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.

Brush up on all of Wisconsin’s winter greenery with tree identification tools online, in paperback, or with your smartphone.

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:

In Case You Missed It…

News from Nature Net Members​​

The Henry Vilas Zoo won top honors in the Education Award category from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Congratulations to Henry Vilas Zoo and our friends on the education team! A brand new Nature Nook was recently dedicated at Brittingham Park. Be sure to check out the space and enjoy the community-created design features spearheaded by former ALNC employee Sonya Sankaran! Anderson Farm County Park is now the location of Dane County Parks’ 8th dog park. Enjoy this new area with all it has to offer, including hiking trails, a small dog area, and an edible orchard!

More from Nature Net…

For Families: For Educators: Upcoming Events:
Keep your kids curious about nature! Check out our list of fun activities to do outside. Tis’ the season! Make a contribution to any Nature Net site to support nature education in your community. See what’s happening all winter long in Madison and the surrounding areas.

Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.
Content Creators:
Betsy Parker, Nature Net Director
Karissa Niederkorn, Nature Net Intern