Stupid Question ™
Feb. 7, 2005
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the difference between a pine, a fir and a spruce? Are they the same thing?
—Mike, Columbus, Ohio
A: This is one of those sad situations that arise when modern scientific classification attempts to embrace the common names that came before it.
Only such rational irrationalism could produce the modern distinction between “pines” and “true pines,” or insist that the Douglas fir is an imposter and actually a pine in disguise.
Let’s go back to a simpler time, when people just wanted to know, “Does that tree have pointy, evergreen leaves or not?”
The Old Teutonic answer, with typical brevity, was “fir.” (Well, “fir” is the Old English version of it, but you get the idea.) This meant pretty much anything pine-y.
Farther south, the Romans had need of similar words, and one of them was “pinus.” Those Old English speakers who were fancy-pants enough to be using Latin turned that into “pine.”
Over time, these dueling terms sorted out into specific meanings, often based on the quality of wood produced (pine wood generally being better for construction than fir). As a northern name, “fir” also became pegged to the rugged, northern kinds of conifers.
Naturally, people noticed various species of these trees, resulting in “white pine” and other specific terms.
“Spruce” began in the 1300s as one of these more specific terms: it’s short for “Spruce fir.” (The abbreviation was in use by the 1600s.)
“Spruce” was an alternative form of “Pruce,” which was a contemporary term for the region of modern Germany, Poland and Russia then known as Prussia. (Later a state, Prussia officially went away as part of the deal ending World War II.)
Among the products Prussia (a.k.a. Spruce) was known for at the time was quality fir wood. Naturally, it became known as Spruce fir. Possibly it referred to various types of fir wood collectively. The abbreviation to Spruce is fairly contemporary with the introduction of “spruce” (as in “spruce up”) in English, which is likely also a reference to Prussia (some speculate a basis in sharp-looking clothing made of then-famous Prussian leather).
Shortly thereafter came modern scientific classification, which did not improve on things very much.
All of the aforementioned trees are conifers (their seeds come in woody cones) with needle-like leaves and a resinous wood. Wisely, science lumps them all under the order of conifers. So far, so good!
However, all of these trees (along with larches, hemlocks and cedars) are put under the family of Pinaceae, or “pine-like,” trees. Pine is the natural preference since scientific classification is written in Latin.
Within the family is the genus Pinus—the “true pines.” Pretty much all this means is a tree with clustered needles that have a sort of cuticle or “sheath” at the base. Several trees that look like all the other pines are not considered “true pines.”
That includes the modern separation of the firs into the genus Abies. Basically it means any kind of northern, high-altitude conifer; the “scientific” distinction is noting the needles are flat, do not come in bunches and grow straight out of the branch without a stem.
Meanwhile, “spruce”—simply a type of fir—gets its own genus, Picea. The only scientific difference between a spruce and a fir is that spruces have rectangular needles. The scientific name for the famed Norway spruce admits as much: it’s Picea abies, or “spruce fir,” the original common term.
Granted, these genera do make reasonably worthwhile distinctions between trees that have evolved in somewhat different environments. There’s some biological credibility behind them.
But their distinctions are too sharp and literal to extrapolate from broadly defined common words. And by retaining the attachments to those common names, the scientific terms have branched out into confusion.
Arborists, landscapers and nature guides invariably refer to Picea trees as “spruces” and can go into the intricacies of identifying them. But a spruce is simply a fir from northeastern Europe, etymologically speaking.
Likewise, a fir is just a cold-weather pine, and they’re all pines in the end. Or all firs, if you’re feeling Teutonic. Scientific classification won’t tell you anything more than that—it’ll just make you count needles to do it.