A conifer is a tree or shrub which produces distinctive cones as part of its sexual reproduction. These woody plants are classified among the gymnosperms, and they have a wide variety of uses, from trapping carbon in the environment to providing resins which can be used in the production of solvents. Conifers can be found growing almost everywhere in the world, from the subarctic regions to the subtropical zones, and the tallest, biggest, and oldest trees in the world are all conifers.
Several features beyond the cones set conifers apart from other types of woody plants. A conifer is typically evergreen, although some individuals are deciduous, and almost all conifers have needle or scale-like leaves. Ginkgos are the only conifers which have leaves that differ from this basic design. Many conifers also have a sharp, resinous scent, paired with sap which can be extremely sticky and staining.
Over 600 species of trees and shrubs are classified as conifers. Some well known groupings include the firs, pines, cypresses, redwoods, junipers, larches, yews, and spruces, among many others. Many species can be harvested for their softwood timber, which can be used in construction, furniture production, and other tasks. Resinous species are utilized to produce raw materials for varnishes, solvents, and other materials, and conifers are also used in the production of pharmaceutical products, food flavorings, and decorations used in the home.
Members of this diverse group are famous for their rugged nature and durability. A conifer can endure extreme temperatures, heavy winds, poor soil, and other harsh conditions. A number of species have developed unique traits which help them survive in extreme environments, ranging from trees which can cling to rocks next to the ocean, to the fog-trapping system utilized by the coast redwood to ensure that it gets a steady supply of water. This versatility is what has allowed the conifer group to spread so widely across the world.
Many gardeners use conifers as ornamentals. These trees and shrubs can be appealing in the garden because of their durability, which reduces the amount of time which needs to be spent maintaining them, and their lifespan. Once a conifer is planted, it will last for many decades or even generations as long as it is provided with basic care, and it can become a centerpiece in the garden. Conifers are also very easy to shape with pruning and training, for people who like to practice their topiary skills.