Shrubs Trees

Tips to Identifying Conifers in the Landscape

What is that beautiful evergreen growing in my neighbor’s yard?  Is it a pine, a cedar, a spruce, or a fir?

These can be hard to tell apart if you aren’t sure what to look for.  All four have a type of leaf called a needle, so called because it is long, straight, and pointed on the tip. Here is a simple key to help narrow down the search to the right genera.


1.    Needles are in bundles of 2 to 5. Pines are the only conifers (cone bearing plants) in this group that have needles in bundles. You can narrow the pines down by figuring out how many needles are in each bundle.


2.    Needles are individually attached to the stem with what looks like a suction cup at the base of the needle. This would be the fir tree, such as the popular Frasier Fir and Douglas Fir. In most species the top of the needle will be flattened while the underside will be rounded or keel-shaped.


3.    Needles are individually attached. In most species the needles have four sides. This would be the spruce tree. The most popular of these in our landscapes is the Dwarf Alberta Spruce.


4.    Needles are attached individually. Most needles are attached to very short side branches giving the appearance of tiny clusters or puffs of needles. These are the cedar trees in the genus Cedrus.

There are other conifers with needles that grow in our area, such as the Cunninghamia and the plum yew.  These two plants are easy to distinguish from the four mentioned above, due to their broad needles.

There is another group of conifers which have leaves called awls (short and pointed) or scales (lay flat against the stem). This group includes cypress (Cryptomeria, Cupress), false cypress (Chamaecyparis), arborvitae (Thuja), and juniper (Juniperus).

As you read through the descriptions of these different genera you will find that some of them are so similar it is hard to distinguish one from the other.


Cryptomeria – This is probably the easiest to separate from the rest of the group.  Leaves are awl-shaped, arranged spirally along the stem and 4-angled with new stems being green.

Cupresses – Scale-like leaves in 4 rows, branches are round and somewhat pliable.  Stems look somewhat like a braided bullwhip.


Chamaecyparis – Branches are flattened, frond-like; leaves opposite scale-like at maturity, awl-shaped only in juvenile state.


Thuja – Branches are flattened in one plane. Juvenile leaves are awl-like, while mature leaves are scale-like; leaves are always opposite.  Scale-like leaves sometimes have a raised gland on the back.


Juniperus – Leaves can be scale-like or awl-like, opposite or in whorels of 3.  Juvenile leaves are always awl-like. Mature plants may have awl-like and scale-like leaves on the same plant.

Leyland cypress

There is one hybrid in this group that is well known in the landscape and needs mentioning. That is the Leyland Cypress or X Cupressocyparis leylandii. This is a hybrid between Cupresses macrocarpa and Chamaecyparis nootkatensis. Leaves of this plant are similar to Chamaecyparis with branchlets that are flattened and tend to twist or spiral.

Now when trying to figure out what the plant is in the neighbor’s yard, use these clues to help narrow your search.  If that fails you can take a sample to your local office of NC Cooperative Extension and ask for help in identifying the plant.

Photos courtesy of Shawn Banks.

Shawn Banks is the Consumer Horticulture Agent with NC Cooperative Extension in Johnston County. You may reach him at

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