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What is a Conifer?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A conifer is a tree or shrub which produces distinctive cones as part of its sexual reproduction. These woody plants are classified among the gymnosperms, and they have a wide variety of uses, from trapping carbon in the environment to providing resins which can be used in the production of solvents. Conifers can be found growing almost everywhere in the world, from the subarctic regions to the subtropical zones, and the tallest, biggest, and oldest trees in the world are all conifers.

Several features beyond the cones set conifers apart from other types of woody plants. A conifer is typically evergreen, although some individuals are deciduous, and almost all conifers have needle or scale-like leaves. Ginkgos are the only conifers which have leaves that differ from this basic design. Many conifers also have a sharp, resinous scent, paired with sap which can be extremely sticky and staining.

Over 600 species of trees and shrubs are classified as conifers. Some well known groupings include the firs, pines, cypresses, redwoods, junipers, larches, yews, and spruces, among many others. Many species can be harvested for their softwood timber, which can be used in construction, furniture production, and other tasks. Resinous species are utilized to produce raw materials for varnishes, solvents, and other materials, and conifers are also used in the production of pharmaceutical products, food flavorings, and decorations used in the home.

Members of this diverse group are famous for their rugged nature and durability. A conifer can endure extreme temperatures, heavy winds, poor soil, and other harsh conditions. A number of species have developed unique traits which help them survive in extreme environments, ranging from trees which can cling to rocks next to the ocean, to the fog-trapping system utilized by the coast redwood to ensure that it gets a steady supply of water. This versatility is what has allowed the conifer group to spread so widely across the world.

Many gardeners use conifers as ornamentals. These trees and shrubs can be appealing in the garden because of their durability, which reduces the amount of time which needs to be spent maintaining them, and their lifespan. Once a conifer is planted, it will last for many decades or even generations as long as it is provided with basic care, and it can become a centerpiece in the garden. Conifers are also very easy to shape with pruning and training, for people who like to practice their topiary skills.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By SkittisH — On Jun 12, 2011

@ahain - Maybe the conifer shrubs your parents had in their yard were arborvitae bushes. Arborvitae is a pretty emerald green conifer that works extremely well as a privacy and cover bush in yards.

They're large, so much so for a shrub that they could technically be called small trees rather than shrubs or bushes. They get up to fourteen feet tall at the tallest, with a foliage spread of about four feet, and they have needles covered in little scales.

The name "arborvitae" looks funny put together like it is, but that's the right way to spell it. If you cut it in two ("arbor vitae"), technically that's a name for a human body part, so it's a no-no to do so!

Arborvitae means "Tree of life" in Latin -- pretty easy to guess, since most people know "Arbor" means tree thanks to Arbor Day. The arborvitae conifer is called this because people used to think that the resin had healing properties. I wonder who tried the sap and resin to come to that conclusion?

By Sara007 — On Jun 08, 2011

On average how long does it take for a seed to produce a sapling conifer?

I would love to plant a coniferous tree with my kids and watch it grow up together. I am worried though that it might takes years just to get it from a seed into a recognizable plant.

I know that they use these kinds of trees for Christmas, and that they are farmed. So I imagine a crop would have to grow fairly quickly for this to be a profitable business.

Is there anything you can do for a plant to make it grow swifter?

I would make the plant's care a family task.

By drtroubles — On Jun 05, 2011

If you would like to plant some conifers, which varieties do you think are the most attractive?

I am considering making an investment in trees for my property, and like that coniferous trees offer a hardy option that don't require a lot of care. The fact that they are evergreen and will stay lovely all year round is a great bonus.

Right now I am considering putting in some white cedar because I like the coloring of the needles.

On average how much would you say a seedling would cost? I would consider buying in bulk, as I have a fair bit of land to cover.

By aishia — On Jun 05, 2011

Plants are so interesting. Did you know that there is a variety of conifer plant, the Lodgepole Pine, that literally can't reproduce unless it gets burnt down in a forest fire?

No kidding -- the seed pods in it are formed so that they won't release seeds unless the tree is hit with such high temperatures that it would require a forest fire to achieve them. That means that burning down certain forests might actually be good for them.

This kind of explains why, when you go to places where a big forest fire has happened, there are tiny tree seedlings everywhere. I always thought it was because the ground had been cleared of roots and weeds, so there was space for new trees to set some root down, but maybe the seeds just wouldn't have released without the forest fire taking place.

By ahain — On Jun 05, 2011

@seHiro - I know what you mean; babies of any kind are cute to me, even baby spiders and baby birds, so why not trees? I think your idea for using a pine seedling for a bow is creative and definitely more reasonable than trying to shove a regular size cut tree into an apartment.

It makes sense that conifers make cones. Growing up, the only time I ever heard the word "conifer" was in reference to the conifer shrubs in my parents' yard, so I tend to think of bushes when I hear the word rather than Christmas trees Interesting that they're related!

By seHiro — On Jun 05, 2011

Does anybody else find conifer seedlings to be really cute? There's a Christmas tree farm not far from my house, and I like to take walks through the rows of trees of various sizes and look at how they change as they grow. It's like a little museum of each growth stage of pine tree.

Pines are a kind of conifer, because they make pine cones. I love the smell of pine trees; I wonder why they smell so different from other kinds of trees?

Anyway back to the seedlings. Conifer seedlings basically look like one branch from a grown pine tree. They get one straight up trunk and like three limbs that stick straight out without any branches on them, and the trunk and limbs are covered in pine needles that are full size.

For some reason, that makes them look adorable to me; I'm not sure why. I guess the gene to nurture baby things is so hardwired into humans that they even find baby trees cute?

At Christmas time, I think it would be cute for people who live in apartments or something and don't have room for a full size Christmas tree to instead put a pine seedling in a festive pot and tie a red bow on top.

It would cost less, too! In fact, around Arbor Day people regularly give tree seedlings away to get people to replant forests to make up for cutting down all of the trees that we cut each Christmas; you could get one, pot it and save it for Christmas.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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