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It’s conifer season, and high time I tackle this topic. Oh, I’ve tried before, but every time I undertake Conifers 101, I get overwhelmed with how much there is to learn. I’m determined to stick with it this time. (Note to self: stop trying to learn everything at once, and re-read Bird by Bird, by Anne LaMott.)


Conifers 101, Tree by Tree


There are over 500 species, and I don’t expect to conquer all that anytime soon. But most conifers fall into one of four categories and surely I can remember that. Spruce PiceaPine Pinus, Fir Abies, and Cedar Cedrus, easy enough, right?

Of course, when I think I’m on the trail of a simple explanation, the next thing I know, they’re talking Pinophyta and Coniferophyta and Gymnosperms. That won’t happen here, but at least I’ve a few new notions on how to consider conifers.

Spruce needles are spiky and grow individually on the branch, and can be rolled between your fingertips, akin to a crewcut style.

Fir needles grow individually as well, but are soft and flat and can’t be easily rolled, like a fluffy symmetrical halo.

Pine needles are attached to their branches in bundles of 2 to 5 and have something of a punk-hairdo look.

Cedar needles are individually attached too, but they give the appearance of clusters or puffs, a la fingers in a light socket.

I was freshly inspired by a quick visit to Boring Bark last weekend, a conifer-rich little nursery about 20 miles east of Portland. Turns out, Boring Bark is not boring at all. They have a lovely display garden, an enthusiastic staff, and reasonable prices. As a nice bonus, another favorite Treephoria, a boutique nursery with choice trees and the likes of Witch Hazel and other shrubs trained into rare tree forms. And all this it’s just down the road from Burns Feed Store, to meet your stock tank needs, according to Ms. Danger Garden.

Not all plants were labeled in the display gardens at Boring Bark, so I’m guessing on several—using my freshly minted conifer studies as a guide. Here are a few shots from our visit, and now as I set about to identify them, why oh why didn’t I keep better track. And I’m also seeing right off the bat, exceptions to every generality. Just look at that Spiky Spanish Fir below. It could pass for an eye-threatening succulent.


I still have so much to learn, and couldn’t be happier at the opportunity. I like this pictorial reference on Conifer Kingdom’s site as well.

Reading Ho!