Common North American Conifers

Fir tree, full frame
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Conifers or softwoods are classed as gymnosperms or plants with naked seeds not enclosed in an ovary; these seed "fruits" called cones are considered more primitive than hardwood fruiting parts.

Conifers may or may not lose their "needles" annually but most are evergreen. Trees of this classification have needlelike or scalelike 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 or not 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 the other name for conifers fool you as wood hardness varies among the conifer species, and some are actually harder than some hardwoods.

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 name "conifer" means "to bear cones," and most but not all conifers have cones but junipers and yews 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:

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 because coniferous trees can produce two types of leaves with a variety of slight alterations which 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.

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.