which has four-sided leaves and is usually glaucous on all surfaces giving them a light blue-green to almost gray-green appearance.
Native Area: Narrow coastal strip up to 130 miles inland in southcentral Alaska south through northern BC, Canada, then typically within a 50 mile strip from the ocean from central BC, Canada, south through the Pacific Northwest to northern California, USA
USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 60 – 150 ft (to 330 ft) tall, 20 – 25 ft spread
6. Lutz Spruce (Picea x lutzii)
Lutz Spruce is a natural hybrid of White Spruce and Sitka Spruce found where their two native ranges overlap in Alaska and British Columbia.
Like many spruce hybrids, this one has ‘hybrid vigor,’ a common condition in plants where the hybrids are healthier and more vigorous than the parents.
It’s a tall, narrow, symmetrical tree with slightly descending branches and blue-gray leaves that are softer than Sitka Spruce. The leaves are somewhat flattened in cross-section and have fewer stomatal lines on the two outer surfaces.
The seed cones are more rounded like the White Spruce, 1.2 – 2.8” long, but otherwise resemble those of Sitka Spruce.
It’s popular as a landscape specimen, used for large hedges and Christmas trees, and the wood is popular among musical instrument makers.
It is grown in Greenland, Norway, and the British Isles in timber reclamation projects for its fast growth and vigor.
Other Common Names: Roche Spruce, Hybrid Spruce, Épinette de Lutz (French Canadian)
Identifying Features: Being a hybrid species, the Lutz Spruce has characteristics that are in between both of its parent strains, including seed cones that resemble Sitka Spruce but are shorter and rounder, somewhat flattened four-angled leaves that are blue-gray and softer than Sitka Spruce, and somewhat descending branches. Hybrids can be challenging to distinguish from the parent strains due to often variable intermediate characteristics, but to distinguish it from Sitka Spruce, generally look for the more blue-gray leaves and the rounder, shorter seed cones.
Native Area: Alaska, USA, and northern British Columbia, Canada, near the Pacific Ocean
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 50 – 70 ft tall, 20 – 30 ft spread
7. White Spruce (Picea glauca)
White Spruce are tall trees with a broadly conical to elegant and almost (but not strongly) spirelike crown with thin, usually scaly, sometimes irregularly grooved gray-brown bark.
Branches are slightly descending or drooping. Twigs are rather slender, pinkish-brown, hairless, and not pendent.
Buds are orange-brown, 0.12 – 0.24”, with a broadly angled and rounded tip and obtuse, hairless scales.
Leaves are rigid, sharp-pointed, blue-green, 0.3 – 1” long, four-sided in cross-section, and noticeably glaucous with stomata on all surfaces.
Seed cones are 1 – 3.15” long, pale brown, and ellipsoid to shortly cylindrical. The scales are thin, flexible, fan-shaped, and broadest near the rounded and more or less entire tip.
Grows best in rich, moist soil. Often grown commercially as a Christmas tree and as a landscape tree. It is extremely hardy once established and tolerates some shade, but it is slightly sensitive to urban pollution.
Other Common Names: Cat Spruce, Skunk Spruce, Pasture Spruce, Canadian Spruce, Black Hills Spruce, Western White Spruce, Alberta White Spruce, Porsild Spruce, Épinette Blanche
Identifying Features: White Spruce has rigid, sharp-pointed, blue-green, noticeably glaucous leaves with stomata on all surfaces, and they are four-sided in cross-section. Their obtuse 0.12 – 0.24” orange-brown buds and their slender, hairless twigs will also help to identify them. They are most often confused with Colorado Blue Spruce, but that one has more stout twigs and leaves that are much bluer, or with Norway Spruce which has inconspicuous stomata and leaves that are never glaucous.
Native Area: Mostly boreal species found throughout Alaska and all of northern Canada extending east to the Great Lakes and the northeastern USA, with disjunct populations in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 7 (best in 3 – 4)
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 ft (to 100 ft) tall, 10 – 20 ft spread
Dwarf Alberta Spruce (see below)
8. Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’)
Dwarf Alberta Spruce is a cultivar of the White Spruce. As such, it shares much of the same morphological features with it.
It differs, however, in being much shorter, growing to only 15 ft tall, and almost as wide as it is tall with a broad conical or pyramidal habit.
The other major difference is that the leaves are a bit shorter than White Spruce, and they lack the glaucous coating that makes them appear whitish. Instead, their color is a very rich and vibrant green not often seen on conifer trees.
It can either be left to grow naturally, or it can easily be pruned into a topiary tree. Either way, it is a beautiful shrub.
Sometimes it’s called Picea glauca var albertiana, which is incorrect and a synonym of Picea x albertiana, both of which refer to a different hybrid tree.
Other Common Names: White Spruce
Identifying Features: Dwarf Alberta Spruce is a short tree that only grows to 15 ft tall and almost as wide as it is tall with a broad conical or pyramidal habit and four-sided leaves that are rich and vibrant green. It can be differentiated from the White Spruce by its dwarf size and broad crown, along with the leaves that are not at all glaucous. It can be differentiated from other cultivars by sharing the same bark, twig, and bud characteristics as the White Spruce, but with a shorter habit and leaves that are not glaucous.
Native Area: N/A
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 6
Average Size at Maturity: 3 – 15 ft tall, 2 – 10 ft spread
9. Black Hills Spruce Picea × albertiana (P. glauca var densata)
Black Hills Spruce is a naturally occurring hybrid of White Spruce and Engelmann Spruce and is the state tree of South Dakota.
Being a hybrid, it has characteristics that are intermediate between its parents.
It has been called Picea glauca var densata, but plant authorities call it Picea x albertiana because it is a hybrid, not a variant, though most sources have yet to adopt this nomenclature.
Common and even Latin names can easily be confused. It is best to refer to authoritative sources when naming trees rather than basic internet searches.
It is a popular landscape tree for its dense, uniform, pyramidal shape, sometimes with a spire-like crown, and its full, thick branches densely covered with blue-green to dark-green leaves.
It is prized for its ability to thrive in poor wet or dry soils in unfavorable climates, including rough cold winters and unusually hot summers, drought, and high rainfall.
Other Common Names: White Spruce
Identifying Features: Black Hills Spruce is a vigorous hybrid of White Spruce and Engelmann Spruce with a uniform pyramidal to sometimes spire-like crown that is much more densely branched with more densely spaced leaves than the parent strains. It has characteristics that are most similar to the White Spruce that it is sometimes confused with but can be distinguished by the denser branches and denser leaves that are much less glaucous than the White Spruce.
Native Area: Western Canada east to Manitoba and north into Yukon and NWT, plus Montana and South Dakota in the USA
USDA Growing Zones: 2 – 6
Average Size at Maturity: 20 – 60 ft tall, 15 – 25 ft spread
10. Brewer’s Spruce (Picea breweriana)
Brewer’s Spruce is a narrow endemic of the Klamath Mountains and the most basal of the Picea lineage, suggesting spruce evolved in North America.
They’re tall or medium-sized trees with conical crowns and often buttressed trunks (widened at the base) and gray to brown scaly bark with circular ridges.
The branches are descending and drooping, and the elongated slender twigs are pendent, gray-brown, and finely hairy.
Buds are gray-brown, 0.2 – 0.3”, with a rounded tip.
Leaves are 0.6 – 1.2”, dark green, rigid, blunt-tipped, and flattened or broadly triangular in cross-section with a glaucous upper surface with stomatal bands separated by a slight ridge and none on lower surfaces.
Seed cones are 2.6 – 4.7” long with fan-shaped scales.
It prefers cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers and doesn’t thrive in other climates.
It’s vulnerable in its native range, with a decreasing population.
Other Common Names: Weeping Spruce
Identifying Features: Brewer’s Spruce has a characteristic weeping appearance with branches that are descending and drooping and slender elongated pendant twigs that make it easy to identify. The rigid dark green blunt-tipped leaves with a glaucous upper surface with stomatal lines separated by ridges and none on the lower surfaces will also help identify it. It is most often mistaken for Norway Spruce, but that one has much larger seed cones, its branches are only slightly descending, and its leaves have no conspicuous stomatal lines on any of its surfaces.
Native Area: A rare narrow USA endemic of northwestern California and southwestern Oregon near the Pacific coast in the Klamath mountains at 4000 – 8000 ft
USDA Growing Zones: 6 – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 50 ft (to 130 ft) tall, 10 – 15 ft spread
11. Black Spruce (Picea mariana)
Black Spruce is well adapted to bogs and swamps and will sometimes even grow at the treeline, resulting in trees of variable heights that often remain shrub-like (including krummholz).
They are very narrow trees with a conical to spirelike crown and short branches that tend to descend or droop and frequently layer.
The slender yellow-brown twigs are not pendant and have crooked or glandular cylindrical hairs.
Buds are gray-brown, 0.12” (3mm), with an acute tip, and their lowest scales are hairy and taper to a point.
Leaves are ½ – ¾” long, four-sided in cross-section, rigid, straight, pale blue-green or gray-green, strongly glaucous, with stomata on all surfaces and mostly blunt tips.
Seed cones are 0.6 – 1.4” long, dark purple becoming dull grayish-brown when mature, egg-shaped, with fan-shaped scales widest near the irregularly toothed tip.
It’s the primary host for the parasitic eastern dwarf mistletoe (Arceuthobium pusillum).
Other Common Names: Bog Spruce, Shortleaf Black Spruce, Swamp Spruce, Spruce Fir
Identifying Features: Black Spruce is unusual for spruce in that it grows well in wet soils and can often be identified based on that in addition to its very narrow, often spire-like crown, slender yellow-brown twigs with crooked or glandular cylindrical hairs, strongly glaucous leaves under ¾” long, and short 0.6 – 1.4” long, egg-shaped seed cones with fan-shaped scales that have irregularly toothed tips. It differs from White Spruce in having small hairs on the young twigs, often darker reddish-brown bark, shorter needles, and smaller and rounder cones, and from Red Spruce which has lighter bark and leaves that are not glaucous.
Native Area: Mostly boreal, found in all of Canada, plus Alaska and the northern parts of Minnesota east to Maine in the continental USA
USDA Growing Zones: 2 (1 with protection) – 6
Average Size at Maturity: 5 – 50 ft tall, 8 – 12 ft spread
12. Korean Spruce (Picea koraiensis)
Korean Spruce is a popular landscape tree that has not naturalized in North America and appears to have low invasive potential.
They have a symmetrical pyramidal crown with rich red-brown (rarely gray) flaking bark with irregular rectangular scales.
The slender twigs are initially yellowish or reddish-brown, turning yellowish, reddish, or gray-brown, and are usually hairless. The pulvini are typically quite small.
Buds are reddish brown, conical-ovoid, and slightly resinous, with scales that are more or less bent backward at the tips.
Dark blue-green leaves are directed forward on the upper side and spread radially below. They are straight or curved, broadly four-sided with an acute tip, 0.47 – 0.87” long, and thick (to almost 2mm), with 2 – 4 stomatal lines along each surface.
Seed cones are green to purplish, maturing yellowish-brown or brown, ovoid-cylindric, 2 – 3.15” long, and about half as wide as they are long.
Other Common Names: Koyama Spruce, Jong Bi Namu (Korean), el Koreyskaya or jel Koreiskaya (Russian), Hongpi Yunshan (Chinese)
Identifying Features: Korean Spruce has a symmetrical pyramidal crown with rich red-brown (or gray) flaking bark, slender and often yellowish twigs that are usually hairless and have small pulvini, and dark, relatively short and thick blue-green leaves that are directed forward on the upper surface and spread radially on the lower surface. It is occasionally mistaken for the Jezo Spruce Picea jezoensis, which has thin scaly bark that becomes grooved when mature, pale buff-brown twigs with more prominent pulvini, and dark green leaves that are more flattened and only have stomata on the lower surface.
Native Area: Korea, China, Russia
USDA Growing Zones: 5 (4 with protection) – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 60 ft (to 100 ft) tall, 15 – 25 ft spread
13. Norway Spruce (Picea abies)
Norway Spruce is a fast-growing tall tree with a conical crown and orange-brown finely-flaking bark that becomes scaly gray-brown when mature.
Branches are short and stout, with upper branches typically ascending and lower branches descending or drooping.
Twigs are usually hairless and orange-brown.
Leaves are light to dark green, 0.4 – 1”, four-sided, rigid, blunt-tipped, with inconspicuous stomata on all surfaces.
Seed cones are the largest of any spruce at 4 – 6.7” long. They’re green or reddish maturing to brown, with diamond-shaped stiff and leathery scales that are widest near the middle.
It has been introduced throughout eastern North America and is invasive in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (NC, TN), Monocacy National Battlefield Park (MD), and Haleakala National Park (HI) in the USA.
It is not advised to plant this tree in North America when we have so many lovely native and/or non-invasive spruces to choose from.
Other Common Names: European Spruce, Gemeine Fichte (German), Jel Europeiskaya (Russian)
Identifying Features: Norway Spruce has a conical crown and orange-brown finely flaking bark that matures to a scaly gray-brown, light to dark green four-sided rigid and blunt-tipped leaves with inconspicuous stomata, and the largest seed cones of any spruce at 4 – 6.7” long that are green or reddish and mature to brown. It can be differentiated from White Spruce and Blue Spruce which both have glaucous leaves with conspicuous stomata on their surfaces. It is sometimes mistaken for Red Spruce which has darker red-brown instead of orange-brown bark, hairy young twigs, and smaller cones.
Native Area: Northern, central, and eastern Europe
USDA Growing Zones: 2- 7
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 80 ft (to 204 ft) tall, 15 – 25 ft spread
Bird’s Nest Spruce (see below)
14. Bird’s Nest Spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’)
Bird’s Nest Spruce is an interesting cultivar of the Norway Spruce but is a much shorter plant that never grows past the size of a small or medium-sized shrub.
It has unique branches that grow out and then up, creating a bird’s nest appearance that is higher on the sides than in the middle.
It has dark green leaves with feathery, nodding branches that descend slightly.
It seldom ever produces seed cones. As a result, it does not have the invasive potential as its parent strain and should be a safe choice for a landscape plant.
It is very cold hardy, plus pest, disease, deer, and wind-resistant.
Plant it in well-drained soil in a sunny spot, and you will never have to maintain it, and it will never outgrow its spot.
Other Common Names: Dwarf Norway Spruce
Identifying Features: Bird’s Nest Spruce’s unique dwarf shrub habit with branches with grow outwards and then upwards, creating a form that actually resembles a bird’s nest, will help distinguish it from all other spruces. Sometimes, when spruce is pruned, it could grow into a similar shape. In this case, the dark green leaves with inconspicuous stomata, orange-brown finely flaking bark, and feathery nodding branches will help to differentiate it from other spruce shrubs.
Native Area: N/A
USDA Growing Zones: 3 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 2 – 3 ft tall, 4 – 5ft spread
15. Caucasian Spruce (Picea orientalis)
Caucasian Spruce has a narrowly conical crown that is open in younger trees and becomes more broad and dense in mature trees.
The bark is smooth pink-gray, becoming cracked into roundish plates when mature, often exuding resin.
Twigs are orange-brown and hairless and mature to gray-brown.
Winter buds are small (0.16”), ovoid-conical in shape, and are not resinous.
Leaves are very glossy deep-green, more-or-less radially arranged but point forward at the twig tips and parted below on weaker growth. They are slightly flattened in cross-section, blunt-tipped, and very short at 0.24 – 0.32” long.
Pollen cones are bright deep red, 0.4 – 0.8” long.
Seed cones are ovoid-conical, dark purple maturing to brown, and 2.4 – 4” long.
They are slow-growing trees with low invasive potential and have not naturalized in North America.
They will grow in various soil types but must be sheltered from strong winds.
Other Common Names: Oriental Spruce, Firefly Spruce (cultivar), Skylands Spruce (cultivar)
Identifying Features: The Caucasian Spruce has hairless orange-brown twigs, very small (0.16”) winter buds, relatively large bright red pollen cones, and very short (less than 0.32”) glossy deep-green leaves that are blunt-tipped and flattened in cross-section. The length of the leaves is an easy way to identify this spruce, as the others all typically have longer leaves. It is occasionally mistaken for Norway Spruce which has 0.4 – 1” four-sided leaves and much larger seed cones.
Native Area: The Caucasus mountains of southern Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 10 – 60 ft (to 125 ft) tall, 20 – 25 ft spread
16. Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika)
The Serbian spruce is a narrow, pyramidal, spire-like tree with branches that are ascending at the tips.
The leaves are flattened in cross-section, 0.4 – 0.8” long, dark blue-green above, and blue-white or silvery below, with conspicuous stomata.
The bark matures to brown with usually roundish scaly plates.
Twigs are buff-brown and characteristically densely hairy.
Seed cones are pendant, spindle-shaped (widest in the middle), 2 – 3” long, and violet-purple to almost black when young, maturing to a dark to yellowish-brown.
It can tolerate some drought and shade and is resistant to air pollution.
This spruce is better adapted for USDA zones 6 – 7 than most other spruce, as it will tolerate some hot, humid conditions.
It has not naturalized anywhere in North America and, with its slow growth, appears to have low invasive potential.
In its very limited native range (about 60 hectares), it’s Endangered with a decreasing population.
Other Common Names: Pančić Spruce, Pančićeva Omorika
Identifying Features: Serbian Spruce has densely hairy buff-brown twigs, spindle-shaped 2 – 3” long seed cones that are dark purple to black when young, and 0.4 – 0.8” long leaves that are dark blue-green above, and blue-white or silvery below with conspicuous stomata. It is mostly mistaken for Norway Spruce, whose leaves have only inconspicuous stomata on all surfaces, or with Colorado Blue Spruce, whose leaves are glaucous with conspicuous stomata on all surfaces.
Native Area: A narrow micro endemic of the limestone mountains of Drina River Valley of western Serbia and eastern Bosnia, Herzegovina
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 40 – 60 ft (to 131 ft) tall, 20 – 25 ft spread
17. Schrenk’s Spruce (Picea schrenkiana)
Schrenk’s Spruce is a tall tree with a stout trunk, thickly flaking dull brown bark, a cylindrical or narrowly pyramidal crown, and horizontally ascending branches.
Twigs are pendulous, yellowish-gray or yellow, becoming dark gray when mature, and they may be hairless or hairy.
Winter buds are brownish-yellow, conical-ovoid, slightly resinous, with scales slightly opening at the base.
The blue-green leaves are spreading radially and directed forward, straight or somewhat curved, broadly diamond-shaped in cross-section with an acute tip, 0.8 – 1.4” long, relatively thick (1.5 mm), with 5-8 stomatal lines on the upper surface and 4-6 along the lower surface.
Seed cones are purple or green, maturing purplish or dull brown, 2.4 – 4.5” long, relatively narrow, with triangular-obovate seed scales with a rounded tip.
There is no record of it naturalizing in North America, and it appears to have low invasive potential.
Other Common Names: Asian Spruce, Xueling Yunshan (Chinese)
Identifying Features: Schrenk’s Spruce is a tall tree with a stout trunk with thickly flaking dull brown bark, a cylindrical or narrowly pyramidal crown, horizontally ascending branches, pendulous yellow to yellowish-brown twigs, 0.8 – 1.4” long relatively thick (1.5mm) blue-green leaves with stomatal lines on both surfaces and purple or green 2.4 – 4.5” long seed cones that mature to purplish or dull brown. It is sometimes confused with Norway Spruce, but that one has only inconspicuous stomata on all leaf surfaces and larger seed cones, or with Brewer’s Spruce, but that one has stomata visible on only one surface of the leaves and the bark is scaly brown with circular ridges.
Native Area: Tian Shan mountains of western China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan
USDA Growing Zones: 4 – 7
Average Size at Maturity: 70 – 100 ft (to 200 ft) tall, 30 – 50 ft spread
18. Meyer’s Spruce (Picea meyeri)
Meyer’s Spruce is very similar to Colorado Blue Spruce but has better disease resistance, urban tolerance, and heat and drought tolerance than the latter.
It is a medium to tall tree with a dense pyramidal or conical crown. The bark is gray-brown and flakes irregularly.
Twigs are yellow-brown, hairless, or hairy.
Winter buds are brown, conical to ovoid-conical, slightly resinous, and have lower sales that bend backward.
Blue-green leaves are 0.5 – 1.2” long, thick (2 mm), with stomatal lines on all surfaces, an obtuse to almost acute tip, and spreading radially and ascending on the upper side and spreading and upcurved on the lower side of twigs.
Green seed cones mature brown-yellow, are oblong-cylindric, 2.4 – 3.5” long, and 1.4” wide.
It has not naturalized in North America and is not considered invasive.
It is Near Threatened in its native range with a decreasing population.
Other Common Names: Blue Chinese Spruce
Identifying Features: Meyer’s Spruce looks very much like the popular Colorado Blue Spruce with its dense pyramidal to conical crown with thick blue-green leaves with an obtuse to almost acute tip and stomata on all surfaces. It can be differentiated from the Blue Spruce by having thicker leaves with a much less pointy tip, brown instead of orange-brown winter buds with lower scales that bend backward, and typically shorter seed cones. Sometimes it is mistaken for White Spruce, but that one has a less dense conical to spire-like crown and sharp-pointed glaucous leaves that are thinner.
Native Area: Mountains of China from 5200 – 8900 ft
USDA Growing Zones: 3 (2 with protection) – 8
Average Size at Maturity: 30 – 60 ft (to 100 ft) tall, 15 – 20 ft spread
Growing Spruce Trees
If you want to plant a spruce tree, you will be rewarded for your effort because these beautiful trees, once established, require little to no maintenance.
It is, however, important to do a little research to ensure success. In addition to understanding the USA Planting Zones, you must check your chosen tree’s soil, light, and moisture requirements and compare that to your site. Check out How to Pick A Tree For Your Yard for more information.
With few notable exceptions, mentioned above, most spruce trees require full sun to grow well. Some will do well in partial shade, mostly when young. Many species have adopted the ‘lay in wait’ strategy on the forest floor, growing slowly while young in the dappled sunlight on the forest floor, waiting for a gap in the canopy to open up so that they can grow fast and tall.
Most spruce trees also prefer well-drained soils to do well. If you are looking for trees for wetter soils, the one most notable exception to this rule is Black Spruce Picea mariana which does well in boggy and swampy conditions. Though it will not grow as tall in those conditions as it would in well-drained soils, it will perform better there than any other spruce would.
Finally, spruce trees are not fussy about soil type, they tolerate very acidic soils and mildly alkaline soils, poor soils, and rich soils. They typically will grow in almost any soil as long as it is well-drained. Generally speaking, however, pH 6 – 8 is ideal.
Importance to Wildlife
Spruce trees are used as food plants by the larvae of some native Lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) species. They are also commonly used by the larvae of gall adelgids (Adelges spp) of the Hemiptera order. These create interesting growths at branch tips that are sometimes mistaken for cones.
Spruce seeds are eaten by numerous birds, squirrels, chipmunks, etc.
In Alaska and British Columbia, the leaves of Sitka Spruce make up about 90% of the winter diet of Blue Grouse.
Spruce provides excellent hiding and thermal cover for deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, and bears. They also provide critical habitats for numerous mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Spruce trees are valued for their lumber and are heavily relied upon in northern climates, where they are more abundant than most other common lumber trees. Many species have very high strength-weight ratios and are used for turbine blades, sailboat masts, boats, ladders, and oars, as well as musical equipment, lumber, and plywood. Poorer-quality trees are frequently used in the pulp and paper industry.
Long ago, spruce leaves were used to make spruce beer and consumed by sailors as a source of vitamin C to prevent scurvy on long voyages. The needles can be ingested or steeped into tea in outdoor survival situations.
Spruce leaves contain large amounts of flu-fighting acidic compounds that also help with respiratory complaints and act as powerful antioxidants.
Interesting Facts about Spruce Trees
In Sweden, scientists found a Norway Spruce, nicknamed Old Tjikko, which has been reproducing through layering. Using layering, it is now 9,550 years old and is the world’s oldest spruce tree, even though the original tree from which it came is long gone. It is also the world’s fourth-oldest clonal tree.
The coastal Sitka Spruce is the world’s tallest spruce tree at 330 ft tall in Redwood National Park, California. It is the world’s third tallest conifer tree, coming after the coastal Redwood and coastal Douglas Fir trees.
The largest Sitka Spruce (but not the tallest) has a trunk diameter of 18 ft 9” (and 191 ft tall) in Quinalt, Washington.
Now that you know so much more about spruce trees and how to identify them, why not go out and practice your new skills today?
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Lyrae grew up in the forests of BC, Canada, where she got a BSc. in Environmental Sciences.
Her whole life, she has loved studying plants, from the tiniest flowers to the most massive trees.
She is currently researching native plants of North America and spends her time traveling, hiking, documenting, and writing.
When not researching, she is homeschooling her brilliant autistic son, who travels with her and benefits from a unique hands-on education about the environment around him.