Conifer Or Evergreen, What’s The Difference?

Evergreen is a botanical term that refers to a plant that has leaves throughout the year that is always green. There are many different kinds of evergreen plants that include both trees and shrubs. Evergreens come in many different forms such as spreading, pyramid shape, open, prostrate or creeping. Evergreens also provide year-round color and texture in a landscape making them excellent accent plants. Many homeowners love their vibrant color, especially during winter.

On the other hand, a conifer is a plant that is grouped according to its reproduction.  Simply stated conifers reproduce with cones or structures that resemble cones.  A group of plants that we all can easily recognize as cone bearing is conifers in contrast to other plants that reproduce with flowers. It is this fact regarding reproduction that points us to the difference between evergreens and conifers.

conifer versus evergreen
Pine cones indicate that this tree is a conifer. Its needles are green throughout the year so it is also an evergreen.

Evergreens include most species of conifers, examples include white pine, hemlock, blue spruce, and red cedar. But not all conifers are evergreens. Perhaps the best-known example of the fact that not all conifers are evergreens is the larch or tamarack tree (Larix laricina). In summer, tamarack appears to be evergreens, because it bears green needles. But tamaracks are actually a deciduous tree. Its needles even change to a yellow color in autumn.

There are numerous broadleaf evergreens that are not conifers because they reproduce via flowers instead of cones; examples include:

Holly shrubs (Ilex)
Azalea shrubs (Rhododendron)
Boxwood shrubs (Buxus)

To make things more complex, not all cones have the appearance of a classic pine or spruce cone. Some trees and shrubs that you may not think of as being conifers actually are.  For instance, the Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo) an ornamental tree with a messy “fruit” that is really a cone. Another is Juniper shrubs (Juniperus) whose berry-like structures are actually cones.  Lastly, Yew trees (Taxus) have red berry-like structures that are really fleshy cones called arils.

So who really cares anyway about the technicalities of tree classification? Well actually it’s quite simple if you think about the consequences. Evergreen trees and shrubs are useful for people seeking living privacy walls all year long. You can get away with a hedge of deciduous trees or shrubs if all you need is privacy just for the summer. Evergreens also help by adding a splash of wintertime color.  Often times choosing a conifer has bigger implications, such as height. Some conifers can range in height from 40 to 75 feet tall. Other issues are messy cones and needles that drop throughout the year which add tremendously to yard clean up and soil acidity.

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