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Identifying and Choosing Evergreen Trees

As you looked out the windows of your house this winter at all the dormant and barren deciduous trees in your landscape, perhaps you thought that a little green would be a nice addition this year. But, remember that not every evergreen is a pine tree; some are spruces, firs, hemlocks, or yews. Let’s cover some basic conifer identification and some principles of selection for your landscape.

A conifer is a cone-bearing plant. Cones come in many shapes and sizes, and not every cone resembles the typical pine cone. Most conifers are evergreen trees, but a few are deciduous.

Pines have needles that are bundled together at their base by a papery sheath called a fascicle. Needles are typically in bundles of 2, 3, or 5. So, if you pull needles off a tree and they come off in multiple-needle bundles, it’s a pine tree.

Spruces have 4-sided or square-shaped needles. They are borne singly, not in bundles, on small wooden pegs on the limbs. When you roll a needle between your fingers, you will easily notice the square shape from the edges. Spruce needles are typically sturdy and more inflexible than pine needles.

Firs have soft, flattened needles attached directly to the branches via a structure resembling a small suction cup onto a circular, slightly raised pad. Other common conifers with flat needles include hemlock, yew, and bald cypress.

Three deciduous (they lose their needles every year) conifers you might find in Indiana include American larch (tamarack), bald cypress, and dawn redwood.

When choosing an evergreen for your landscape, I encourage you to do some research into the site preferences of each choice, including whether they like full sun or can tolerate shade, moisture and drainage preferences, soil conditions, and overall appearance. Consider whether it’s a native tree, and what the expected life span might be.

Conifers that are native to Indiana comprise a fairly short list. They include eastern redcedar, jack pine, eastern white pine, Virginia pine, Northern white-cedar (arborvitae), eastern hemlock, tamarack, and bald cypress. However, the last two are not evergreens. Note also that some of these trees are only truly native to very small locales within Indiana.

Eastern redcedar is by far our most common and widespread native conifer in Indiana, and it will grow on a wide range of soil types. Some could argue that it is not the most attractive landscape tree (and I would agree), but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It has wildlife benefits, especially for native songbirds and small mammals.

Conspicuously absent from the list of native trees are the spruces. Colorado blue spruce is a popular choice among homeowners, but as a non-native, it is not a long-lived species in Indiana. It is susceptible to fungal diseases and other stresses. In my visits to local homeowners, I have commonly found this tree suffering from Rhizosphaera needlecast disease. Norway spruce or white spruce may be better alternatives if you want a spruce tree.

Firs are more common in northern U.S. states, but if you want a fir tree, I’d first try white (concolor) fir.

If you have partial shade in your expected planting location, eastern hemlock would be one of your better choices.

Other evergreens are commonly planted in Indiana, but also may experience a shorter-than-normal life span due to several stressing factors.  

For suggestions on certain landscape trees to consider, access Purdue Extension’s publication entitled, Tree Selection for the “Un-natural” Environment, available at the Education Store, The resource includes deciduous and evergreen choices.

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