At first glance, the term “evergreen conifers” seems redundant, but that is not the case. There are conifer trees (cone producing trees) that are not evergreen, like Bald Cypress and Larches, and evergreen trees that do not produce cones, like Southern Magnolia and American Holly.
With evergreens being on display in late winter, I thought that a practical tutorial on the basics of evergreen conifer identification would be timely. I will outline characteristics that will help you place trees into the correct family, and add some examples for botanical and photographic interest.
I have found that a good place to study evergreens is a well established cemetery, for they frequently have a broad selection of tree families in relative close proximity. In the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area, I would recommend Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell and Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati. Spring Grove is the gold standard for cemeteries that double as an arboretum, and some of their specimens are labeled.
When I think of evergreen conifers, I think of the following tree families: Pine, Spruce, Fir, Cedar, Juniper, Hemlock, Arborvitae, Douglas-fir, Yew, and Cypress.
First we will discuss those families whose leaves take on the form of the classic “needle”, which includes the pines, spruces, firs and cedars.
Pines (Genus Pinus) – This is the easiest family to identify because it is the only one that has needles arranged in fascicles or groups.
In the above photos you have 5 needles in a fascicle on the left (White Pine), and two needles per fascicle on the right (Red Pine). The key again is that trees with “needles in fascicles” are pines.
This Red Pine in Highland Cemetery featured its namesake “reddish” bark on the proximal parts of its branches and upper trunk.
Spruces (Genus Picea)- The tell tale sign of spruces is the peg-like projections that are present after older needles fall off.
Spruces have single needles that tend to be a short (around an inch or less), rigid and pointy. They are clustered at the ends of branches, but yet there is an airy feel. This is demonstrated in the following photos of a Blue Spruce and White Spruce.
Below is what we call a “50 mile-an-hour tree”, something we can identify driving by at 50 miles an hour. It is a Norway Spruce, seen in Highland Cemetery, noted for the drooping secondary branches that hang down, giving off a somewhat depressed or haunting ambience.
Firs (Genus Abies) – Tend to prefer cooler climates so they are not terribly common in the midwest or south, other than at higher elevations in the southern Appalachians. However, you will see them in some landscape plantings. The classic finding is the opposite of spruces; instead of a little peg at the leaf scar, you will see a superficial circular indentation. The first image is of a White Fir and the second, a Nordmann Fir.
Like spruces, firs have a crowding of the needles at the tips of branches, where they appear more compact and less airy. The needles also tend to curve superiorly or toward the tip of the branch as seen in the following photos of a White Fir and Nordmann Fir.
We found this outstanding Nordmann Fir at Highland Cemetery.
Cedars (Genus Cedrus)- The cedars are probably the rarest of the needled trees in our region, and the needles occur in a whorled pattern on stubby branchlets near the end of a branch. It also has fist size cones that are upright and remind me of hornet nests.
This majestic specimen is the State of Ohio champion Cedar of Lebanon tree, located in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Then we get into the families where the leaves or needles are somewhat flattened. These include the Hemlocks, the Douglas-fir, and the Yews.
Hemlocks (Genus Tsuga) – Have flattened leaves with no significant petiole or stem, and the leaf tips are blunt. They also have their characteristic small cone that is about the size of a thumbnail.
Spring Grove Cemetery has numerous large hemlocks like this one.
Douglas-firs (Genus Pseudotsuga) – These are extremely large trees when found in their native western US, but in the midwest they tend to be more modest in size. Like the fir, it has a leaf scar, but it is not as well demarcated, more oval in shape, and raised on one end. Also, it has a unique cone with prominent bracts that extend out from it. It is sometimes listed as “Douglas Fir”, without the hyphen, but I think that is unnecessarily confusing since it is not in the Fir genus of Abies. In the taxonomy world, if the name is hyphenated, it is not a true member of that family, but rather has similar characteristics.
In Highland Cemetery we found this Douglas-fir that appears to have lost it main stem in a storm, but it is fighting on by developing two new trunks off a lateral branch. The resins in conifers can make them more resistant to insects and fungi that would lead to the demise of a similarly damaged deciduous tree.
Yews (Genus Taxus) – This is the classic suburban foundation plant of the 1960’s and 70’s that our fathers or grandfathers shaped with hedge trimmers but, if left untrimmed, can become massive trees. Females have a red berry-like fruit but the males have a pollen cone, hence their inclusion here. The leaves are flattened like the hemlock, but have a stem (petiole) and a pointed tip.
We came upon this fair sized specimen in Highland Cemetery.
And the final grouping will be those whose leaves have no real resemblance to needles, but rather have taken on a scale form. These include the Junipers, Arborvitaes, and Cypresses. In all of these, the scales are quite similar in overall appearance, as are the barks of older trees. Differentiation comes from the dimensional appearance of a branch tip, and by the cone.
Junipers (Genus Juniperus) – In younger trees the scales can be pointed and painful when brushed. This gets less notable as the tree gets older. The tips of the branches have a three dimensional presentation as when compared to Arborvitae and Cypress. The blue “berry-like” cones are the real give away in the fall and winter. So if it is a prickly scale, it is most likely a juniper tree.
This stately Juniper is a Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and found in Highland Cemetery. The terminology is confusing because the “Redcedars” are in fact not cedars, but rather Junipers. That is the reason the name Redcedar is preferred over Red Cedar, communicating that it is not a true cedar. Interestingly, in the past it has also been called Red Juniper, which would probably resolve all the confusion if utilized. Footpaths has had a previous article on Redcedars which can be found at this link: https://footpathsblog.com/2021/11/21/eastern-redcedar-the-ugly-duckling-of-trees/
Arborvitaes (Genus Thuja) – Here the branchlets are arranged in a flattened, two dimensional formation at the branch tips. Also, it has a small cone that is generally pointed up.
This is the classic form of a young Arborvitae, which was found at Spring Grove Cemetery. Spring Grove developed this variety of Western Arborvitae, named “Spring Grove”, and it is now a national best seller. They are fast growing and deer resistant.
Cypresses (Genus Chamaecyparis) – Like the Arborvitae, the branch tips are two dimensional, but the cone is spherical, pendulate, and about the size of your fifth fingernail.
I think that the closeup above looks like the Lego company has gotten into botany.
So at this point let’s have a pictorial challenge. Please match the picture with the evergreen family. (Pine, Spruce, Fir, Cedar, Hemlock, Douglass-fir, Yew, Juniper, Arborvitae, and Cypress. This is an “open book test” and you can scroll back up into the post to review 🙂
The correct answers are:
A – Juniper
B – Fir
C – Pine
D – Cypress
E – Spruce
F – Douglas-fir
G – Arborvitae
H – Cedar
I – Hemlock
And to close, a montage of the various forms that cones can display in the evergreen conifers. Some of these are male cones providing pollen, but most are the female or fruiting cones.
So on the next pretty late winter day, head out to a mature and well managed cemetery or arboretum and see if you can identify some of these evergreen conifer families. Once you get the families down you can work on identifying the individual species within those families based on other characteristics. Then, when your golfing partner hits his ball toward an evergreen, you can confidently tell them, “You’re up there at the base of that Norway Spruce”.
These photos were taken at Topsail Hill State Park in Santa Rosa Beach, FL, Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Ky, Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, OH, and the author’s and photographer’s garden.
Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.