Conifers (Trees)

Common Shapes of Conifers

Conifers are trees and shrubs that possess needle-like or scale-like leaves that are "evergreen" and cones. Conifer means cone-bearing; while trees that bear cones are coniferous, many of these cones can be completely different from one species to another. Some cones stand atop of the branches and some hang gracefully, although some, such as yew and juniper, have modified cones that closely resemble berries instead of the traditional cone look. The terms conifer and evergreen are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Evergreens also include broadleaf evergreens such as Magnolia grandiflora, Rhododendrons, Euonymus and Boxwood. Although conifers may lose their needles periodically; most are indeed evergreen with a few exceptions, such as the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Larch (Larix spp.) that are deciduous. Meaning they lose their “leaves” in the fall. Conifers are known for their wonderful smell and are sometimes even used for making tea, baking or cooking with! Nothing smells better than a conifer releasing that sweet forest aroma.


Natural shapes of conifers can be categorized in a few ways:

Prostrate or creeping - often used for groundcover, this category includes mostly junipers.


Spreading – the plant is wider than it is tall, this category includes many junipers and cultivars of most other conifer varieties. Can be used as a hedge or specimen planting.


Globose or round - dwarf conifers that have a short, round, shrub like form.


Upright conical or pyramidal – this is your typical “Christmas tree” shape. Some conifers have this form when they’re young and then grow into a different form with age. Used mostly as a specimen planting can be used as a wind screen.


Upright narrow or columnar - tall and narrow growth habit that typically is used as a wind screen or as a single specimen planting.

Abies (Fir)

True firs (Abies spp.) will often have tiny resin pockets in their bark. Their cones stand upright on the topmost branches covered in aromatic, 1-inch leaves. The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is not a true fir. More often than not these trees are used as wonderful potted Christmas trees. Most of these trees are slow going (3-6 inches a year). They usually get 50-60ft tall and 15-30ft wide.

Cedrus (Cedar)

Cedar (Cedrus) –

True cedars (Cedrus spp.) have dense clusters of evergreen needles from stout, woody pegs with barrel-shaped cones that sit on top of the branches. Most cedars are upright and conical but there are a few such as the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar that are more spreading or are dwarfed.

False Cedar

False cedar refers to several different genera's of conifers that share common characteristics. They feature small, overlapping, scale-like leaves (this is how you know they're not a true Cedar); small, upright cones that remain on the tree; and aromatic wood. Examples of false cedars include Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), and Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata).

Cupressus (Cypress)

Cypress (Cupressus) –

Cypress (Cupressus spp.) have very tiny, scale-like leaves that can potentially be sharp and/or pointed. Cypress cones are small (about 1/2 inch in diameter), round, and woody. These trees are fast growers and can make good wind screens. Trees can get upwards of 80ft tall but most mature at 40-50ft tall. The Wilma Goldcrest is a dwarf variety that gets 8ft tall and 3ft wide.

Chamaecyparis (False Cypress)

False Cypress (Chamaecyparis) –

These conifers are medium to large evergreen trees growing from 65 to 230 feet (20 – 70 m) tall, with foliage in flat sprays. The leaves have two different types, needle-like leaves are present on young seedlings up to a year old, and scale-like adult leaves. The upright cones are round to oval, with 8 to 14 scales that remain on the tree. The wood and leaves are aromatic. Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) is a very popular bonsai tree due to its ornate nature.

Juniperus (Juniper)

Juniper (Juniperus) –

Juniper (Juniperus spp.) leaves may be needle-like, scale-like or both, and they have a very distinctive, pungent odor. They produce berry like cones that have a silvery blue flesh. Plants can range from low growing groundcover, small shrubs and large trees such as the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). The can range in color green, yellow tipped or blue and some will turn hues of purple in the winter (Juniperus horizontalis 'Youngstown').

Picea (Spruce)

Spruce (Picea) –

Spruce (Picea spp.) have rigid, sharp, 1-inch needles that grow out of tiny wooden pegs. They appear very similar to fir trees, but the needles are stiffer, and spruce cones hang down rather than standing up on top of the branch. Their whorled branches resemble pine trees. These trees can get 60-180ft tall and are usually conical. There are some weeping and dwarf varieties.

Pinus (Pine)

Pine (Pinus) –

Pines (Pinus spp.) include over 100 different species. Pines is the most common type of conifer. Their long, narrow needles are bound in bundles of two, three or five on branches that grow in rings known as “whorls”. Each whorl represents a year's growth. These trees can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Pines can be a small shrub such as the Mugo Pine (Pinus Mugo) to a huge Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana) reaching 180ft tall (the tallest sugar pine on record is 209ft tall). Bonsai are frequently done out of pine as well as topiary plants.


Sequoia (Sequoia and Sequoiadendron)-


Giant sequoia

(Sequoiadendron giganteum), are often confused with coastal redwoods but they differ significantly. They have shorter scale like needles with 1 ½ inch woody, egg-shaped cones that are extremely hard. In its native habitat, mature trees will grow to 200-275ft tall and produce a trunk diameter ranging from 15-20ft wide. These trees can live for thousands of years!! 

Coastal Redwood

(Sequoia sempervirens) The leaves off the main shoots are spirally arranged, scale-like, and held closely to the branches; leaves off the lateral shoots are spreading, needle-like, and arranged in two rows. Their 1-inch cones have thick wrinkled scales. This Sequoia is considered the tallest growing tree, growing upward of 350ft tall and having a trunk of 20-25ft wide. Although these trees are fast growing in their native habitat they still take almost 400 years to mature!

Taxus (Yew)

Yew leaves are waxy dark green on top and light green underneath that are distinctively pointed but not sharp. Yew cones are on the female plants only; they look like soft, bright red berries. The male ‘flowers’ appear in February/March and start as Brussels sprout looking growths that turn into pale yellow sacs before opening to release the pollen.