A Guide to Festive Foliage for Florists (and anyone else looking for a bit of clarity)

Walk into a flower market or visit a Christmas tree farm in December and you’re hit by the unmistakably festive smell of evergreens. In the run up to Christmas, commercially available evergreen foliage is made up predominantly of conifers (cone bearing trees) - it’s these that create those lovely festive fragrances.


If it’s all Christmas tree to you and you’re unsure which conifers are which, the following guide should help you to work out whether you’re dealing with pine, fir or spruce (and whether there will be any needles left on your foliage for the festivities).


To quickly identify Pine, Fir and Spruce


fig. 1 from left to right - Pine, Fir, and Spruce

Pine – Long thin needles that are flexible and feel smooth to the touch. Stiff, inflexible cones. Needles in groups of 2, (red pine) 3, (yellow pine) or 5 (white pine).

Good needle retention.

 Fir – Flat, soft, bendy needles with rounded (not sharp) ends, that don’t roll between the fingers. Needles don’t grow in groups, but individually. Cones grow upwards.

Good needle retention.

Spruce – Needles grow individually, are stiff and smooth to touch and are almost square in section. The needles roll easily between your fingers. Their cones hang toward the ground rather than upward.

Poor needle retention indoors.


If you’re looking for guidance on making wreaths or garlands for the holidays you can find step by step instructions in our book ‘A Guide to Floral Mechanics’ which is available here.


If you're reading this outside of the UK, the book is available worldwide at www.agtfm.com


How to Tell the Difference Between Conifers in a Bit More Detail


First look at the number of needles that come out of the same spot on a twig.
 If a twig has needles in groups of two, three, or five, you can then be confident you have a variety of pine.


fig. 2 The needles of Maritime pine

Pine typically has long, soft needles and smells great. It tends to lose its needles more slowly than other conifers which make it especially good for wreaths and garlands that are going to be enjoyed for weeks rather than days. Fully developed pinecones are stiff and inflexible and make great decorations (which you can wire onto other types of foliage or into wreaths or garlands).

Pinus Pinaster Floribunda Rose Florists

fig. 3 Maritime pine (Pinus pinaster)

Maritime pine (Pinus pinaster) is widely available, smells good, isn’t too spiky (making it friendlier than some to work with than some other types of foliage at this time of year) and lasts really well so is a good all-rounder.


Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is one of only three conifers native to Britain, and is referred to by some wholesalers as “scotch pine”! It can be identified by it's needles which are shorter than those of the maritime pine and are blue-green and slightly twisted, they grow in pairs on short side shoots. As it’s a pine its needle retention is good and additionally it smells wonderful.


Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is commonly referred to as “Kiefer pine” at New Covent Garden Flower Market and elsewhere in the UK is called  "Weymouth pine" after Captain George Weymouth brought its seeds to England from Maine in 1605. The needles of this pine are bluish green, soft and fine.


Red pine (Pinus resinosa) is often referred to as Norway pine. This foliage has wonderfully long (15cm/6 inches) needles that hold well. Handle with care as it is very sticky, particularly when cut. The pollen cones and seed cones add lovely texture/interest too (the woody cone is the female cone, which produces seeds and the male cone is the one that produces pollen).

fig. 4 Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana) alongside it's cone

Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana) Notable for it's very large pine cones which are often covered in sap, these are a type of white pine which has groupings of 5 thin needles. Not to be confused with Western Hemlock, which are sometimes mistakenly called sugar pines (see Hemlock trees below).



If the needles aren’t growing in groups and emerge alone, you’re most likely to have either fir or spruce. If you pull off a single needle and roll it between your fingers and it feels flat and doesn’t roll easily, it’s a type of fir.


Firs have a great festive fragrance and good needle retention, making them one of the best choices for Christmas trees that won’t drop quickly and is good for use when decorating both inside and out. If you have cones on yours, they’ll be growing upwards (like a candle flame, or little owls perched on the branch).

 fig. 5 Nordmann fir (Abies normanniana)

Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana) is widely available in the run up to Christmas and has dark green needles above and two white/blue lines on the underside. It’s densely covered in needles with strong branches (I’d go so far as to say its chunky), so is not the most delicate option available, but it is a good solid all-rounder and can be used as a base for hanging decorations from or as an addition to garlands or wreaths for bulking up.

 fig. 6 Noble fir (Abies nobilis/Abies procera)

Noble fir (Abies nobilis/Abies procera) This foliage is often mistakenly referred to as “Nobilis pine conifer” which foxed us for a while, but as we have discovered, it is in fact not a pine but a noble fir. As such it has all of the characteristics one would expect from a fir - great needle retention and a good fragrance. The noble fir has bluer foliage (which tends to be whiter underneath) and has slightly smaller needles than the Nordmann fir.



If the needle has four sides and rolls easily between your fingers, it’s a type of spruce.


Spruce branches smell great but are best used indoors as close to your winter celebrations as possible, as the short stiff needles will drop after just a few days. It is far better suited to outdoor use but must be kept hydrated. Any spruce cones attached will be hanging toward the ground.

To make sure spruce foliage lasts as long as possible make sure you spray it daily with water.


 fig. 7 Blue Spruce (Picea pungens)

Blue spruce (Picea pungens) This foliage has striking blue / silver glaucus (hazy blue) needles that grow radially (all the way around the stem) and has a wonderful citrus fragrance. As with all spruces, its needle retention isn’t great indoors in warm temperatures as it sheds as it dries out. The needles of this variety are short, sharp and spiky so need to be handled with some care.

Norway spruce (Picea abies)– is readily available from November onwards. This foliage really is best suited to use outdoors and lasts best in its original state (as a tree) or used in decorations that will be kept somewhere cool.



(the conifer tree not the poisonous plant)

fig. 8 Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla)

Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) is a foliage that you might find being referred to as Sugar pine by suppliers, which may be because it’s a member of the Pinea family and the Tsuga part of its name has often been written as sugar. It’s a North American evergreen tree. Though it has no relationship to hemlock it was named the hemlock tree as it shares the same smell as the poisonous hemlock plant. The foliage has flat sprays of soft feathery needles, which are too soft to hang all but the lightest decorations from, but do add softness to floral designs, wreaths and garlands. It tends to shed needles as it dries out, especially if kept in warm conditions.


Cedar and Cypress

 Cedrus libani Floribunda Rose Florists

fig. 9 Cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani)

Cedar (Cedrus libani) has dark grey-green needles that are transparent at the very tip. The short spiky flexible needles grow on one side of their strong branches giving a flat back. The branches are strong enough to hang decorations from, but the needles don’t last as long as firs do.

 Med cypress

fig. 10 Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)

Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) smells good, has evergreen foliage and round seed cones (which don’t fall off easily, a trait that is very useful if you aren’t into wiring every single thing on to your decorations) and is strong enough to hang festive decor from.


fig. 11 Blue Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica ‘fastigiata’)

Blue Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica ‘fastigiata’) (known as “blue cypress” or “cypressus arizonia blue” at the flower market). This cypress shares the traits of the Mediterranean cypress but has particularly sticky sap so ensure you protect your clothes, hands etc when using it.


Blue Ice Arizona Cypress (Cupressus glabra 'Blue Ice') is almost identical to Blue Arizona Cypress, but is even more glaucous (hazy blue) and lighter in colour.




Juniper (Juniper communis) is another native conifer. It has lovely, bright green foliage that is incredibly spiky. The purple berry-like cones are usually referred to as berries and are best known for their use to flavour gins and as a spice in European cuisine. As a cut foliage it has a good fragrance and lasts well out of water (after being conditioned) so long as it is kept cool.


Alongside conifers, at this time of year we also love


Ivy (Hedera helix). Mature berried ivy lasts well and adds interest and texture to festive designs and variegated versions can add a lovely lightness. Keep ivy in water until you are ready to use it. It will easily last 4 weeks outside in cool temperatures, but only about a week to ten days indoors in the warm. Younger growth won’t hold up very well indoors or out.


Bay (Laurus nobilis). Branches of bay hold their leaves well and make a great addition to wreaths and garlands.  The leaves can be washed and used in cooking once the festive season is over.


fig. 12 Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium). Known as common or native holly the berries are a vibrant bright red and leaves are typically dark green, oval and glossy and are often exceedingly spiky (though usually less so higher up a plant, as spines seem to have evolved in response to herbivores nibbling the leaves, the more they’re nibbled, the spikier they become). No sap to worry about, but you may still want to handle with gloves as it can be very prickly. Holly should last 3-4 weeks outside but may only last a week or so indoors in warmer temperatures.

fig. 13 Larch (Larix decidua) covered in Lichen

Larch (Larix decidua) covered in Lichen.  Although not an evergreen (larch drops its needles) larch branches look beautiful in winter floral designs, en masse or in amongst other elements, especially those that are covered in lichen. At the flower market we use (New Covent Garden Flower Market) traders refer to it as Lichen (and its phonetically pronounced lɪt-tʃen (sounds like lit – chen)). So, if you ask for a bundle of lichen at this time of year, that’s what you are likely to get – if you ask for a bundle of larch you’ll likely be met with blank looks.


If you have foliage available to cut from your garden or permission to forage, try it out ahead of making wreaths, arrangements or garlands. Bring two pieces of the foliage you’re testing indoors and put them in a vase or glass with a little water. After a few hours (or the next day) put one of the pieces in a vessel without any water and watch to see how long they last for.


As always when foraging, please ensure that you have permission from the landowner before cutting anything. Gather responsibly, and please note that in the UK at least, if you do forage from common ground, you may not use anything that you gather for commercial purposes. Check your local laws.



If you are a botanist or an expert in horticulture and you spot an error in our work, we welcome your input and will edit our work and credit your input accordingly. Our aim is to demystify confusing terms and bring a little clarity.



Conifers in the British Isles. A Descriptive Handbook (A F Mitchell, 1972)


Comparison of conifers from one of Britain's leading Christmas Tree specialists http://jadecliff.co.uk/product/noble-fir-abies-procera-abies-nobilis/


UK Laws relating to foraging https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1968/60/section/4


A guide to British trees from The Woodland Trust - https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees


The RHS introduction to evergreen trees - https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/types/trees/evergreen


A handy guide which shows pine needles in depth - https://www.treeguideuk.co.uk/pine-leaves/


Guidance on growing your own festive foliage - https://www.rhs.org.uk/plants/articles/graham-rice/shrubs-and-climbers/grow-your-own-christmas-greenery


A personal account from Matt Suwak of Gardener's Path, of developing an interest in identifying plants and trees with useful points regarding identifying conifers - https://gardenerspath.com/plants/landscape-trees/identifying-conifers/


An in depth look at fir trees and how to distinguish them from other conifers - https://treespnw.forestry.oregonstate.edu/conifer_genera/true_fir.html

Back to blog