What’s the Difference Between Deciduous and Evergreen Trees?

You’ve probably heard the words deciduous and evergreen, but do you know what they mean and what types of trees they are? Trees are classified into various categories, including whether or not they lose their leaves each autumn. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen explains the difference between deciduous and evergreen trees.

A dense canopy of deciduous trees fills the frame, their vibrant green leaves shimmering in the sunlight, contrasting against the clear blue sky in the background, evoking a sense of tranquility and natural beauty.


If you have always believed that evergreen trees were needled and cone-bearing like pines and spruces and that any other tree with broad leaves was not evergreen, you may be surprised to hear that this isn’t entirely true. There are needled trees that drop their leaves in the fall and broad-leaved trees that keep their foliage all year round. So, how do you classify these different types of trees?

Trees are an amazingly diverse group of plants. They’ve been an important part of the earth since they appeared in the fossil record approximately 390 million years ago. Today, trees are a primary component of many major ecosystem types. They provide food, shelter, and oxygen for people and animals.

When you look at a tree, one of the first things you may notice is its leaves. You will see the size and shape of the leaves, the color, and the texture. If you watch the tree across all four seasons, you will also notice whether or not it loses all its leaves for the winter or holds onto its leaves throughout the entire year. 

Once you know whether a tree keeps its leaves alive for the winter or drops them each autumn, you’ll know whether your tree is deciduous or evergreen. And you might be quite surprised to observe that not all trees behave the way you might expect. There are plenty of deciduous conifers and broadleaf evergreens. 

If you’re feeling a little confused, let’s dig a little deeper into the differences between deciduous and evergreen trees. Knowing the basics can help you better recognize different types of plants and appreciate them for their unique characteristics. 

The Short Answer

The basic difference between deciduous and evergreen trees is that deciduous trees lose their leaves during the winter months, while evergreens keep their leaves throughout the year. Evergreens do, however, still lose and replace their foliage. They just don’t do it all at the same time. Most people associate evergreen trees with needled, cone-bearing trees, but some needled coniferous trees are also deciduous.

The Long Answer

Towering evergreen trees dominate the scene, their dark, needle-like leaves forming a lush canopy that stretches as far as the eye can see, creating a sense of timeless majesty and serene wilderness.
Deciduous trees shed all leaves yearly, while evergreens lose foliage gradually.

If you watch a group of trees and shrubs throughout the course of a year, it’s easy to tell which are deciduous and which are evergreen. Deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves each year in a regular and predictable cycle. Evergreen plants retain their foliage beyond a single growing season, losing their leaves in smaller numbers rather than all at once. 

Deciduous vs. Evergreen Trees

A close-up of a vibrant Red maple tree featuring crimson leaves, slender stems, and graceful branches. Behind, towering trees frame a serene lake, enhancing the picturesque scenery with their majestic presence.
Observation over fall and winter distinguishes evergreen from deciduous trees.

There are some general characteristics that apply to deciduous trees. Look around at the trees in your yard and see if you can tell which are deciduous and which are evergreen. If you aren’t sure at first glance, you’ll have to observe your trees throughout the fall and winter to see if they keep their leaves or not.

Deciduous Trees

A close-up of a White Dogwood tree adorned with ivory leaves set against rustic brown branches; beneath the cloudless sky, a small house is nestled amidst lush greenery, harmonizing with the tranquil surroundings.
These trees have traits like shedding leaves in fall.
  • Deciduous trees typically have broad, flattened leaves. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but in a general survey, if it has broad, flat leaves, there’s a good chance it’s deciduous.
  • They lose their leaves on a predictable annual cycle.
  • They often (but not always) display fall color.
  • They perform photosynthesis only during the growing season when they have leaves.

Common examples of deciduous trees:

  • Oak
  • Maple
  • Birch
  • Ash
  • Willow
  • Dogwood
  • Redbud
  • Some fruit trees

Evergreen Trees

A close-up of a solitary juniper clinging to the edge of a rocky cliff above a serene blue bay, with a sturdy brown trunk and vibrant green foliage catching the sunlight against a backdrop of clear blue skies.
Broad-leaved evergreens retain thick leaves all winter.
  • Evergreen trees often (but not always) have needles and produce cones. These needled, cone-bearing trees are called conifers.
  • They can also be broad-leaved, having thick, leathery leaves that stay on the plant all winter.
  • Evergreens don’t typically display fall colors.
  • Evergreens perform photosynthesis all year because they always have green leaves.

Common examples of evergreen trees:

  • Cedar
  • Pine
  • Fir
  • Spruce
  • Juniper
  • Holly
  • Live Oak
  • Camelia

Landscaping Considerations

A close-up of a lush backyard garden landscape featuring an array of verdant plants of various sizes, shapes, and textures, creating a rich tapestry of greenery with a harmonious blend of foliage forms and shades.
Deciduous trees offer colorful fall foliage and fruit-bearing options.

From a gardener’s perspective, you might be wondering how this affects your choices of plants. Depending on how you want to use trees and shrubs in your landscape, you may have a certain preference for either deciduous plants or evergreens.

Are you looking for some thick shrubbery to create a windbreak or privacy hedge? Evergreens can be a great choice. Are you hoping to grow your own Christmas tree? You’ll probably want a needled evergreen. Do you want some trees and shrubs to stay green all year long? You’ll need evergreen species for that. Do you hate raking leaves in the fall? Planting evergreens can help reduce your need for raking leaves, although some pines drop a tremendous amount of needles each year.

But what about growing some trees and shrubs with spectacular fall foliage to spice up your late-season landscape? Go with deciduous trees and look for species that have brilliantly colored fall foliage. Would you like to grow your own fruit trees and create an edible landscape? Unless you’re growing tropicals, you’ll be looking for fruit-bearing deciduous trees for this purpose. 

If you can’t decide between deciduous and evergreen trees, know that both share some important characteristics. They are both beautiful and make excellent landscaping plants. Both deciduous and evergreen plants provide habitat for wildlife, including foraging opportunities, nesting places, and important places to seek shelter from predators and the weather. Any tree or shrub you grow will also provide essential environmental services such as making oxygen and helping filter and clean groundwater.

Do evergreen trees ever lose their leaves? 

A close-up of Emerald cedar evergreen trees, their vibrant green foliage forms a striking contrast against the blue sky, showcasing meticulous upward pruning that accentuates their elegant and slender shape in the garden landscape.
These trees adapt leaf shedding for perennial greenery.

Most evergreens lose their leaves in the springtime, but this process isn’t as obvious as with deciduous trees. Evergreens don’t lose their leaves all at once and replace them immediately. So, as old leaves fall off, new ones are growing in simultaneously. Many evergreens lose only their oldest leaves each year rather than all their leaves each year, allowing them to maintain a generally green and leafy appearance.

What’s the difference between a needled and a broadleaf evergreen?

A close-up of boxwood shrubs, their glossy broadleaf evergreens exhibit a timeless beauty, meticulously trimmed into a classic hedge, each leaf adding a touch of verdant richness to the meticulously manicured garden setting.
A holly, with its glossy leaves, is a prime example of a broadleaf evergreen.

Needled evergreens include a variety of familiar trees. They are all conifers (having seed-bearing cones), and they all have modified leaves called needles. Some species have very long needles, like the longleaf pine, while other species have very short needles, like junipers. Yews and spruces have short to medium-length needles. The important thing is that the needled evergreens all have some sort of needled leaves. 

A broadleaf evergreen, on the other hand, is not a conifer. Broadleaf evergreens don’t have cones or needled leaves, but they still have evergreen vegetation. Many varieties of hollies, rhododendrons, camellias, live oaks, tropical fruit trees, and boxwoods are some familiar examples of broadleaf evergreens.

These plants tend to have thick, waxy-looking leaves, and they retain their leaves throughout the winter. They have flowers and fruits like their deciduous counterparts, but unlike their deciduous relatives, you won’t see bare branches in the winter with these broadleaf evergreens. 

Are all conifers evergreens? 

Vibrant green conifer leaves form distinctive conic shapes, bordered by lush greenery below, with distant houses peeking through the background.
Conifers bear cones and needles, often staying green year-round.

A conifer is a needled tree or shrub that also produces cones. Pines, cedars, and spruces are common conifers. Many, but not all, conifers are also evergreen. In North America, deciduous conifers include tamarack, larch, dawn redwood, and bald cypress. These trees are conifers that lose their leaves each winter, classifying them in the unique category of deciduous conifers. 

Why do the leaves of deciduous trees change color in autumn?

Leaves display a blend of orange and green hues against a brown pathway, with lush green grass below and expansive blue skies above.
Winter dormancy conserves resources for many plants during colder months.

When leaves first emerge in the spring, they are typically bright green and full of chlorophyll. The chlorophyll helps plants convert sunlight into the energy they need to grow and thrive. This is the process of photosynthesis.

Green leaves continue to do photosynthesis through the summer and into fall. As the days get shorter and the sunlight becomes less intense, the leaves are triggered to stop producing as much chlorophyll. The green color then breaks down and changes into the familiar fall foliage colors before the tree shuts down the process altogether and allows its leaves to drop off.

These trees then go dormant through the winter months. Winter dormancy means they don’t need as much water in the winter months, and they don’t need to expend extra energy to maintain their leaves. In the springtime, when the days become longer and the sunlight becomes more intense again, deciduous trees come back to life, ready for another season of active growth and energy conversion. 

Do deciduous trees all drop their leaves at the same time? 

A majestic oak tree stands tall with lush green leaves against a clear blue sky, set against a neatly trimmed green lawn below, showcasing the tree's sturdy trunk and vibrant foliage.
More trees mean more raking but also more outdoor enjoyment.

Interestingly, deciduous trees each have their own schedule for growing new spring leaves and dropping old leaves in the autumn. Red maples, for example, are one of the first trees to leaf out each spring, and ash trees are one of the first to lose their leaves in the autumn. Most oaks tend to hold onto their leaves until late fall, even after the leaves have turned brown. And beech trees will hold onto their brown leaves throughout the winter, losing them in the springtime as the new leaves push their way out.

As you are outside doing yard work in the fall, the more different species you have in your landscape, the more variety of leaves you will have falling at different times. This may seem to add more time you’ll spend raking, but it also helps extend the time you can spend outdoors, enjoying the beautiful fall foliage.

Final Thoughts

Evergreens can be needled or broad-leaved, but regardless of their leaf type, they retain their green leaves all year. Deciduous trees can also be needled or broadleaved, but they lose their leaves each fall and regrow them in the spring. Few absolute rules apply to ALL evergreens or ALL deciduous trees. Once you learn some of their general characteristics, however, you can usually tell the difference. 

Regardless of whether they keep their leaves all year or lose them each fall, both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs are valuable landscaping plants. They each have unique features, beautiful forms, and attractive foliage. If you have the space, try growing some of each to increase your landscape’s diversity and curb appeal

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