The Dirt on Coniferous Trees

Most of us have probably seen a coniferous tree and exclaimed how much we love that ‘pine’ tree, however, this exclamation is not always accurate. Not every coniferous tree is a pine tree. The name conifer comes from the Latin meaning of “cone bearer.” There are seven different families of conifers that all bear cones and a majority of conifer trees are evergreen trees. Evergreen trees means that these trees keep their color and leaves all year round. One of the exceptions to this are Larch trees. Larch trees are coniferous trees, however, they are also deciduous because they lose their leaves/needles and change colors in the fall.

Coniferous trees stand out from other trees because of their needle-like leaves. These needles differ based off of the type of coniferous tree you are looking at. Some conifers have longer pines while others have shorter pines in clusters. These needles help to identify what type of conifer the tree is. Other identifying factors of conifers are their cones, their bark color, smell, and look, and whether or not their branches go all the way to the ground. The more common conifers include pine trees, larches, spruces, firs, and hemlocks, and by looking at their identifying features, you can tell the difference between them.

Pine trees: Conifers that are a part of the Pinaceae family are known as Pines. Pine trees have a different number of needles, typically 2-5 needles in a ‘bundle’ or ‘bunch’. Spruce, firs, and hemlocks, which are part of the pine family, have needles that grow singularly on their branches, and not in bunches or bundles. Other conifers, like true cedars, can have 15 or more needles in a bunch. The Pine family is also the largest conifer family, which induces spices, firs, larches, hemlocks, true cedars, and of course, pines.

Pine trees have needles that are usually soft, and grow longer than other coniferous needles and the needle cluster comes from a single point on the branch. Pines are the only tree that has needles growing in clusters, which is an easy identifier. There are usually fewer pine branches than a spruce or fir, and the branches do not go all the way to the ground. Other features of a pine tree include their green colored cones that then turn a reddish-brown or even black color. Their cones are also stiff unlike other coniferous tree’s cones. The cones hang towards the ground and not upright. Lastly, the bark of a pine tree is usually smooth when young and then grows flaky with age. Ponderosa pines, for example, have a reddish color bark with a vanilla smell to it.


Spruce and firs are a little more difficult to tell apart. Both have similar looks from afar and also similar short needles. Some identifying features of a spruce include: short and stiff needles, they grow from a single origin point, a woody projection, and the needles are often a square shape. The branches on a spruce tend to grow to the ground and their cones tend to be smooth and flexible with thin scales. Their cones also hang towards the ground, similar to pines and they have rough and scaly bark with the woody projections sticking out of the bark.


Firs, similar to spruces, have soft and flat needles that are on the shorter side. They grow from a single point of origin similar to a spruce, but do not have a woody projection like spruces do. Their branches tend to grow to the ground and the lower branches are usually wider and downturned. Firs have distinctive cones that can be a purple, blue, or green color before changing to a golden brown color. These cones grow upwards unlike pines and spruce. Firs also have smooth, gray bark on smaller trees. Pine trees’ needles help identify them, while the upright fashion of cones on firs help people to identify them.


Other conifers include: hemlocks, which mountain hemlocks, in particular, are incredibly flexible and ‘bendy’ and as a young tree you can bend the tips all the way to the ground, yews, which are typically shrub-like, and then there are cypress, junipers, and cedars.

Another cool fact about pine trees is that wildfires can be beneficial to some of them, in particular, lodgepole pines need the heat from fires to reproduce. Lodgepole pines have a resin on the cones that can only melt at a certain temperature, so in this case, wildfires actually are the only way to help spread their seeds and allow these trees to reproduce.

Even though at first glance all coniferous trees may seem to look alike, when you take a closer look, you will notice the difference between all the different types of trees. Coniferous trees are unique and beautiful and serve many purposes for humans and our ecosystems!


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