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The Major North American Conifers With Descriptions

The Most Common Commercial Softwood Trees and Forest Associates


A conifer is a tree belonging to the cone bearing order Coniferales. These trees have needles or scale-like leaves and are very different from hardwood trees which have broad, flat leaves and usually without cones. You can easily identify a conifer from a hardwood.

Also called evergreens, conifers normally keep foliage or needles through the entire year. The notable exceptions are baldcypress and tamarack which shed needles annually.

These "softwood" trees usually bear cones and include the pines, spruces, firs, and cedars. Wood hardness varies among the conifer species, and some are actually harder than some hardwoods. Most of the common conifers are of major economic importance for lumber and paper production.

With each hardwood tree species listed here, I will provide information about habitat and their important tree associates. Also provided is a link to each of these major conifers that describes preferred habitat conditions, silviculture treatments for management, images of the foliage and fruit and the effects of fire.

1. Baldcypress

Swamp Cypress or Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum), Cupressaceae.
DEA / C. SAPPA/ De Agostini Picture Library/ Getty Images

Baldcypress grows into a large tree and the bark is gray-brown to red-brown, shallowly vertically fissured, with a stringy texture. The needles are on deciduous branchlets that are spirally arranged on the stem. Unlike most other species in the family Cupressaceae, bald cypress is deciduous, losing the leaves in the winter months and thus the name 'bald'. The main trunk is surrounded by cypress "knees" that protrude from the ground.

2. Cedar, Alaska

S. Porse/Wikimedia Commons

Alaska cedar is a cypress (Cupressaceae) that botanists have had historical problems determining it's scientific category. The species goes by many common names including Nootka Cypress, Yellow Cypress, and Alaska Cypress. Even though it is not a true cedar, it is also often confusingly called "Nootka Cedar", "Yellow Cedar" and "Alaska Yellow Cedar". One of its common names derives from its discovery on the lands of a First Nation of Canada, the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, who were formerly referred to as the Nootka.

3. Cedar, Atlantic White

Cedar, Atlantic White
Rebecca Merrilees, Illustrator

Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), also called southern white-cedar, white-cedar, and swamp-cedar, is found most frequently in small dense stands in fresh water swamps and bogs. Heavy cutting for many commercial uses during this century has considerably reduced even the largest stands so that the total volume of this species growing stock is not currently known. It is still considered a commercially important single species in the major supply areas of North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Florida.

4. Cedar, Northern White (arborvitae)

Cedar, Northern White (arborvitae)
Rebecca Merrilees, Illustrator

Northern white-cedar is a slow growing native North American boreal tree. Arborvitae is its cultivated name and commercially sold and planted in yards throughout the United States. The tree is identified primarily by unique flat and filigree sprays made up of tiny, scaly leaves. The tree loves limestone areas and can take full sun to light shade.

5. Cedar, Port-Orford

R. Hunt/Wikimedia Commons

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana is a cypress known by the name Lawson's Cypress when cultivated in the landscape, or Port Orford-cedar in its native range. It is not a true cedar. Port Orford Cedar is native to the southwest of Oregon and the far northwest of California in the United States, occurring from sea level up to 4,900 ft in mountain valleys, often along streams. Port-Orford-cedar is found with an extremely wide variety of associated plants and vegetation types. It usually grows in mixed stands and is important in the Picea sitchensis, Tsuga heterophylla, mixed evergreen, and Abies concolor vegetation zones of Oregon and their counterparts in California.

6. Douglas-fir

Douglas Fir
Wherever Douglas-fir grows in mixture with other species, the proportion may vary greatly, depending on aspect, elevation, kind of soil, and the past history of an area, especially as it relates to fire. This is particularly true of the mixed conifer stands in the southern Rocky Mountains where Douglas-fir is associated with ponderosa pine, southwestern white pine (Pinus strobiformis), corkbark fir (Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica), white fir (Abies concolor), blue spruce (Picea pungens), Engelmann spruce, and aspen (Populus spp.).

7. Fir, Balsam

Balsam Fir
Tree species associated with balsam fir in the boreal region of Canada are black spruce (Picea mariana), white spruce (Picea glauca), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). In the more southerly northern forest region, additional associates include bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), tamarack (Larix laricina), black ash (Fraxinus nigra), and northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis).

8. Fir, California Red

California Red Fir
R. Merrilees, Illustrator
Red fir is found in seven forest cover types of western North America. It is in pure stands or as a major component in Red Fir (Society of American Foresters Type 207, and also in the following types: Mountain Hemlock (Type 205), White Fir (Type 211), Lodgepole Pine (Type 218), Pacific Douglas-Fir (Type 229), Sierra Nevada Mixed Conifer (Type 243), and California Mixed Subalpine (Type 256).

9. Fir, Fraser

Fraser Fir
Fraser fir is a component of four forest cover types (10): Pin Cherry (Society of American Foresters Type 17), Red Spruce-Yellow Birch (Type 30), Red Spruce (Type 32), and Red Spruce-Fraser Fir (Type 34).

10. Fir, Grand

Grand Fir
R. Merrilees Illustrator
Grand fir is represented in 17 forest cover types of western North America: it is the predominant species in only one, Grand Fir (Society of American Foresters Type 213). It is a major component of six other cover types: Western Larch (Type 212), Western White Pine (Type 215), Interior Douglas-Fir (Type 210), Western Hemlock (Type 224), Western Redcedar (Type 228), and Western Redcedar-Western Hemlock (Type 227). Grand fir appears sporadically in 10 other cover types.

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