Conifers vs. Evergreens: What's the Difference?

evergreens versus conifers

The Spruce / K. Dave

Conifers and evergreens may seem like opposites, but they actually aren't. Some evergreens are conifers. There's overlap between these two classes of trees and shrub, though the two are different. Here's what to know about conifers and evergreens and how to tell the difference between the two.

What Is a Conifer?

A conifer is a cone-bearing tree. Trees and shrubs that are conifers reproduce by forming a cone rather than a flower as a container for their seeds. The adjective describing a conifer is "coniferous."

Some trees and shrubs that you may not think of as being conifers actually are. Not all cones have the appearance of a classic cone, such as the spruce cone. Examples include:

  • Maidenhair trees (Ginkgo biloba): What people think of as the messy "fruit" is really a cone.
  • Juniper shrubs (Juniperus spp.): What look like blue berries to the average person are actually cones.
  • Yew trees and shrubs (Taxus spp.): What appear to be red berries are really fleshy cones called "arils."
  • Arborvitae shrubs: What gardeners sometimes worry about as yellowish-green "growths" on these bushes are actually cones. The cones are a more attractive blue on the Blue Cone cultivar (Thuja orientalis 'Blue Cone').

What Is an Evergreen?

An evergreen is a plant that keeps its needles or leaves year-round. Evergreen can also be an adjective describing that type of tree or shrub. Whether you are looking for a plant to cast shade, offer privacy, or make a landscape-design statement, you will value the steadiness of evergreens.

Examples of popular evergreens include:

Evergreens vs. Conifers

When you're thinking about evergreens vs. conifers, you are likely thinking about the leaves—deciduous or a conifer. But the difference between these two classes of plant doesn't have to do with how or when the leaves fall.

While there is overlap between the two botanical classifications, conifer and evergreen refer to different aspects of a plant. Conifer pertains to how a plant reproduces (via cone), while evergreen refers to how a plant keeps or loses its leaves.

A great example of the fact that not all conifers are evergreens is the larch tree (Larix laricina), also known as the "tamarack" tree. In summer, tamarack looks like it would be one of the evergreens, because it bears green needles. But this conifer is a deciduous tree. It even bears fall foliage, as the needles turn yellow in autumn.

Types of Evergreen Coniferous Trees

Most conifers are evergreens, but not all of them are. Examples of conifers include the following evergreens:

Arborvitae shrubs
Arborvitae shrubs are evergreens and conifers.

The Spruce / K. Dave

Types of Evergreens That Aren't Coniferous

Not all evergreens are conifers. Numerous broadleaf evergreens are not conifers because they reproduce via flowers, not cones. Examples of evergreens that aren't coniferous include:

Azaleas are evergreens, but not conifers.

The Spruce / K. Dave

Should You Grow a Conifer or Evergreen?

The wisdom (or lack thereof) of selecting this type of plant for your yard depends on factors such as:

  • The amount of landscape maintenance you are willing to do
  • The qualities of the specific plant you will be growing
  • Where the tree will be planted
  • Whether or not you need year-round privacy in the yard

Conifers with large cones, such as eastern white pine trees (Pinus strobus), 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 Blue Pfitzer juniper shrub (Juniperus chinensis 'Pfitzeriana Glauca') are too small to be messy. 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 other natural Christmas decorations.

Evergreen trees and shrubs are also useful for people seeking living privacy walls all year long. You can get away with a hedge of deciduous trees or shrubs as a living privacy wall in summer, but those plants will be useless if you need privacy in winter, too.

Article Sources
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  1. How to Properly Identify Common Conifer Trees. MSU Extension Website