When most people think of Colorado, they picture snowcapped peaks and mountainsides lined with evergreen trees. Though they can look similar from a far, there are a myriad of native evergreen species that are found throughout the Rocky Mountains.
Evergreen plants grow as both trees and shrubs, though most are trees. They are called evergreens because they keep their green leaves all year round. All classified as conifers, Latin scientific name Pinophyta, the evergreens in Colorado come in four main types:
Pinus Flexilis, Colorado
Pinus Flexilis, aka Limber Pine, Colorado. Photo: Matt Lavin
Around the world, outside of Colorado, you’ll find other types of conifers, such as cedars and hemlocks. Conifers are gymnosperms, cone-bearing seed plants. Interestingly, many varieties alter their biochemistry in the colder seasons to help them against freezing.
Many of the evergreen species in Colorado can endure very cold temperatures, some colder than others. Also, some are more adapt at living in dryer climates with little rainfall than others. Whether you’re looking to plant a few conifer trees or shrubs in your yard, or just identify the tall trees you pass on your hike, we’ve compiled a list of the most common evergreens native to Colorado.
Here are the native evergreen trees found in Colorado, in alphabetical order:
Blue Spruce Colorado
Blue Spruce, Colorado. Photo: Kristen Bobo
Latin Scientific Name – Picea pungens
Nicknames – Blue spruce, green spruce, white spruce, Colorado spruce, Colorado blue spruce
Mature Size – Average Height of 75-135′
The blue spruce is well known for its silvery, blueish hue. It’s native to North American and found throughout zones 1 to 7, in places from New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, up into Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. It handles high wind well, in part thanks to its deep root system, making it a great wind break. It’s also a long-lived species, which grows in a columnar, pyramidal shape. It grows 3-4″ brown cones, which concentrate in the upper crown.
It makes a popular Christmas tree, as well as landscaping tree due to its unique beauty. It wasn’t even officially discovered until 1862 high in the Rockies. It’s fame and gardening use grew quickly after that. The Colorado blue spruce is the official state tree.
Some Native American tribes used the blue spruce as a medicinal plant. A tea is made using its needles to help cure colds, stomach aches and boost the immune system. It’s high in Vitamin C. Early French explorers successfully made pine needle tea (a pine variety not spruce) to cure scurvy (caused by a vitamin C deficiency). Note though that not all evergreen needles are able to be infused safely, some are said to be toxic, such as the ponderosa pine.
Bristlecone Pine, Colorado
Bristlecone Pine At St. Mary’s Glacier, Colorado. Photo: John B. Kalla
Latin Scientific Name – Balfourianae
Subspecies – Pinus aristata: Rocky Mountain bristlecone, Colorado bristlecone
Mature Size – Average Height of 10-50′
Subspecies – Pinus longaeva: Great Basin bristlecone pine, intermountain bristlecone pine, or western bristlecone pine
Subspecies – Pinus balfouriana: Foxtail Pine
There are three species of bristlecone pines, all closely related to each other: Rocky Mountain bristlecone, great basin bristlecone and foxtail pine. Only one of them is found in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain bristlecone, Pinus aristata. While these three species can hybridize in cultivation, none of their population ranges overlap in the wild.
The medium-sized Rocky Mountain bristlecone has a gray-brown bark, deep green/blue-green needles on the outface with white stomata on the inner, grouped in fascicles of five, and 1.5-2.5″ mature cones. Unique to this subspecies is small white resin flecks found on the needles, due to the resin canal commonly broken. It’s reminiscent of dandruff and no other pine shows it. Although not as long living as the Pinus longaeva variety, it still grows old, on average up to 1,500 years. However, a Rocky Mountain bristlecone was estimated to be 2,480 years old at Black Mountain near Craig, CO.
The Rocky Mountain bristlecone is found throughout Colorado and northern New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains, as well as in Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks and Kaibab National Forest, north of the Grand Canyon. The elevations it inhabits are high, between 7,000 and 13,000 feet, so it likes the cold, dry weather. The further south the higher the tree line. Colorado’s tree line typically ends between 11,000 and 12,000 feet. Pinus arista is the favorite for cultivation. It’s slow growing, smaller, and suitable for cold climates.
One of the longest living non-clonal organisms on Earth is the Pinus longaeva species, aka the Great Basin bristlecone. Some have been found to be 5,000 years old. It’s found only at a narrow latitude in Nevada, Utah and California, but interestedly, not Colorado. In fact the local Rocky Mountain bristlecone’s range does not overlap with the Great Basin type at all, and are 160 miles apart at their closest point between Utah and Colorado. This gap is created by the Colorado and Green rivers.
Pinus balfouriana, aka Foxtail pine, is found in California and Oregon’s Klamath Mountains, as well as the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the Western U.S. The northern Owens Valley in eastern California provides a 20-mile gap between the Foxtail pine and Great Basin bristlecone pine.
Douglas Fir Colorado
Douglas Fir, Colorado. Photo: Penn
Latin Scientific Name – Pseudotsuga menziesii
Nicknames – Douglas-fir, Douglasfir
Variety – Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca: Rocky Mountain Douglasfir, interior Douglasfir
Mature Size – Average Height of 50-130′
Variety – Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii: Coast Douglasfir, Oregon pine, Columbian pine
Named for Botanist-explorer David Douglas who discovered the tree in 1826, the Douglas-fir is a tree adored by the community. Interestingly, it’s either written as Douglas-fir with a hyphen, or Douglasfir, as one word, because it’s not a true fir tree. It accounts for roughly half of all U.S. Christmas trees. It’s also used heavily in the lumber industry, the top lumber-producing tree, and for landscaping, in good part due to its rate of growth. David Douglas proclaimed it
one of the most striking and truly graceful objects in nature.
The medium to large-sized tree grows in a pyramid shape at a pace of about one to two feet per year in height. It prefers plenty of sunshine, space, and atmospheric moisture. It has downward facing light brown cones, which grow to 3-4″ with a unique 3-pointed bract growing from between its scales. They hang down with consistent scales unlike true firs.
The Douglas-fir greatly aided the expansion of the American West. It was used to make railroad ties and telephone/graph poles. In fact, it’s been used throughout history, including heavily in World War II. The U.S. Navy still uses minesweepers, the only wood ship they use, made of Douglas-fir. There are two varieties of Douglas-fir, Coast Douglasfir – var. menziesii, and Rocky Mountain Douglasfir – var. glauca.
Coast Douglasfir is found in along the western coast from British Columbia south to California and western Nevada. It’s the longer-lived, faster growing and taller of the two species. It has recorded heights of over 300′. Its needles are most often dark yellow-green, although sometimes blue-green. Mexican Douglasfir, P. lindleyana, which goes as far south as Oaxaca, is frequently called a variety of P. menziesii.
The inland variety is the Rocky Mountain Douglasfir, growing slower, shorter lived and rarely reaching heights over 130′. Its needles are usually the blue-green variety. The cones are a tad shorter, usually not more than 3″. The pine leaves from either Douglas-fir species can be used to make pine needle tea.
Engelmann Spruce, Colorado
Engelmann Spruce, Colorado. Photo: Ken Lund
Latin Scientific Name – Picea engelmannii
Nicknames – Engelmann spruce, white spruce, mountain spruce, silver spruce
Mature Size – Average Height of 45-130′
Native to the western side of North America, the Engelmann spruce is found from British Columbia and Alberta, south to Arizona and New Mexico. There are a couple of isolated populations in northern Mexico, sometimes treated as a distinct species, and sometimes a subspecies. the Mexican Spruce – Picea engelmannii subsp. mexicana.
Englemann spruce is found in Colorado’s Rockies, growing at high elevation, up to 12,000 feet near the alpine tree line. It’s on the larger size, usually growing to around 100 feet, though it has been found in places to be over 200 feet tall. Young trees have a cone shaped crown, while older ones are more like a cylinder. The needles are a blue-green with a few lines of stomata. The cylindric cones hang down loosely, and grow 1.5-3″. They go from a reddish, dark purple color to brown at maturity.
Limber Pine, Colorado
Limber Pine, Colorado. Photo: Kent Kanouse
Latin Scientific Name – Pinus flexilis
Nicknames – Limber pine, Rocky Mountain white pine
Mature Size – Average Height of 25-60′
Limber pine is one of the easier evergreen trees to identify, thanks to its unique flexible “limber” branches. It’s found throughout the western United States, as well as Canada and Mexico. It’s most prevalent in the Rocky Mountains at high elevations just below tree line. The limber pine is a long-living tree, with some of the oldest specimens found to be more than 2000 years old.
Its needles are green, sometimes blueish-green, and smooth, non-serrated. Since it’s part of the white pine group, all of its needles re in bundles of five. It has a dark gray, creased bark. The cones are 2-5″ long and green when immature. They are also not fragile, so you can usually find the intact cones lying under the tree. This is a difference to the fragile cones of the white pine, which birds can pick apart to get its seeds.
The limber pine can reach heights of up to 80 feet, though it’s often much smaller, especially the higher ones at tree line. These highest elevation trees are usually less than 30 feet tall. The P. flexilis is popular for ornamental landscaping, and makes a great tree for the yard.
Lodgepole Pine, Colorado
Lodgepole Pine, Colorado. Photo: brent flanders
Latin Scientific Name – Pinus contorta
Nicknames – Lodgepole pine, twisted pine, contorta pine
Subspecies – Pinus contorta subsp. latifolia: Lodgepole pine, black pine
Mature Size – Average Height of 70-100′
Subspecies – Pinus contorta subsp. murrayana: Tamarack pine, or Sierra lodgepole pine
Subspecies – Pinus contorta subsp. contorta: Shore pine
Subspecies – Pinus contorta subsp. bolanderi: Bolander’s beach pine, Bolander pine
There are four subspecies of Pinus contorta, listed above. The one native to Colorado is subsp. latifolia, lodgepole pine. Common throughout the western U.S., lodgepole pine is found near ocean shores in the northwest and dry, mountain regions like the Rockies. It’s also known as black pine.
It’s a good-looking tree with needles ranging from yellow-green to dark green, which are twisted in bundles of two. The trunk of the tree is long and thin, pole-like, with a short and narrow cone-shaped crown. Its bark is flaky, with colors ranging from orangish-brown to gray to black. It begins bearing 1.5″ cones usually after six to ten years, which generally stay attached and closed for years.
The lodgepole pine is widely used commercially. It makes a great tree for the yard and especially ornamental when young. It prefers at least four hours of sunshine, with some shade.
One-Seed Juniper Evergreen
One-Seed Juniper evergreen. Photo: Bryant Olsen
Latin Scientific Name – Juniperus monosperma
Nicknames – One-seed juniper
Mature Size – Average Height of 6-25′
The one-seed juniper is found throughout the southwestern U.S., in Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado, Oklahoma panhandle, and western Texas. It grows as both a shrub and small tree, usually reaching 6 to 25 feet, 40 feet on the high end. Because its often a shrub, it’s multi-stemmed, with a thick, rounded crown.
The light to dark green leaves are scale-like and very small. They appear as needles on the younger plants. The bark is gray to brown. It produces berry-like cones, blue in color, containing a single seed, hence the name (though rarely a few seeds). The cones mature after 6-8 months. Birds and mammals will eat them. Its roots run deep, with the second deepest roots, after the shepherd tree found in South Africa.
The tree has a variety of uses, especially to the Native people. The Navajo eat the cones during fall and winter, as well as make a dye from them, along with the bark. Its wood is also used among the Natives, including the Zuni. Being resistant to rot, the wood is used for fences.
Pinyon Pine, Colorado
Pinyon Pine, Colorado. Photo: jimmy thomas
Latin Scientific Name – Pinus monophylla
Nicknames – Pinyon pine, piñon pine
Species – Pinus edulis: two-needle piñon or Colorado pinyon
Mature Size – Average Height of 33-66′
Species – Pinus cembroides: Mexican pinyon
Species – Pinus orizabensis: Orizaba pinyon
Species – Pinus johannis: Johann’s pinyon (includes P. discolor – border pinyon)
Species – Pinus culminicola: Potosi pinyon
Species – Pinus remota: Texas pinyon or papershell pinyon
Species – Pinus monophylla: single-leaf pinyon
Species – Pinus quadrifolia: Parry pinyon (includes P. juarezensis)
The pinyon pine grows in the dryer climates of the Southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. There are eight true species of pinyon pine. Several can found be primarily in the southwestern reaches of Colorado, notably the two-needle piñon, aka Colorado pinyon – pinus edulis. P. edulis is also found in the southeast in Pinyon Canyon, Colorado.
It’s a small to medium sized tree, generally growing around 30to 60 feet. The bark is furrowed and scaly, with 1 to 2 inch green needles in sets of two. The cones are spherical and grow up to 2 inches. They start green and ripen to a yellow in 18-20 months. When mature they open and contain the seeds in the scales.
It produces edibles nuts, which are a staple of Native American foods. It’s also a popular snack in New Mexican cuisine. The seeds are collected by the natives who often hold the sole rights to harvest the seeds.The wood has a certain fragrance, make it a popular wood to burn in fires. The tree is known to have a positive affect on the surrounding soil in which it grows, adding nutrients to it.
Ponderosa Pine, Colorado
Ponderosa Pine, Colorado. Photo: Drew Avery
Latin Scientific Name – Pinus ponderosa
Nicknames – Ponderosa pine, bull pine, blackjack pine, western yellow-pine, filipinus pine, yellow pine, western longleaf pine, western red pine, western pitch pine, Sierra brownbark pine, ponderosa white pine
Mature Size – Average Height of 150′-230′
The ponderosa pine has the widest range of pines on the continent, found throughout the mountains of western North America. It’s a very tall, erect tree, found growing in 16 western states. It grows first as a pyramid, then matures in a more cylindrical shape. It was first recorded by Scottish botanist David Douglas in 1826, but misidentified. A few years later he name it its own species and called it ponderosa, for its heavy wood.
There are five subspecies of pine: Pacific, Columbia, Rocky Mountains, Southwestern, and High Plains. Their needles show the subtle differences between them. While the Pacific ponderosa pine needles are the longest and most flexible, the Rocky Mountains ponderosa pine have shorter, stout needles. The High Plains ponderosa pine have the fewest needles, the widest and stoutest.
The National Register of Big Trees has recorded a ponderosa pine that’s 235 feet tall. Most grow to around 150+ feet in the wild, with very deep root systems, protecting them from harsh winds. It produces reddish-brown cones, 3-6″ in length, each with a sharp prickle on the end. The bark of the ponderosa pine is quite distinct, with brown bark that has tones ranging from yellow, to orange to red. Young trees have a darker almost black bark, giving them the nickname “blackjacks”.
Rocky Mountain Juniper
Rocky Mountain Juniper Evergreen Tree
Rocky Mountain Juniper. Photo: Bryant Olsen
Latin Scientific Name – Juniperus scopulorum
Nicknames – Rocky Mountain juniper
Mature Size – Average Height of 15-50′
The Rocky Mountain juniper grows throughout the North American West at elevations of 1,600 to 8,900 feet. In Colorado you’ll find in mostly in western side of the state, and not in the highest parts of the Rockies. It’s scientific name, scopulorum, translate to “of the mountains” in Latin.
It’s a small growing tree, usually around 2o to 30 feet, rarely reaching as high as 65 feet. It produces berry-like seed cones, which contain two seeds (occasionally one or three). After 1.5 years they mature and wildlife consumes them. It also has pollen cones, which are either entirely female or male depending on the tree. It has green leaves and not needles.
The tree lives a long time, with some of the oldest specimens found to be 1,500-2000 years old. The Native Americans make use of the tree, infusing its leaves and bark to treat colds. It’s also a popular plant used for bonsai.
Southwestern White Pine
Southwestern White Pine Seedlings
Southwestern White Pine Seedlings. Photo: Joe Blowe
Latin Scientific Name – Pinus strobiformis
Nicknames – Southwestern white pine, Mexican white pine or Chihuahua white pine
Mature Size – Average Height of 50-100′
As its name implies, the Southwestern White Pine is native to the Southwest. It’s found in Southwest Colorado, as well as Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas. It generally grows at high elevations, much like other evergreens on this list, and can reach 100 feet in height. It’s also usually found growing amongst other conifers versus by itself, surrounded by species such as limber pine.
Immature trees have smooth, light gray bark, which matures to a furrowed, reddish-brown or dark grayish-brown. The leaves are dark green to blue-green needles in bundles of five (sometimes four). The cones are quite big, 6-20″ in length, producing large seeds. The southwestern white pine does very well with little water, although it can grow successfully in moist areas.
Subalpine Fir: Corkbark Fir and Rocky Mountain Fir
Corkbark Fir Colorado
Corkbark Fir. Photo: F. D. Richards
Latin Scientific Name – Abies lasiocarpa; var. bifolia in CO and var. arizonica
Nicknames – Subalpine fir
Variety – Abies lasiocarpa var. bifolia: Rocky Mountain subalpine Fir
Mature Size – Average Height of 115–150′
Variety – Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica: Corkbark Fir
Mature Size – Average Height of 30-60′
Variety – Abies lasiocarpa: Coast Range subalpine fir
Subalpine fir are found throughout western North American at elevations of between 8,000 and 11,000 feet. They typically grow to around 20 meters, but have been found as high as 40 to 50 meters. There are either two or three taxa of subalpine fir, depending on who’s classifying them: Coast Range subalpine fir – Abies lasiocarpa; Rocky Mountain subalpine fir – Abies bifolia; and corkbark fir – Abies arizonica. The latter two are found in Colorado. All three are very similar.
The medium-sized subalpine fir tree most commonly found in Colorado is referred to as the Rocky Mountain fir. It’s classified in one of three ways: either as its own species – Abies bifolia; as a variety of the Coast Range – Abies lasiocarpa var. bifolia; or not distinguished as all, falling under the same Abies lasiocarpa as the Coast Range. The Flora of North America says it is its own species, where as the USDA includes it as Abies lasiocarpa without any variety.
You can found the Rocky Mountain Fir from the eastern Alaska Range south to Colorado. In contrast, the Coast Range subalpine fir inhabits the Pacific Coast Ranges, Olympic Mountains, and Panhandle Mountains from southeast Alaska to California. The differences are subtle, and include resin composition and the Rocky Mountain Fir having yellow-brown fresh leaf scars versus reddish. Both have a smooth gray bark with resin blisters becoming rougher on old trees, even scaly. The needles are a green or blueish color (like the aforementioned blue spruce). The blackish-purple cones grow to 2-5″ and stand erect.
The Corkbark fir, like its scientific name implies (arizonica), is found mostly in Arizona and New Mexico. Although you can find it in southern Colorado, especially the area around Wolf Creek Pass, as well as south and west of the Arkansas River. The resin composition is more similar to the Rocky Mountain fir than the Coast Range fir. The Flora of North America classifies is as Abies bifolia without distinction; whereas the USDA says its a variety of Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica. It differs from the other two species in that it has a paler gray, almost white bark.
Utah Juniper Evergreen Tree Sunrise
Utah Juniper at sunrise. Photo: James Marvin Phelps
Latin Scientific Name – Juniperus osteosperma
Nicknames – Utah juniper
Mature Size – Average Height of 10-20′
This is a smaller tree-like, shrub, native to the Southwest, found mainly in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and western Colorado, as well as some parts of eastern California, Wyoming, and southern Montana and Idaho. The Utah juniper grows to a high of 20 feet on average, rarely ever reaching 30 feet in height. It grows at elevations of 4,300 to 8,500 feet.
Lacking needles when mature, its adult leaves are green and scaly, although as a youth the leaves are needle-like. It makes berry-like cones that produce a single seed (rarely two). After a year and half they mature and are eaten by wildlife. Cones of both sexes are found on a single plant, roughly 90%, the other 10% will have either cones of solely male or female gender. The tree has a variety of uses by the Natives.
White Fir. Photo: Mitch Barrie
Latin Scientific Name – Abies concolor
Nicknames – White fir
Subspecies – Abies concolor subsp. concolor: Colorado white fir or Rocky Mountain white fir
Mature Size – Average Height of 80-110′
Subspecies – Abies concolor subsp. lowiana: Low’s white fir or Sierra Nevada white fir
Mature Size – Average Height of 130-195′
Found throughout the western part of North America, the white fir is a long living tall evergreen tree. There are two subspecies, which are sometimes treated as varieties by authors: subsp. concolor and subsp. lowiana. The former subspecies is known as the Colorado white fir or Rocky Mountain white fir. It can be found growing throughout the southern Rockies of Utah and Colorado, among other places. It lives at elevations of 5,600 feet up to 11,200 feet.
Subspeciies lowiana is the bigger of the two. Its tallest growing specimens are found in the central Sierra Nevada of California, while the Rocky Mountain white fir typically grows no more than 13o feet in height. Its Latin scientific name, concolor, means “all one color”. The needles are green/blue-green and flattened. The oblong cones are about 3 to 6 inches long, and ripen from a green-purple to pale brown. It makes winged seeds, which get dropped about 6 months after pollination when the cones fall apart.
The pyramidal tree is commonly used in landscaping because of its color, shape and ability to contend with harsh conditions. It’s also popular during Christmas time. It’s seldom used in the lumber industry. In 1953, naturalist Donald Peattie predicted its future,