What is a Conifer?

Conifers are all around us, but what exactly are they? These trees play an important role in the ecosystem and the economy. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen gives a brief introduction to coniferous plants.

View of various types of Conifers in the garden. Conifers, a group of cone-bearing trees and shrubs, are known for their iconic appearance characterized by needle-like or scale-like leaves, typically evergreen and often arranged spirally around the branches. These trees boast a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from towering pines with sturdy, straight trunks to graceful firs with sweeping branches. Their needle-like and scale-like leaves come in bright green, dark green and bluish-gray shades.


Conifers are well represented in the fossil record, dating back over 300 million years ago. In fact, conifers evolved before flowering plants. Given that conifers have been around for so long, it’s no surprise that there are now a great number of coniferous plants on the earth. 

Conifers occur on every continent except Antarctica. There are over 600 unique species of conifers. If you count the many additional conifer cultivars that have been introduced by plant breeders for cultivation, there is an incredible number of these amazing plants!

The name “conifer” comes from the fact that these trees reproduce by cones, as opposed to flowers and fruits. “Con” comes from the Latin word conus, referring to the cones. And “fer” comes from the Latin word ferre, meaning “to bear.” Therefore, a conifer is a plant that bears cones. Most conifers can also be easily recognized by their needle-like or bristly modified leaves.

So what, exactly, is a conifer? Keep reading for more details about this fascinating and unique group of both ancient and modern plants.

The Short Answer

Conifers are a widely diverse classification of trees and shrubs. The one thing that all conifers have in common is that they produce seed-bearing cones. Conifers typically have modified needle-like leaves, although these vary widely in length and form. Most, but not all, conifers are evergreens and retain their foliage all year long, although a few are deciduous and lose their leaves for the winter. Conifers are important in many natural ecosystems, used by many species of wildlife, and are economically important trees.

The Long Answer

All living conifers are woody plants, and most are trees, although there are numerous small trees and shrubs as well. You’ve probably seen coniferous trees before, and you may even have furniture or household objects made from the wood of conifers. There’s no absolute one way to describe a conifer because they look different, grow in different habitats, and have different uses in the natural and human environment.

Physical Description

Close-up of evergreen pine tree twig. The Pine tree presents a majestic sight, featuring a towering trunk crowned by a canopy of dark green needles and clusters of woody cones. The leaves are long, thin, needle-like, bright green, creating a lush, textured foliage. Amidst this verdant canopy, the cones hang like ornaments.
These majestic trees have diverse cones and needle patterns.

Coniferous trees also often have a characteristic conical shape, but certainly not all. All true conifers have needles, but these needles can look quite different from each other. Pines typically have elongated needles, but even these are highly varied. For example, short-leaf pine needles are dramatically different than longleaf pine needles.  

Some species grow their needles in dense tufts, while others develop more sparse needle arrangements. Fir trees tend to have very short needles that line the stems. Those species that don’t have elongated needles, such as cypress and cedar, have more bristly clusters of blunt, sometimes almost feathery-looking needles.

Almost all conifers produce cones, and this is one of their most defining characteristics. Cones vary widely in shape and size. Cones are round to oblong, containing a series of overlapping scales. They often feel rough or bristly. 

The seeds are typically nestled in the center of the cone so that when the cone reaches full maturity and opens, the seeds are released and drop to the ground. A few conifers, such as the juniper, have more berry-like cones. Male junipers produce more traditional-looking cones, whereas the female cones are fleshy and round but still technically cones with merged scales.

The bark of a mature conifer plant is usually rough or scaly, although some, like the eastern red cedar, have soft, peeling, almost paper-like bark. Conifers are known as “softwood” trees, but not because they have weak wood or because their wood is soft. Softwood trees typically contain a different internal cell structure than hardwood trees. Many conifers also have fragrant and sometimes very colorful wood that contains a thick, sticky sap. 


Close-up of a sprouted conifer seed in the soil. The sprouted conifer seed emerges as a delicate seedling, showcasing slender, needle-like leaves arranged in a spiral pattern around the stem. The seedling's stem is thin and flexible. The leaves are elongated, thin, needle-shaped, bright green in color.
Gymnosperms like conifers bear exposed seeds, ensuring diverse reproduction.

Conifers are a part of a group of plants known as “gymnosperms.” This means they are seed-producing plants that reproduce by an exposed seed (as opposed to angiosperms that reproduce with seeds formed inside fruits). 

The male pollen-producing parts produce copious amounts of pollen. All the conifers of a particular species release their pollen in a mass synchronized release. This wind-blown pollen then blows around the air until it meets the female cones, which may be on the same plant or different plants, depending on the species. The seeds then form within the cones before releasing at maturity.  

Wildlife Value

Close-up of a magpie perched gracefully on a conifer tree. The magpie is a striking black-and-white bird with a long, sleek tail and iridescent plumage. The Aleppo pine is a graceful evergreen tree with a distinctive conical crown and slender, flexible branches. Its needle-like leaves, arranged in pairs, are a vibrant shade of green. Clusters of small, ovoid cones adorn the branches, maturing from green to brown as they ripen.
Conifers nurture diverse wildlife ecosystems with food, shelter, and nesting.

Coniferous trees are immensely valuable for wildlife. They host a number of specialized insects and are the larval food plant for various butterfly and moth species. Conifers are a favorite foraging tree for many species of birds that climb up and down the trunks and forage in their dense needles for insect prey.

They provide food for many species of hungry wildlife that eat the seeds from the cones. Conifers also provide shade, shelter, and nesting opportunities for many wildlife species throughout their range.

Commercial Culture

A Christmas tree farm is a picturesque landscape characterized by orderly rows of evergreen fir trees. Evergreen fir trees are majestic conifers renowned for their symmetrical, pyramidal shape and dense, needled foliage. Their branches are adorned with flat, linear needles arranged in spirals along the twigs.
Conifers make significant contributions to economies through Christmas trees and timber.

Coniferous trees are very important economically as well. Christmas tree farming is one of the ways that people cultivate and harvest conifers. Various species of fir and spruce trees make up a majority of commercially grown Christmas trees. The lumber used for building construction is typically from pine trees. Furniture and small wood objects are often made from conifer trees. 

There’s a surprising list of other common products that are derived from conifers, including paper products, such as printing paper, toilet paper, tissues, and cardboard packaging. Even various oils, turpentine, and soaps are made from conifers. Many commercially available mulch products are made from conifers. Coniferous trees are even used to make a variety of musical instruments!

Conifers are popular trees and shrubs for landscaping. Go into any garden center, and you will find juniper bushes, pines, and spruce trees. You can use these landscaping trees to create a beautifully diversified habitat in your landscape. You can also use conifers as central accent plants, shade trees, and even potted bonsai trees!

Conifer Ecosystems

View of the conifer forest on a hill close up. Background of tree tops on the mountainside. Cones of conifer trees on steep slopes.
Conifers dominate diverse ecosystems worldwide, from boreal forests to swamps.

There are some natural ecosystems where conifers are the dominant species. For example, boreal forests in the northern hemisphere are conifer-dominated landscapes. The taiga biome is a boreal forest that is made up primarily of pines, larches, and spruce trees. 

The longleaf pine forest in the southeastern United States is an important forest type that supports a variety of unique plants and animals. It is entirely dependent on natural forest fires for its continued survival because natural fires reduce competition with invasive species. Longleaf pine trees won’t sprout until they have been through a fire. 

Tropical and subtropical coniferous forests exist in parts of Central America and Indo-Asia and consist primarily of various pine species. Cypress trees love wet habitats and are characteristic of temperate and tropical cypress swamps. The famous redwood forests of the Pacific coast of North America contain some of the largest and oldest trees on Earth. These giant sequoias and coast redwoods can grow over 300 feet tall and live over 2000 years! 

Not all conifer ecosystems are entirely made up of conifer trees, however. There are many mixed forest types that include a blend of conifers and an assortment of hardwood trees such as oak, hickory, maple, and beech. Each ecosystem and biome is unique and contains its own balanced mix of species that all thrive together.

Conifer Types

View of the garden with various coniferous trees growing including Colorado Blue Spruce Tree, Pinus nigra, Thuja occidentalis, Juniperus chinensis, Oriental Spruce and others. Conifers are characterized by their evergreen needle-like or scale-like leaves and cone-bearing reproductive structures. Their branches form dense, pyramid-shaped or conical crowns. The needles or scales vary in color from deep green to blue-green.
Diverse conifer groups, from cedars to yews, adorn landscapes worldwide.

Conifers are a highly diverse group of plants and include the following familiar types. With over 600 species, you can expect a lot of very different-looking plants! The following are some familiar groups of conifers.

Cedars have short, flat needles. E.g., Eastern Red Cedar, Western Red Cedar

Cypress are characterized by feathery leaves with short needles and are mostly deciduous. E.g., Bald Cypress, Thuja

Redwood and Sequoia are actually cypress varieties with short, feathery, flexible needles. E.g. Giant Sequoia, California Redwood

Firs have medium-length needles arranged along the twigs and small branches. E.g. Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir

Hemlocks have short, flat needles. E.g. Eastern Hemlock. Western Hemlock

Juniper needles are hard and sharp, sometimes overlapping in a scaly arrangement. E.g., Creeping Juniper, Rocky Mountain Juniper

Larch trees are deciduous, with short, needle-like leaves that grow in dense clusters. E.g. Western Larch, Tamarack

Pines have relatively long, flexible needles that grow in small or large bunches. There are a great number of different pine species throughout the world. E.g. Loblolly Pine, Ponderosa Pine

Spruce trees have stiff, sharp, short needles that grow along the small twigs. E.g. Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce

Yews have short, flattened fern-like leaves. E.g., Pacific Yew, English Yew

Final Thoughts

Conifers are a diverse assemblage of woody plants found throughout the world. They occur in deserts, rainforests, and everywhere in between. You can safely guess that any tree that produces both needles and cones is a conifer.

You can learn to identify the conifers in your area by learning their habitats, growth forms, and needle structure. If you want to grow some conifers in your landscape, look for those species that will do best in your area and with your specific landscape conditions. These trees are beautiful, easy to grow, and long-lived, making them practical and valuable plants.

A serene landscape unfolds, adorned with lush evergreen trees and verdant shrubs, creating a picturesque scene of natural beauty. The background dissolves into a gentle blur, hinting at the vast expanse of dense forest beyond.


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