What's the Difference Between Evergreens and Conifers?

There's Overlap Between the Two, but They Are, in Fact, Different

Picture of a snow-covered bough of a hemlock tree.
Canadian hemlock trees are conifers. David Beaulieu

"Conifer" is an arboricultural term meaning, literally, a cone-bearer (such English words as "refer" and "aquifer" also use the FER Latin root, meaning "to bear"). Trees and shrubs that fall into this category reproduce by forming a cone rather than a flower as a container for their seeds. It is this fact regarding reproduction that points us to the difference between evergreens and conifers (see below).

The corresponding adjective is "coniferous."

Most conifers are evergreens, but not all of them are.

Examples of conifers include:

 

Again, do not confuse "conifer" with "evergreen." While there is overlap between these two botanical classifications, they do not signify the same thing. As you can see from the above, the former pertains to means of reproduction (the cone); the latter, by contrast, pertains to the nature of a tree's leaves (or "needles").

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 looks like it would be one of the evergreens, because it bears needles. But this conifer is a deciduous tree.

Likewise, not all evergreens are conifers. Holly shrubs are evergreen, but they are not conifers because they reproduce via flowers, not cones.

Beginners often become confused by these terms and end up asking the wrong questions. For example, you will sometimes hear someone asking if such and such a tree or shrub is "deciduous or a conifer?" as if it had to be one or the other. But this is the wrong contrast to draw. From the foregoing, you will see that the difference the person truly has in mind is between "deciduous" and "evergreen."

Some trees and shrubs that you may not think of as being conifers actually are (which is another way of saying that not all cones have the appearance of a classic cone, such as the spruce cone). Examples include:

  1. Ginkgo biloba trees (what people think of as the messy "fruit" is really a cone)
  2. Juniper shrubs (again, what look like blue berries to the average person are actually cones)

Is It Wise or Unwise to Select a Coniferous Tree for Your Landscaping?

Your decision here depends on how you would answer questions such as:

  1. How much landscape maintenance are you willing to do?
  2. Where will the tree be planted?
  3. Do you enjoy crafts?

Conifers with large cones, such as eastern white pine trees, can be some of the messiest trees to grow, creating more landscape maintenance than some people care to engage in. Furthermore, it is a double whammy if you plant such a tree in a spot near where you park your car. Not only will you be raking cones off your driveway, but you will also be cleaning pine pitch off your windshield (plus those needles have a way of getting under your vehicle's front hood and taking up residence there).

But the cones of a conifer such as juniper shrub are too small to be messy (as a bonus, their beauty is a plus for the landscape).

Even the types with larger cones are valued by some people. They are collected by crafts enthusiasts to make, for example, kissing balls, wreaths, or various natural Christmas decorations.