Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, 47 acres of botanical bliss fronting the Pacific Ocean

Introduction to Conifers

The name “conifer” comes from Latin and means “to bear cones.” Although cones are a common feature with most conifers, junipers and yews are two exceptions with berry-like fruit. The best method of identifying a conifer is to look at the leaves. Conifers are mostly evergreen trees or shrubs with linear, needle-like or scale like leaves, though some such as larch and cypress drop their leaves in autumn. Among the conifers are some of the smallest, largest, and oldest living woody plants known. The more than 500 conifer species are distributed worldwide and are invaluable for their timber as well as being adaptable garden plants for year round interest.

From massive forest giants to minuscule mounds of elegant foliage, size is an important issue when choosing plants. The diversity of available conifers for the landscape is tremendous. There has been special interest in the group of conifers classified as “dwarf conifers.” One definition of a dwarf conifer is one that for some reason fails to attain the size and stature of the parent plant.

Garden conifers come in a rainbow of year round colors that can be used effectively with companion plants. Many are shades of green, yellow, orange, blue, lavender, or purple, while others are bicolor and have variegated foliage with patterns of stripes, spots, and patches. Many go through seasonal color changes and provide interest in the winter landscape. In the spring lighter shades of new growth contrast against the darker older foliage. In some cases new growth is not just a lighter shade, but emerge as a bright yellow or red rivaling any floral display. Some even display two colors of needles. New growth, cones and seed bearing fruits can be decorative additions during certain seasons of the year.