Is the conifer I'm looking at a pine, a spruce or a fir?
Homeowners and even some well-versed gardeners have difficulty keeping them straight. Often, I have been asked which is my favorite Christmas tree. My answer has always been a stare into space and a dumb sounding 'dah'. I tribute the non-answer to the fact that we lived in so many different places, that wherever we were, we purchased what was available. It could have been a pine or a spruce or maybe a fir.
To distinguish one from another we need to start looking at their needles. Are they attached to the branches singularly or in groups? Are the needles flat or angled (3 or 4 sided). Other considerations would be needle length, color, scent, and sharpness.
Pines (Pinus spp.)
Spruce (Picea app.)
Spruces have needles attached individually to the branches via short wooden, peg-like structures called pulvini. Spruces retain their needles for four to ten years before shedding them. Spruce needles tend to be stiff and sharply pointed making them somewhat unpleasant to work around when doing yardwork, pruning or removal, or decorating. Spruce needles easily roll between one's fingers and have a distinctive square (four-sided) shape.
Fir (Abies spp.)
Firs also have needles attached individually to branches via a short wooden, peg-like structure. These 'wooden pegs' (circular leaf scar) remain behind after the needle drops making the branch look and feel rough. Fir needles are soft, flat (two-sided) and cannot be rolled between one's fingers. Fir needles release a citrusy scent when crushed.
Now to the value of cones in addition to adding glitz to holiday decorating.
Cones belong to a group of plants called gymnosperms meaning that they have naked seeds not enclosed in an ovary. The main function of the cone is to keep the seeds safe and protected from cold temperatures and animals. The seeds are released when the temperatures are warm.
Cones can be used as a mulch.
Cones can be crafted into a bird feeder. A large, round and wide cone provides the best surface. Remove a few of the scales to provide the best surface area. Slather the cones in peanut butter or suet, roll in your favorite bird seed. Tie with twine and hang from the bough of a tree.
A word of caution. If pinecones show small black specs or other fungus-type spots, do not use in any of the suggestions as this could infect your landscape.