Ask a Local Master Gardener: Are evergreens and conifers the same?

  • Fir trees, like these young trees, are both evergreens and conifers. TNS

For the Gazette
Published: 11/29/2019 12:01:21 AM

Q: I keep hearing the words “evergreen” and “conifer” used when talking about pine and spruce trees and others that stay green all winter. Are those terms really the same? —C.J., Hatfield

A: Good paying attention, C.J.! They are actually two different categories of trees that overlap, but not completely. The word evergreen refers to foliage that persists (does not fall off the tree) throughout the year. The word conifer is an aboriculture term referring to the tree’s mode of reproduction. Conifers reproduce through seeds grown in cones instead of in flowers. Most conifers are evergreens, but not all. And not all evergreens are conifers. Stay with me!

People typically think of evergreens as the green pine and spruce trees we see around the holidays and in our yards during the winter. This is certainly correct. Trees do not need to be green, though, to be evergreen. Some evergreens host blue green needles, such as Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) or yellow green foliage, such as Golden Thread (False) Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Gold Thread’). Regardless of color, these trees are all called evergreen because their needles hold on year-round.

In addition to needle producing evergreens, there are broadleaf evergreens. As the name implies, their leaves have a flat, relatively broad surface. Rhododendrons and holly bushes (except winterberry which loses its leaves) are examples of broadleaf evergreens.

Pine, spruce, and hemlocks are evergreens and they are also conifers. We know this by all the cones they drop on the ground this time of year. If we are not raking up leaves from deciduous trees, we are picking up cones from conifers!

Since nature seems to like keeping us on our toes, there is one tree in particular that is a conifer, but not an evergreen. I still remember the first one I saw. It was a tall, graceful tree I thought was a type of spruce. When Fall came, its needles all turned a beautiful golden yellow, then simply fell off. I was so surprised! I thought it was sick. Well, it wasn’t sick. It was a larch. Have you ever seen one? You may know it as a tamarack tree. There are quite a number of larch (Larix) species, of which the tamarack is one.

Good question, C.J. Thanks for asking a (local) master gardener!

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