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Types of Coniferous Trees

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Coniferous trees are the most common type of what are known as gymnosperms: plants that produce seeds on the surface of cones. Collectively known as softwood trees, some have strong, tough wood while other conifer wood is soft and less fibrous. All conifers bear cones and have needles or scalelike foliage. Often referred to as evergreens, not all conifers retain their leaves year-round. There are hundreds of different coniferous trees, but most of them fall into several main groups.

Pines and Firs

Pine trees (Pinus spp.) include over 100 species. Hardy from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 10, pines comprise 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. True firs (Abies spp.), hardy in USDA zones 3 through 7, often have tiny resin pockets in their bark. Their erect cones stand upright on topmost branches covered in aromatic, 1-inch leaves. The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is not a true fir. Hardy in USDA zones 4 through 6, it has distinctive, pitchfork-shaped bracts on its cones.

Cedars and False Cedars

Cedar trees can be divided into two groups: true cedars and false cedars. True cedars (Cedrus spp.), hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9, have dense clusters of evergreen needles from stout, woody pegs. The barrel-shaped cones sit on top of the branches. False cedar refers to several genera of conifers that share similar characteristics. Features include small, overlapping, scale-like leaves; small, upright cones that remain on the tree; and aromatic wood. Examples of false cedars include arborvitae (Thuja spp.), hardy in USDA zones 2 through 8, white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), hardy in USDA zones 4 through 8, and Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), hardy in USDA zones 2 through 9.

Spruce and Larches

Spruce trees (Picea spp.), hardy in USDA zones 2 through 8, have stiff, sharp, 1-inch needles that grow from tiny wooden pegs. They appear very similar to fir trees, but the needles are stiffer, and spruce cones hang down rather than stand up. Their whorled branches are similar to pine trees. Larches (Larix spp.), hardy in USDA zones 2 through 7, are different from other conifers because they are deciduous. Their 1-inch-long needles turn yellow in the fall and then drop to leave the branches bare. Larix needles are soft, not sharp like other conifers. Larches are also referred to as tamaracks.

Hemlock and Cypress

Hemlocks (Tsuga spp.), hardy in USDA zones 3 through 7, have short needles less than 1-inch long that emerge from small pegs. They are known for distinctive, soft, drooping tops and branches. Cypress (Cupressus spp.), hardy in USDA zones 7 through 10, have very tiny, scale-like leaves that may be sharp and pointed. Cypress cones are round, woody and about 1/2 inch in diameter.

Redwoods and Sequoias

Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), hardy in USDA zones 7 through 9, have sharp needles that look like miniature swords. The 1-inch redwood cones have thick, wrinkled scales. Dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), hardy in USDA zones 4 through 8, and the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), hardy in USDA zones 6 through 8, are often confused with coast redwoods, but vary significantly. They have shorter needles and woody, egg-shaped cones that are extremely hard.

Junipers and Yews

Junipers (Juniperus spp.), hardy in USDA zones 2 through 9, and yews (Taxus spp.), hardy in USDA zones 4 through 7, might look like they produce berries, but they actually bear fleshy cones. Juniper leaves may be either scale-like, needle-like or both, and they have a very distinctive, strong odor. Their berrylike cones are silvery blue. Yew leaves are dark green on top and light green on bottom and distinctively pointed but not sharp. Yew cones are borne on the female plants only; they look like soft, bright red berries.

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