Conifers & Evergreens

By Paul James

Is there a difference between conifers and evergreens? You bet there is. And at the risk of making your head spin, let me make one critical distinction right off the bat by saying not all conifers are evergreens and not all evergreens are conifers. How’s that for clarifying the matter? Hey, I don’t make the rules!

So here’s the deal -- a conifer is any plant that produces cones. Simple enough, right? The most familiar in area gardens are arborvitaes, cedars, cypresses (and false cypresses), junipers, pines, spruces, and yews, but in other parts of the country you’ll also find firs, hemlocks, and redwoods. And because these particular conifers keep their leaves (or needles) throughout the winter, we commonly refer to them as evergreens (even though their foliage may be blue or golden-yellow or even bronze).

And that’s all well and good up to a point. Problem is, some conifers – ginkgoes and bald cypresses, for example -- are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in winter. It’s no wonder folks get confused!

Now consider azaleas and hollies. They’re evergreens, but they don’t produce cones. The same is true of aucubas, laurels, magnolias, and photinias. Collectively, those plants are generally referred to as broad-leaf evergreens, whereas conifers are often called needle-leaf evergreens, even though not all conifer leaves are needles.

And now that you know the difference between conifers and evergreens, allow me to focus for a moment on the former, because it’s no secret that I’m a conifer geek.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to conifers is that they’ve been on the planet for so long, at least 250 million years in some cases. And they managed to survive a devastating asteroid that wiped out just about every other living thing on earth, including 75% of plant life and all the dinosaurs (but sadly, not cockroaches). I think that’s cool.

Beyond their history, however, I’m fascinated by their diversity. To my mind, no other plant group offers so many varied sizes, shapes, and textures. There are conifers that never grow taller than a few inches, and others that become giants. There are globe-shaped conifers, pencil-thin conifers, and conifers that are so distorted and contorted that only a geek like me would grow them. And there are conifers with stiff foliage (ouch!) and others with foliage so soft it was once used as bedding material.

Years ago I read that landscapes should include at least 30% evergreens so that they’re not so drab in winter. I’d bump that figure to at least 60%, with the majority of them conifers. Evergreen conifers, that is.