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Evergreens vs Conifers

September 25, 2020

By Lauren McAusland, Interpretation Intern, Royal Botanical Gardens.

As autumn arrives, you may have noticed that some leaves are already starting to turn those beautiful reds, oranges, and yellows. These types of trees are ‘deciduous,’ which means they will shed their leaves in a short span of time every year, usually in autumn. There are also trees whose leaves will not change colour or fall off in autumn. You might be tempted to call these types of trees ‘coniferous,’ and you could be right, but there is an important difference between ‘conifers’ and ‘evergreens.’

Evergreens

Evergreens are plants that keep green leaves all year-round. Evergreen plants still lose their leaves, but they will shed them gradually throughout the whole year, instead of all at once in a season. Some evergreens have thin, pointy leaves we call ‘needles’ and others have thick, broad leaves.

Close your eyes and think of an evergreen tree. Did you imagine a fir, spruce, or pine tree in a snowy forest?  How about a palm tree on a sunny, sandy beach? Here in Ontario, we often associate evergreens with winter, but warm climates have evergreens too. Most tropical rainforest plants are considered evergreens! North of the tropics, we find evergreen shrubs like Labrador Tea.

spruce needles on branch
Labrador Tea plant

Conifers

The word conifer means ‘cone-bearer.’ These plants have a unique reproductive structure, where seeds and pollen are produced by cones instead of flowers.

Close your eyes and think of a conifer cone. Did a pinecone come to mind? How about uniper ‘berries’? Though they might not look like it, these ‘berries’ are seed cones with fleshy, merged scales. Cones with woody, firm scales distribute their seeds by wind, whereas cones with fleshy, soft scales rely on birds to eat the cones and pass the seeds in their droppings.

Juniper with Berries Rock Garden Juniper with Berries at Rock Garden

Both or Either?

While most conifers are also evergreens, these two terms are not synonyms: ‘conifers’ refers to the unique way of reproducing by cones, and ‘evergreens’ refers to the nature of the tree’s leaves.

cedar branches

Eastern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is an evergreen that is also a conifer because it keeps its scaly leaves throughout the year and also has tiny cones.

holly with berries

Holly (Ilex spp.) is an evergreen that is not a conifer. This evergreen keeps its broad, glossy leaves throughout the winter, making it a common holiday decoration. Holly flowers in the spring and reproduces through small, red fruits that look a lot like berries but are actually drupes like cherries and coffee.

tamarack tree branches

Tamarack (Larix laricina) is a conifer that is not an evergreen. This conifer grows long green needles in the spring that turn yellow and fall off in the autumn and reproduces through small, woody cones.

Next time you are out for a walk, take a look at the plants around you and see if you can identify if they are conifers, evergreens or both!