What is a Conifer; Plant or Tree?

Are All Evergreens Conifers?

what is a conifer
Many use the terms “evergreens” and “conifers” interchangeably. Both words often bring to mind a picture of a Christmas tree type of plant or the giant pine tree in the front yard, and while the two terms can at times describe the same species of tree, they are not synonymous. Not all evergreens are conifers.

What is a Conifer?

An evergreen is a tree that does not lose all of its leaves during the cold or dry season, which differentiates itself from deciduous trees, whose leaves turn color and fall off in the fall and grow back in the spring. A conifer, on the other hand, is a plant that uses cones to reproduce. In fact, the word “conifer” literally means “cone-bearing” in Latin. This is why pine trees and conifers are usually thought of in the same context. Conifers can be other plants besides trees because it’s key characteristic is the process of reproducing through cones.

conifer cone closeup

Blue Spruce Cones

Conifers usually possess both male and female cones. To reproduce, the male cones first create pollen grains. The wind or a passing insect then carries these pollen grains to the female cones, which is where the seed forms. Conifers fall into the category called gymnosperms, which means “naked seed.” In other words, its seed is easily visible, which differentiates gymnosperms from angiosperms, which reproduce using flowers. There are many different types of cones ranging greatly in size.

Types of Conifers

Most conifers are, indeed, evergreen trees and shrubs, such as firs, cypresses, redwoods, junipers, and spruces. These are the common trees that are associated with species. There are, however, a few members of the family that do not fall into the evergreen family, such as the larch, which is native to the northern hemisphere in countries such as Russia and Canada. The larch is one of a handful of conifers that do, in fact, lose all of their leaves in the fall season, which makes it a deciduous tree, not an evergreen. There are also a number of plants that are considered to be evergreen that exist in warm temperature climates that are not conifers.

Characteristics of Conifers

Aside from their cones, conifers can be identified by a few other characteristics. First, the type of leaf falls into one of two categories. Most conifers, such as cedars, possess leaves that are long and thin, often referred to as being needle-like. However, there are others, such as the cypress pine, whose leaves are flat and triangular, often called scale-like. Another characteristic is often the tree gives off a sharp, resinous scent and produces a sticky sap on the surface and in the wood. Due to the pleasant scent, conifers are a common choice for fresh cut Christmas trees, although they are usually not producing cones when used for this purpose.

Where Are Conifers Found?

While conifers are a fairly small group of plants, they exist on every continent except Antarctica. The Northern Hemisphere contains entire forests of conifers in countries such as Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia, but the diversity of the plants is very small and there are very few different species throughout the forests. One such forest is the Northern Coniferous Forest Biome, or the Boreal Forest, which stretches across Canada and into parts of Alaska. This forest, as the name states, is filled with mostly coniferous trees, but it does not contain much diversity. The forest mostly consists of black spruce, larch or tamarack, and white spruce. Further south, there is more diversity, and places like California, Mexico, and China have an incredibly wide range of species of conifers, including trees like the Apache Pine of Mexico and the Redwood of California. No matter where you are, you can find these cone producing plants!

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