Identifying the Most Common North American Conifers

Common North American Conifers

  • B.S., Forest Resource Management, University of Georgia

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:

Conifer Tree Facts

By: Kimberly Sharpe

21 September, 2017

Conifer trees grow across most of the Northern Hemisphere, in Europe, North America and Asia. The conifer produces its seeds within a cone and needles instead of leaves. Most conifers grow in large areas known as coniferous forests. Common conifers are pine trees, hemlocks, firs, spruces and cedars. The majority of conifers are evergreen.

Conifer Forest Environment

Most conifers that live in a coniferous forest setting survive cold, dry winters with extremely cold temperatures. In the summer. conditions can be wet, hot and humid. The average rainfall in a coniferous forest is 14 to 29 inches. The average summertime temperatures are usually around 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Conifer forests are often logged using clear-cut methods to harvest valuable wood. Clear-cutting is the removal of all trees no mattter the size or type. The trees are replanted once logging is complete. Unfortunately, clear-cutting leads to tree plantings of a single species of conifer, causing a loss of biodiversity.

Tree Age

The oldest living trees in the world belong to the conifer family. In California, the bristlecone pine trees are believed to be 5,000 years old, and numerous old-growth redwoods average 2,000 years old, according to the National Parks Service.

Home Landscape

Conifers are very popular in home landscaping for their lovely evergreen appearance and versatility. They are commonly grown as ground cover, shrubs, foundation plantings, specimen tree plantings and even as large hedges. Most evergreens planted in the home garden require full sun to thrive. Most conifers require a great deal of water when first planted to establish themselves. Conifers are widely used for Christmas trees.

Conifer Needles

Evergreen conifers retain most of their needles year round, giving the trees and shrubs a constant green appearance. Most conifers shed their needles every two or three years slowly, and new needles grow quickly. A few species of conifers have a needle lifespan of up to 17 years, according to Colorado State University.

Conifer Planting And Care

Conifers prefer to be planted in the early spring to late fall. They can thrive in a wide range of soil conditions but do not like waterlogged roots for an extended time. Fertilize conifers twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. Use a basic fertilizer such as a 10-10-10. Follow the directions on the label and water thoroughly.

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Forest Fire

A few species of conifers require a forest fire to release their seeds. The lodgepole pine produces cones filled with seeds that never ripen. For the cones to open and the seeds to spread, the tree must be exposed to the extremely high temperatures of a forest fire.

Leylandii – The Fastest Growing Conifer

Leylandii can make an excellent hedge if they are looked after properly. With this site we hope to provide information about Leylandii to help people look after their hedges without causing a nuisance to their neighbours.

Leylandii has many qualities which make it ideal as a hedge or, where space allows, as a specimen tree. It is the fastest growing conifer in the UK and is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions including coastal areas and chalky soils. It will grow in a windy site so can provide an excellent shelter belt. Leylandii can be trimmed to a hedge of any size (we’ve kept one at 4ft/120cm tall for 25 years). As a specimen tree it has an elegant, columnar form with dense foliage.

Leylandii is also the best hedging plant at filtering out pollution including particulates from diesel engines. Planted near busy roads it can significantly reduce particulate pollution entering houses, office buildings and schools all year round. Research at The University of Sussex and The University of Southampton have shown that Leylandii is 40% better at filtering out particulate pollution than other native species such as hawthorn.

  • Improve privacy
  • Screen off unsightly areas
  • Reduce wind
  • Reduce noise
  • Increase security
  • Filter out pollution
  • Provide shelter for wildlife

If you keep a Leylandii hedge to a reasonable height, it is easier to keep at that height. If you let it grow too tall, then it becomes more difficult to trim and you need specialist equipment or a tree surgeon to bring it back to a reasonable size. Look after it from the start and you will have an excellent screen that could last for over 150 years.

What Are Conifers: Growing Conifers In The Garden Landscape

Perhaps one of the best reasons to plant conifers in the garden is that they require very little care. They rarely need fertilizer, resist most insects and diseases, and only need to be watered during prolonged dry spells. Pruning is optional. You can prune them to limit their height and some conifer tree types can be clipped into fanciful topiary art, but they grow into lovely trees and shrubs with or without the occasional trim. Let’s learn more about growing conifers in the garden landscape.

What are Conifers?

Conifers are trees with sharp, needle-like foliage that remains on the branches year round with only a few exceptions. Bald cypresses and larches are notable exceptions that drop their needles in winter. Conifers get their name from the cones which serve as reproductive structures. A few species have berry-like structures instead of cones.

The female cones have ovaries on the individual scales which are pollinated by the windblown pollen from the male cone. The female cones mature into large, woody structures that drop to the ground in autumn. The male cones are quite small in comparison to the female structures, and often go unnoticed.

Coniferous Plant Info

A conifer tree list includes:

Within these groups you’ll find thousands of species and cultivars, each with its own characteristics.

When choosing a conifer for your property, its best to consult with a local nurseryman. Choosing from a conifer tree list for your U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone only tells you that the tree will withstand the minimum temperatures in your area. There is much more to consider when choosing a tree that will last for many years to come.

We appreciate conifer tree types most in winter when their green foliage, sometimes tinged with blue, gold and gray provide color just when we need it most. Some types also produce brightly colored winter berries. When planted in the right place, a conifer can protect homes and gardens from icy winter winds and drifting snow.

A conifer’s dense foliage can also act as a screen, blocking out unsightly views and providing you with privacy. For the ultimate in privacy, choose types that have branches that extend all the way to the ground. The canopy of a conifer tree also provides year-round shade.

12 Spruce Trees and Shrubs

Darrell Gulin/Getty Images

Spruce trees and shrubs are classified in the genus Picea, which includes 35 species. It is considered to be part of the Pinaceae family, along with pine trees, fir trees, cedars, hemlocks, larches, and a few other species.

You should be able to identify a spruce tree just by looking at its needles. These conifers feature needles attached to the branch by a swollen area called a pulvinus or joint-like structure, which allows extra flexibility and movement. The pulvinus, which resembles a peg, is left behind if a needle drops and is a telling sign identifying it as spruce.

Another notable characteristic for identification is that, unlike the fascicles (or clustering needles) of pine trees, each pulvinus holds only one spruce needle. The pulvini are arranged in a whorl around the branch.

The needle shape is another clue: If you slice straight across a needle, it exhibits either a triangular or square shape. Spruce trees are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female reproductive structures. The female cone scales of spruce are more flexible than those of pine trees.

11 Trees That Grow in Full Shade

Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018

Finding a tree to grow in full shade can be a bit tricky. Most plants crave as much sun as they can get during the day so that their leaves can perform photosynthesis.

There are, however, some that have adapted well enough to tolerate less light. While you may not get optimal height, flowering, or fruiting, the tree will at least be able to grow there. You also need to carefully consider any plants you place underneath these trees. The leaf canopy will only deepen the shade, so choose accompanying plants like hostas and impatiens that can grow in full shade.

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These 11 trees are suitable for planting in full shade locations.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

The American beech is, as the name suggests, one source for beech nuts which are favored by wildlife and can be eaten by humans. This understory tree shows silky, oval pale green leaves that darken in summer and turn yellow brown in autumn. The American Beech thrives in full shade in dense, complex forests. Even out of the sunlight, it can live up to four hundred years.

  • USDA Zones:4 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to full shade
  • Height: 20 to 30 feet
  • Soil Needs: Moist and rich

American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

The wood of the American hornbeam is quite strong, inspiring the common name of ironwood. Hornbeam also refers to the wood strength since «beam» is a name for a tree in the Old English language. This tree features a fluted, gray trunk with green catkins appearing in spring. Clusters of winged nuts are produced in autumn as the leaves turn orange and red. The flowers are also useful and are included as a component of the alternative medicine therapy called Bach Flower Remedies.

  • USDA Zones: 3 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to full shade
  • Height: 30 feet
  • Soil Needs: Moist/wet and acidic

Big-Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)

The big-leaf maple is appropriately named. Each leaf can be up to two feet long, deeply lobed and dark green turning to yellow and orange-yellow in autumn. This maple thrives in dark and dense areas as well as sunny areas. They can be big drinkers, so areas with lots of rain is ideal.

  • USDA Zones: 6 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to full shade
  • Height: 75 to 100 feet
  • Soil Needs: From shallow and rocky to wet and loamy

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Few evergreen trees are able to tolerate shade.. Eastern hemlock is a great species able to handle lower light during the day. This tree may show several trunks with gray shoots of 2-ranked dark green leaves that show silver lines beneath. Branches are similar to those of the spruce genus.

  • USDA Zones: 4 to 8
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to full shade
  • Height: 50 feet
  • Soil Needs: Rocky to average soil

American Hop-Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)

The hop-hornbeam is a cousin of the true hornbeams (Carpinus) and the name hop refers to the fact that the fruit is similar in look to the flowers on hops vines (Humulus lupulus,) used in the production of beer. This deciduous conical shaped features dark brown bark with deep green leaves turning yellow in autumn. Yellowish catkins in spring are followed by greenish white fruit cluster.

  • USDA Zones: 5 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: Part shade to shade for best results
  • Height: 50 feet
  • Soil Needs: Moist, well-drained, and acidic

Common Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata)

The common hoptree is a small deciduous tree that can fit into most gardens. The flowers are sweet smelling although an unpleasant odor arises if the foliage or bark are damaged resulting in the common name stinking ash..

  • USDA Zones: 4 to 9
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to full shade
  • Height: 50 feet
  • Soil Needs: Moist to dry, well-drained, and loamy

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

Japanese maples are popular and common specimen trees for the landscape. These ornamental, bushy headed plants can range in size from large shrubs to small trees. They prefer to have at least some shade to protect their foliage, though colors may start to fade and fall color could be less spectacular if they get too much shade. Leaves are palmate turning a wide variety of colors in autumn. Clusters of reddish-purple flowers appear in spring. There are thousands of different cultivars available in a variety of colors and leaf shapes.

  • USDA Zones: 5 to 9, varies by cultivar
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun to full shade
  • Height: 20 feet or more, varies by cultivar
  • Soil Needs: Well-drained and acidic

Japanese Yew (Taxus cuspidata)

The Japanese yew is another shade-tolerant evergreen tree. In fact, it is one of the best evergreens in this situation. A spreading habit results in the common name Spreading Yew. Native to China, Japan, Korea, and Russia, this conifer tolerates very dry and shady conditions.

Western gray squirrel

Western gray squirrel

Legal status

Western gray squirrels are a protected species in Washington and cannot be hunted, trapped, or killed (WAC 220-200-100).

Nest sites

All tree squirrels contrast nursery nests in hollow trees, abandoned woodpecker cavities, and similar hollows. Where these are unavailable, they will build spherical or cup-shaped nests in trees, attics, and nest boxes. Western gray squirrel nests are large and often clustered in dry oak / conifer forests. Occupied nests may have fresh leaves, green conifer boughs, or lichen on top.

Food and feeding habits

Tree squirrels feed mostly on plant material, including seeds, nuts, acorns, tree buds, berries, leaves, and twigs. However, squirrels are opportunists and also eat fungi, insects, and occasionally birds’ eggs and nestlings.

Squirrels store food and recover it as needed. Hollow trees, stumps, and abandoned animal burrows are used as storage sites. Flower pots, exhaust pipes, and abandoned cars are also used.


Western gray squirrels mate from early winter to late spring, with one litter of two to four young appearing from March to June. After about 30 days of age, the young are fully furred and make short trips out of the nest. At about 60 days of age, they eat solid foods and venture to the ground.

At about three months of age, juvenile squirrels are on their own, sometimes remaining close to the nest until their parents’ next breeding period.

Mortality and longevity

In trees, squirrels are relatively safe, except for the occasional owl or goshawk. On the ground, large hawks and owls, domestic cats and dogs, coyotes, and bobcats catch squirrels.

Vehicles, disease, and starvation also kill squirrels.

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Most squirrels die during their first year. If they can survive the first year, they typically live three to five years.

Description and Range

The western gray squirrel is the largest tree squirrel native to the Pacific Northwest. They are steel gray on the back, with contrasting white on the belly and throat, resulting in the name, «silver gray squirrel» in some parts of their range.

They are distinguished by their very long and bushy tails that are primarily gray with white-frosted outer edges. They also have prominent ears, which can be reddish-brown on the back in winter. This occasional small patch of brown is only visible upon close inspection and is the only part of the squirrel that may have any brown.

The western gray squirrel’s large size, bushy tail, and gray fur lacking any brown on the body or tail are keys to distinguishing it from other tree squirrels in Washington.

The western gray squirrel was added to Washington’s list of state threatened species in 1993 when surveys indicated a decline in its geographical distribution. The species was once common at low to mid-elevations in dry forests where oak, pine, and Douglas fir mix. It could be found in the south Puget Trough and Columbia River Gorge and on the east slope of the Cascades north to Okanogan County.

It’s range is now limited to three isolated populations: the oak woodlands and conifer forests of Klickitat and southern Yakima counties; low to mid-elevation conifer forests in Okanogan and Chelan counties; and the oak woodlands and conifer forests on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce and Thurston counties. The North Cascades population is the only one occurring outside of the range of Oregon white oak in Washington.

Throughout their range, western gray squirrels are most frequently associated with pine trees, which provide nesting cover and seeds for food, and oak trees, which provide natal den sites and acorns for food. In Washington, they also use stands of Douglas fir trees when a component of oak or pine is present.

Western gray squirrels require mature stands of trees with sufficient canopy cover to provide secure nest sites and allow for traveling about in trees. They also need a diverse selection of vegetation to provide a multitude of food resources.

The amount of suitable habitat available to western gray squirrels has declined substantially as a result of urban/suburban development, conversion of oak woodlands to softwood stands through fire suppression, and changes to forest composition and structure as a result of commercial forestry practices. Additional threats to western gray squirrels in Washington include fragmentation of oak woodlands, invasion of oak woodlands by non-native plants like Scot’s broom, diseases such as mange, and potential competitors such as the introduced eastern gray squirrel.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains records on the distribution of western gray squirrels in Washington. The public’s assistance in reporting sightings of this species is appreciated.

13 Most Common North American Pine Species

Hayami Yanagisawa / EyeEm / Getty Images

  • B.S., Forest Resource Management, University of Georgia

Pine is a coniferous tree in the genus Pinus, in the family Pinaceae. There are about 111 species of pines worldwide, although different authorities accept between 105 and 125 species.   Pines are native to most of the Northern Hemisphere.

Pines are evergreen and resinous trees (rarely shrubs). The smallest pine is Siberian Dwarf Pine and Potosi Pinyon, and the tallest pine is Sugar Pine.

Pines are among the most plentiful and commercially important of tree species, valued for their timber and wood pulp throughout the world. In temperate and semi-tropical regions, pines are fast-growing softwoods that will grow in relatively dense stands, their acidic decaying needles inhibiting the sprouting of competing hardwoods. They are often grown in plantation managed forests for both lumber and paper.

The Common North American Pines

There are actually 49 species of native pines in North America.   They are the most ubiquitous conifer in the United States, easily recognized by most people and very successful in maintaining solid and valuable stands.

Pines are especially widespread and predominant in the Southeast and on drier sites in the Western mountains. Here are the most common and valuable pines that are native to the United States and Canada.

  • Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)
  • Western white pine (Pinus monticola)
  • Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana)
  • Red pine (Pinus resinosa)
  • Pitch pine (Pinus rigida)
  • Jack pine (Pinus banksiana)
  • Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)
  • Shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata)
  • Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda)
  • Slash pine (Pinus elliottii)
  • Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana)
  • Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)
  • Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)

Major Characteristics of the Pines

Leaves: All of these common pines have needles in bundles of between 2 and 5 needles and wrapped (sheathed) together with paper-thin scales that attach to the twig. The needles in these bundles become the tree’s «leaf» that persists for two years before dropping as the tree continues to grow new needles every year. Even as the needles are dropping bi-annually, the pine maintains its evergreen appearance.

Cones: Pines have two types of cones — one to produce pollen and one to develop and drop seeds. The smaller «pollen» cones are attached to new shoots and produce a massive amount of pollen every year. The larger woody cones are seed-bearing cones and mostly attached to limbs on short stalks or stalkless «sessile» attachments.

Pine cones usually mature in the second year, dropping a winged seed from between each cone scale. Depending on the species of pine, empty cones may drop off immediately after seed fall or hang on for several years or many years. Some pines have «fire cones» that only open after the heat from a wildland or prescribed fire releases the seed.

Bark and Limbs: A pine species with smooth bark generally grows in an environment where a fire is limited. Pine species that have adapted to a fire ecosystem will have scaly and furrowed bark. A conifer, when seen with tufted needles on stout limbs is confirmation that the tree is in the genus Pinus.

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