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Fir vs pine in French: sapin or pin?

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Some dictionaries say they are the same thing – but don’t let them fool you! There’s a good deal of confusion out there about the English words “fir” and “pine”, and that’s true for their French equivalents, too. Why is that? And which one is which in French?

Well, the short answer is that if you don’t look at the two types of tree closely, they are kind of alike. Both trees are evergreen, and they have needles and cones.

There’s one important difference, though, which you can detect by examining the structure of the needles. A fir or sapin in French – has single needles coming out of a branch, and these are short and flattened.

Look for something like this. The bird (oiseau, m) is a bonus:

In contrast, pine – or pin needles come in clusters of 2, 3 or 5, and their length can range from relatively short to magnificently long depending on the exact species.
They also tend to look less symmetrical than firs (sapins), and are less likely to keep their needles once they are cut down. You can see why firs are favored when it comes to growing Christmas trees.

le sapin = fir tree, single and flat needles

le pin = pine tree, needles in clusters of 2, 3, 5 or more, can be really long depending on the species

There’s one type of conifer left we haven’t yet mentioned but are numerous in North America, and that’s the spruce – or l’épicéa (m) in French. An épicéa is easy to mistake for a fir tree, because it also has single needles coming out of the branch. However, these are not flat but four-sided, making the branches look a bit plumper.

l’épicea (m) = spruce, single and four-sided needles

What’s the difference between pomme de pin and cône?

(A “difference between” explanation within a “difference between” article. This is getting really meta.)

This is a matter of being a little bit more technical or colloquial (given that the literal meaning of pomme de pin is “apple of pine”). If you’re not a botanist, you can use either word. If you are, then you should probably go with cône. It’s that easy!

Related vocabulary

l’aiguille (f)(pine/fir) needle
l’épicéa (m) (OR l’épinette (f) in Canada)spruce
le pinpine
le sapinfir
la branchebranch
la brindilletwig
la pomme de pinpine cone (colloquial name)
le cône du pin/ du sapincone (botanical name)
pousser (v) en grappes (f pl) de 2 à 5to grow in clusters of 2 to 5

You’ve just made your French a bit more accurate and scientific. Awesome!

If you’re set on polishing your French vocab and are interested in further in-depth “difference between” articles, check out this page:

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