Have you ever seen the hilarious Abbott and Costello sketch Who’s on First?” Over the Thanksgiving weekend I happened to overhear (Ok, I was eavesdropping; it was too funny to miss) a conversation that immediately reminded me of the sketch. A relatively harassed sounding salesperson was trying to explain to a very confused woman the difference between an evergreen and a conifer. I have no idea why they were having the conversation in the first place, but it did get me thinking about the two terms.
Even though I know better, I have switched the terms more than once — usually when I am trying to sound more intelligent than I am. As soon as I do it, I realize the mistake, but what’s interesting is that whoever I am talking to usually does not. It seems that most people think that conifers and evergreens are always exactly the same thing.
Conifers are plants that produce cones for purposes of reproduction. The cones, which may be the usual pine cone or may instead resemble berries or pods, are the containers for their seeds. Many, but not all, evergreens are conifers.
Evergreens are plants that retain their foliage throughout the year, but may or may not produce cones. Evergreens can have needle-like foliage, for example white pines, or can be broadleaf plants such as holly. Holly is an evergreen shrub (it retains its foliage), but not a conifer because it reproduces by flowers rather than cones. On the other hand, a white pine is both an evergreen and a conifer. To further complicate matters, there are a few species of conifers that are not evergreens. Bald cypress and dawn redwoods are some examples.
Evergreens can be divided into the two main categories of narrow-leaf, or needled, and broadleaf. Both are available in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors, making it easy to select the best variety for both the vision and the situation.
Needled evergreens are often considered anchor plants for the landscape since they retain foliage and provide strong visual impact throughout the year. Professional landscape designers understand their versatility and utilize them in many different ways. Dan Nelson,Senior Designer at Embassy Landscape Group, offered several suggestions for including these evergreens in the landscape design. According to Dan, evergreens can
- create an effective windbreak that help reduce energy costs.
- provide a screen for an unpleasant view or hide an unsightly object.
- be used to frame a view.
- be positioned to create a private space.
- add fragrance to a space.
- create the illusion of a forest.
- anchor a Japanese garden.
- welcome birds and wildlife to the yard.
Because most needled evergreens are not native to the Midwest — in fact, both Missouri and Kansas have only one native species — it is important to not only select suitable varieties but also to provide appropriate conditions. The majority of narrow-leafed evergreens prefer well-drained slightly acidic soil. Some however, will tolerate more moisture. Most need full to partial sun in order to thrive. In order to prevent winter damage, needled evergreens need to go into the winter with a well-watered root system. Depending on the weather, it may be necessary to continue watering into and through November or December.
Of the many species of evergreen conifers available in today’s markets, there are a few that are usually dependable choices for the hot, humid summers of the midwest. Varieties of pine, spruce, fir, juniper, yew and arborvitae are among the most popular. Each has its own set of advantages and drawbacks. [See below for a listing]
One of the benefits of planting coniferous evergreens is the fact that they typically require little in the way of routine maintenance. Regular watering is critical, especially in dry spells, but proper mulching helps the plant retain moisture thus reducing the need for continual watering. An occasional fertilization or a corrective pruning may also be necessary. Since many people feel uncomfortable feeding and pruning, a licensed and experienced landscape company can provide the expertise needed to help preserve the beauty of the landscape and to protect the value of the investment.
Just like other plants in the landscape, there are a few common problems unique to individual varieties of needled evergreens. [See below for a listing] Needle dropping in the fall is normal to pines, spruce, junipers and arborvitae. The interior needles of these plants usually turn yellow or brown and fall off. Although it can appear alarming, it is totally normal. Browning and dropping on the tips of branches usually spells trouble.
Although some people consider the multitudes of pine cones and needles that fall from evergreens to be just an irritating maintenance issue, those with children may disagree. From fashioning pine cone animals to making peanut butter and birdseed bird feeders or just lining the cones up in a row and counting or sorting, using what nature provides helps build an appreciation for nature in the next generation. Those who appreciate nature will make the effort to care for it.
Evergreens serve another important function for urban green space. Planting evergreens in the landscape creates a sanctuary for birds and other wildlife. They offer protection, serve as a food source during the more barren winter months and provide access to water. The dense foliage of evergreens gives birds shelter from winter winds while also offering protection from predators. Unlike deciduous plants which shed their foliage all at once, seeds and berries remain on evergreens throughout the winter months supplying nutrition when other food is scarce. Finally, the dense nature of evergreens tends to keep the ground underneath moist, giving birds an opportunity to find water.
Needled evergreens are taking center stage as the holiday season approaches. From cut trees, wreaths and table decorations for our homes to the backdrop of glorious outdoor lighting displays, evergreens play a central role in our traditions and decorations. Even their scents say Yuletide. It isn’t too late to add evergreens to your landscape; the designers at Embassy Landscape Group are anxious to help.
Pines – fast growing and easily transplanted; most varieties large when full grown; white pines sensitive to air pollution // susceptible to some blights and insects
Spruce – symmetrical growth habits, whorled branches and dense foliage; fairly shallow rooted; requires will-drained soils; large range of colors and heights // susceptible to cankers and insects
Fir – symmetrical growth; flat needles; prefers well-drained soils and full sun // susceptible to aphids
Juniper – sharp, pointed foliage; withstands hot, dry and poor soil; needs full sun; many colors and sizes // susceptible to bagworms and cedar-apple rust
Yew – dark green color; tolerates shade well; both seeds and foliage toxic to humans and animals // few pests or diseases
Arborvitae – fast-growing but some varieties can be short-lived; some varieties easily injured by winter drying or late frosts // susceptible to bagworms
See the sketch: