What is the difference between the words "spruce" and "fir" (or even "fir tree")?

Could they be used interchangeably, for example, when referring to a kind of evergreen trees people decorate on Christmas and New Year holidays?

EDIT (more details about the roots of question):
I've had a conversation with my North American friend about species of trees that are symbols of the holidays in different cultures and was confused about discovering that in some dictionaries both "spruce" and "fir" could be translated similarly into Russian.

Thanks to @TimRomano and @deadrat, I see now that those are clearly distinguished species from the botany point of view. Therefore, let me narrow the question down a little.

When you want to say "Christmas tree", but more specifically in terms of a kind of the tree, could you say, for instance:

Christmas fir (spruce) is the symbol of Christmas in this country.

Or it sounds unnatural as the phrase and better to say something like:

They use fir trees as Christmas trees in their country.

closed as off-topic by Edwin Ashworth, Jim, Drew, Nathaniel, michael_timofeev Dec 27 '15 at 1:52

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  • 1
    Well, saying "I'm going to spruce up the house a bit" is a lot different from saying "I'm going to fir up the house a bit". (The tree people have finely drawn lines between the different varieties. Most people don't know the difference, though.) – Hot Licks Dec 26 '15 at 20:04
  • msue.anr.msu.edu/news/… – TRomano Dec 26 '15 at 20:06
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    This is general reference. It is also more science- than English language-related. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 26 '15 at 20:11
  • Here is an interesting short article by a copy editor who is allergic to pines: copyediting.com/pine-not-fir-not-spruce – Mark Hubbard Dec 26 '15 at 20:26
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    A very interesting question! – CowperKettle May 15 at 8:47

Spruce and fir are different species and are distinguished by different physical characteristics as noted here.

To tell spruce and fir trees apart, it helps to know that spruce needles are sharply pointed, square and easy to roll between your fingers. Fir needles, on the other hand, are softer, flat and cannot be rolled between your fingers. Spruce needles are attached to small, stalk-like woody projections. When needles are shed, these projections remain. As a result, the branches of spruce trees feel rough. Fir branches lack these projections, and thus have smooth bark.

Spruce and fir are distinguished from pine species in that the latter have their needles attached in clusters and the former don't. The term conifer (cone bearing) covers all three.

All of this is likely of interest only to arborolgists. It's hard to imagine that if you announce that you're decorating your Christmas tree that anyone would ask, "Is it an Ables grandis or a Picea orientalis? (That is, fir or spruce?)


At least in the US, Christmas trees have traditionally been any evergreen conifer (meaning that the leaves are not lost seasonally and cones are the fruiting bodies): pine, fir, spruce, or any of the many others.

The term has even sometimes included other evergreen trees and shrubs besides conifers, as well as artificial trees. It is not the case in the US that a "Christmas tree" is necessarily, or even typically, a fir tree or a spruce tree.

  • Conversely, in northern Europe, where the practice comes from, a Christmas tree has traditionally always been a Norway spruce (Picea abies), although nowadays other similar-looking trees may sometimes be sold as well. Part of the reason for this uniformity of tradition is that there just aren't that many conifer species that grow wild around here; the only other one as common as Norway spruce would be Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris, which has long tufted needles and sparse branches, and would look just plain silly as a Christmas tree. – Ilmari Karonen Dec 27 '15 at 0:53

A rare question on EL&U where a picture is worth a thousand words:

enter image description here

Source: http://www.slideshare.net/PSURNR3xt/tree-identification-42010160

As for usage:

Country X uses the fir/spruce tree for Christmas

In my opinion, you don't this you need Christmas in there twice, it is implied by use.

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