Common North American Conifers

Fir tree, full frame
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Conifers are commonly thought to be synonymous with "evergreen trees," which stay green through the year. However, not all conifers—also known as softwoods—remain green and with "needles" year-round. They are actually scientifically classed by how they fruit. They are gymnosperms, or plants with naked seeds not enclosed in an ovary; these seed "fruits" called cones are considered more primitive than hardwood fruiting parts.

General Guidelines for Broad Identification

Though conifers may or may not lose their "needles" annually, most are indeed evergreen. Trees of this classification have needle-like or scale-like foliage and usually renew many leaves annually but don't renew all of their leaves every year. The foliage is usually narrow and manifests in either sharp-pointed needles or small and scale-like leaves.

Although studying the needle is the best way to identify a conifer, conifers as a class are defined not by their leaves but by their seeds, so it's only important to note the shape and size of leaves after determining whether it is a conifer by the shape, size, and type of seed the tree produces.

Softwood trees include pine, spruces, firs, and cedars, but don't let that alternative name for conifers fool you. Wood hardness varies among the conifer species, and some softwoods are actually harder than some hardwoods.

The Many Types of Coniferous Leaves

While all trees that bear cones are coniferous, and many of these cones are remarkably different from other species' cones, often times the best way to identify the specific genus of a tree is by observing its leaves. Coniferous trees can produce two types of leaves with a variety of slight alterations that further define the tree type.

If a tree has needle-like (as opposed to scale-like) leaves, it can then be further defined by how those needles are grouped (singularly or alone), how they are shaped (flattened or four-sided and sharp), the types of stems these leaves are attached to (brown or green), and if the leaves invert or not.

Other Ways to Identify Conifers

From there, the way the cone or seed is shaped and the way it hangs on the tree (sticking up or handing down), the smell and largeness of individual needles, and the erectness of branches in the tree can also help determine what specific type of conifer a tree is. Chances are ​if a tree has any of these features at all it is a conifer, especially if the tree also bears cone-like seeds.

The Most Common Conifer Trees in North America

Three of the most common conifers that grow in North America are pine, fir, and spruce trees. The Latin word conifer means "to bear cones," and most but not all conifers have cones; junipers and yews, though, produce berry-like fruit.

Conifers are among the smallest, largest, and oldest living woody plants known in the world. The more than 500 conifer species are distributed worldwide and are invaluable for their timber but also adapt well to the landscape; there are 200 conifer species in North America, but the most common are listed here: