Images: Hemera, the Big Box of Art

The excitement of that first snowfall gradually gives way to monotony, as the months of unending white linger on. Conifers, or cone-bearing species, provide colour to the scene and shelter for wildlife. They also provide an opportunity for winter tree identification.

The 34 species of conifer in Canada can be divided into those with small, scale-like leaves covering their twigs (most junipers, cedars, and false cypress), and those with needles. Needle characteristics, such as length, grouping, or flatness, and species range help to narrow the choices.

Though often called evergreens, conifers don't all hold their leaves year-round. Larches turn golden in the fall and shed their needles for the winter, making identification more difficult. Look for the cones instead.


Common juniper (Juniperus communis) with berries. Image by Arlene NeilsonOf the four species of juniper in Canada, only two reach tree size: Rocky Mountain juniper in British Columbia and Alberta, and eastern redcedar in Ontario and Quebec. Junipers have scale-like leaves, often some small pointed needles, and blue berries with a powdery coating.

Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) has yellowish- or greyish-green leaves that cover its rounded twigs. Its berry-like seed cones are found at the tips of the branches.


There are two cedar species native to Canada. Both have scale-like leaves and small, upright seed cones that are brown and resemble tiny rosebuds when mature.

Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) is found in British Columbia and Alberta. Its flattened foliage is shiny yellowish-green and often whitened below. It is smooth, drooping, and fernlike.


Eastern white cedar. Image by Sarah CoulberEastern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis) is found from Manitoba east to Nova Scotia. Its dull, yellowish-green leaves form flattened, fan-shaped, and somewhat stiff foliage.

False Cypress
Yellow cedar
(Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) is found along the coast of British Columbia, and is Canada’s only species of false cypress. It has dull bluish-green, scalelike leaves that are somewhat flattened. Its mature, red-brown cones are rounded with protruding points.



Canada's nine species of pine can be divided into two groups: the soft pines with needles in bundles of five, and the hard pines with needles in bundles of two or three.

Eastern white pine. Image by Sarah Coulber

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is found from Manitoba east to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Its long (5—15 cm), straight, bluish-green needles have a pointed tip and are borne in bundles of five. Long (8—20 cm), mature brown seed cones hang down on a thick stem.



Cone image:

Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) is found in Yukon, British Columbia, and Alberta. Its shorter (3—7 cm) needles are borne in bundles of two. They are yellowish-green, slightly flattened, and stiff with a sharp tip. The shorter (3—7 cm) mature brown cones have thickened scale tips.


Tamaracks in fall. Image by Arlene NeilsonLarch

There are three species of larch in Canada. They have soft needles occurring in tufts.

Tamarack (Larix laricina) is found in every province and territory. It has clusters of 15–30 soft, flat, blue-green needles (2—5 cm) on wooden spurs. Its small (1—2 cm), brown cones resemble rosebuds and sit upright on short curved stalks.


Underside of balsam fir. Image by Sarah CoulberThere are four Canadian species of fir. Each has flat, flexible needles with silvery lines on the lower surface. Although attached spirally around the twig, the needles are twisted at their base and appear to occur either in two rows or crowded along the upper surface. Seed cones stand upright on the branch.

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is found from Alberta east across Canada. Its flat, shiny, dark green needles are 2—4 cm long and leave flat, circular leaf scars when removed. Its mature barrel-shaped seed cones are 4—10 cm long and grey-brown.

Cone image:

White spruce (Picea glauca). Image by Sarah CoulberSpruce

Canada has five native spruce species. Each has short, stiff, four-sided needles attached to the twig by tiny wooden pegs. Mature woody seed cones hang down.

White spruce (Picea glauca) is found in all forested regions of Canada except the west coast. Its short (1.5—2 cm), straight, pointed, blue-green needles have whitish lines on all sides. The cylindrical seed cones have smooth, rounded scales.

Douglas Fir

There is only one species of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) native to Canada, although it is divided into two varieties. It is found in British Columbia and Alberta. Its flat, pointed needles are 2—3 cm long and bright yellowish-green with white lines on the underside. Its mature brown seed cones are narrowly egg-shaped, 6—9 cm long, and hang down on a short stalk. A three-pronged bract protrudes behind each cone scale.



Canada has three species of hemlock: western and mountain hemlock in British Columbia, and eastern hemlock in Ontario east to Nova Scotia. They have short, flexible needles with a rounded tip and a threadlike stalk.

Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) has short (1—2 cm), flat, shiny, dark green needles with a groove down the upper surface. The underside has two silvery-white lines. The needles are arranged in two rows with another set of shorter needles pressed along the upper side of the twig. Its mature seed cones are small (1—2 cm), brown, and oval with rounded scales. They hang down at the end of branches.



Yew. Image by Sarah CoulberThere are only two species in Canada: Pacific or western yew in British Columbia, and Canada yew or ground hemlock (a shrub), from Manitoba east to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Yews have distinctive red, berry-like, fleshy cups that enclose the seeds. Their flattened needles are arranged in two rows in pairs on either side of the twig. Each needle has a sharp point and edges that are rolled under.

Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) has dark, yellowish-green needles that are paler below.



Images of juniper and tamarack by Arlene Neilson; all other images 0f species by Sarah Coulber

Click here for more images of conifers.

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