Our Christmas tree is always a blue spruce that we keep in a box in the basement when we’re not using it. Pine allergies keep us from the ritual of driving to a farm or nearby tree lot to find the perfect tree. This has kept me from receiving a proper education on the differences between pine, spruce and fir.
In my mind, they are all pine trees because they have pine needles. Spruce, fir, and pine are all of the Pinaceae family. But pines are of the pinus genus; the genus for fir is abies; and for spruce it’s picea.
They’re all conifers and they’re all evergreens. So are cypress trees, which are in the Cupressaceae family. We could call our Christmas trees pine trees when they are spruce or fir, but we know as copyeditors that specificity is usually better than using a term that might cause confusion.
To tell them apart, the Michigan State University Extension Office says remember that the true pine has needles in clusters while spruce and fir needles are individually attached. Spruce needles are rounded—you can roll them between your fingers; pine and fir needles are flat.
The word pine would seem to come from the word pin, except that it doesn’t. Its use in English might be influenced by the pin of its needles, but the Latin pinus probably has more to do with the tree’s sap, or pitch. Spruce comes to English much later because of its association with Prussia, which was also called Spruce or Spruce-land. Fir is Norwegian and Danish, spelled fyr. In German, a fir tree is a Tanne tree, or Tannenbaum.
The word pine has a verb form unrelated to trees. If you pine for the return of your children this Christmas, the verb is related to the words pain and punishment.
The verb form of spruce and the less-common adjective form (“You’re looking spruce in your Christmas sweater”) are related to a type of leather that comes from Prussia.