While the bleak winterscape pales in comparison to the colors other seasons offer, it’s a perfect time to gain a new appreciation for trees that do provide a visual break from white and grey. Though the words “conifer” and “evergreen” are often used interchangeably, not all evergreens are conifers, and not all conifers are evergreen.
“Evergreen” is a non-scientific term used to describe plants that maintain their leaves or needles throughout the seasons, whereas “conifers” are cone-bearing trees or shrubs. To simplify the matter, all Wisconsin evergreens are conifers (unlike in tropical forests where many trees are evergreen and even in parts of the United States where broadleaf plants like holly, ivy and bay laurel are evergreen).
Coniferous female cones, made from modified scales, are devised to protect developing seeds (and that’s exactly what green or closed cones do). When the seeds are matured and ready to hit the ground, the cone scales open and release them to the wind or to animals. Male cones, incidentally, do exist but are generally small and, after releasing pollen, are shed.
Conifer confusion often also exists with tree and shrub names. Although it seems daunting to learn their Latin names, in the case of conifers, eliminating common names often clears confusion. For example, the Juniper (genus Juniperus) which by the way is indeed a conifer despite its berry-like fruits (those are actually modified, fleshy scales), is also known as the Eastern Red Cedar. Meanwhile, the Northern White Cedar is not only in an entirely different genus (Thuja) it also goes by the common name Arbor Vitae. Learn more about the difference between Junipers and Cedars from Treehugger.
In the “not all conifers are evergreen” department, Wisconsin’s example – and one of my personal favorites – is the Tamarack (genus Larix), also known as the Larch. Aldo Leopold describes this tree as “smoky gold” because its needles change to a golden hue before dropping to the ground each fall.
Bonus, at-home or schoolroom activity: use a pinecone as a hygrometer!
Check out this video from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario, Canada to get a visual on some of the conifers and evergreens mentioned above:
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