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Identification of the Most Common Conifers

A Guide for North American Softwood Tree Identification

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Eastern Hemlock

hemlock spray

Photo by Steve Nix
Identify Your Common North American Conifers

Conifers or softwoods are classed as gymnosperms or plants with naked seeds not enclosed in an ovary. These seed "fruits" are considered more primitive than hardwoods.

Conifers may or may not lose their "needles" annually but most are evergreen. These trees have needlelike or scalelike foliage and usually renew many leaves annually (but not all every year). The foliage is usually narrow and sharp-pointed needles or small and scale-like leaves. Studying the needle is the best way to identify a conifer.

If you are confused with some of the terms used here, please use my definitions of terms used for tree identification.

Several Common Terms for this Major Tree Category

  • CONIFER - A tree belonging to the order Coniferales. Trees with needles or scalelike leaves and cones as opposed to broad, flat leaves that more often than not are coneless.
  • EVERGREEN - perennial plants which normally keep foliage or needles through the entire year.
  • SOFTWOOD - Softwood trees are usually evergreen, bear cones, and have needles or scalelike leaves. They include pine, spruces, firs, and cedars. Wood hardness varies among the conifer species, and some are actually harder than some hardwoods.

The Most Common Conifer Trees

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." 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. 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.

Identify trees known variously as conifers, evergreens, or softwoods:
baldcypress | cedar | Douglas-fir | fir | hemlock | larch | pine | redwood | spruce | juniper

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