Identifying Common North American Conifers

Learn how to closely investigate needles, leaves, fruit and flowers.

Detailed shot of Douglas fir cones and bright green needles.

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Conifers are commonly thought to be synonymous with "evergreen trees," which stay green through the year. However, not all conifers—also known as softwoods—remain green and keep their needles year-round. They are actually scientifically classed by how they fruit.

Identifying the differences between conifers can be tricky. This guide explains the various types of common conifers, notable characteristics, and identification tips.

Did You Know?

Softwood conifers include pine, spruce, fir, and cedar trees. But despite the name, wood hardness varies among the conifer species. Some softwoods are actually harder than certain hardwoods.

General Guidelines for Broad Identification

Detailed shot of bright green pine tree needles.

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Though conifers may or may not lose their needles annually, most are indeed evergreen. Trees of this classification have needle-like or scale-like foliage and usually renew many leaves annually. However, they don't renew all of their leaves every year. The foliage is usually narrow and manifests in either sharp-pointed needles or small, scale-like leaves.

Although studying the needle is the best way to identify a conifer, conifers as a class are defined not by their leaves but by their seeds, so it's only important to note the shape and size of leaves after determining whether it is a conifer by the shape, size, and type of seed the tree produces.

The Many Types of Coniferous Leaves

Detailed shot of green Pine needles.

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While all trees that bear cones are coniferous, and many of these cones are remarkably different from other species' cones, oftentimes the best way to identify the specific genus of a tree is by observing its leaves. Coniferous trees can produce two types of leaves with a variety of slight alterations that further define the tree type.

If a tree has needle-like (as opposed to scale-like) leaves, it can then be further defined by how those needles are grouped (singularly or alone), how they are shaped (flattened or four-sided and sharp), the types of stems these leaves are attached to (brown or green), and if the leaves invert or not.

Classic spiky needles are found on many conifers, including pine, spruce, and fur trees. Scale-like leaves are found on trees such as the red cedars that grow along eastern North America.

Clusters or bundles of needles are found on North American conifers such as pine and larch trees. These bundles, called fascicles, attach multiple needles to the twig. Needles independently attached to the twig are more common, and are found on common conifers such as spruce and fir trees.

Flat leaves are found on yew and redwood trees, while spruce trees have four-sided needles.

Other Ways to Identify Conifers

Spruce cones hanging off the branches of tree.

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A tree's cone-like seeds give it away, but a number of other features can help further identify a conifer. The way the cone is shaped and the way it hangs on the tree (sticking up or hanging down), the smell and largeness of individual needles, and the erectness of branches in the tree can also help determine what specific type of conifer a tree is.

Noble fir and many pine tree cones stand up, while hemlock and spruce cones dangle. The classic smell of pine trees is thanks to pinene, a compound present in the essential oils of all conifers that has a wide range of uses from fragrance to health remedies, but not all conifers smell the same. Cedars and spruce needles, for example, have distinct smells that give their identity away.

Most Common Conifer Trees in North America

Fir tree forest with misty backdrop.

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Three of the most common conifers that grow in North America are pine, fir, and spruce trees. Conifers are among the smallest, largest, and oldest living woody plants known in the world. The more than 600 conifer species are distributed worldwide and are invaluable for their timber but also adapt well to the landscape California is home to more than 50% of the species in North America. The most common North American species include:

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What makes a tree coniferous?

    The most distinguishable feature of a conifer is its fruit. All cone-bearing trees are coniferous, while some other conifers like junipers and yews have berry-like fruit.

  • Are all conifers evergreens?

    No. Most conifers do retain their needles year-round, but some do not. The needles on a larch tree turn yellow and drop annually, making it a deciduous tree but still a conifer.

View Article Sources
  1. “Pine, Fir or Spruce Tree?” Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

  2. Salehi, Bahare, et al. “Therapeutic Potential of α- and β-Pinene: A Miracle Gift of Nature.” Biomolecules, vol. 9, no. 11, Nov. 2019. PubMed Central. doi:10.3390/biom9110738

  3. "12 Days of Conifers: Conifer Trees and How We Study Them." U.S. Geological Survey.

  4. Farjon, Aljos, and Denis Filer. An Atlas Of The World's Conifers. Brill, 2013.