Conifers – Habit

Dependent on species/cvs.,  the majority of conifers have distinct habits or “plant shapes” both as juvenile plants for sale and in maturity.  Typically conifers must be well furnished overall from above ground level with live shoots.  Many evergreen conifers are often regularly pruned to create a more branched or bushier habit than would be typical.  As a result of this treatment, vigorous growing conifers are typically well furnished overall up to the last annual shoot and the whorl distances as well as the length of the last annual shoot must correspond to the total habit of the plant.

Upright growing forms (both compact and vigorous varieties) must have not more than one single dominant leading shoot.  The exceptions to this are hedging and bushy species, e.g. Taxus spp., Thuja spp.

NPS Conifers habit can be defined as:

  • branched
  • bushy
  • with leader and laterals
  • with single leader

A branched habit is defined as “a plant with lateral shoots arising either from a main stem or from a Central point.  Relatively few sub-lateral shoots.”  Examples are Juniperus spp. (prostrate/vigorous species/cvs such as J. x media ‘Pfitzeriana’) and (prostrate/medium species/cvs such as J. horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’)

For this habit, the number of breaks (branches) within the lower third of the plant is specified.  ForJuniperus spp., this would be 3 in number.

nps conifers habit
Bushy conifer


A bushy habit is defined as “a plant often without a defined main stem. Lateral shoots often arising from a central point but sometimes also from elsewhere. More sub-lateral shoots produced than a branched plant.”

Bushy plants normally cover the pot (when container grown) except where a diameter dimension is shown, when it is less than the pot diameter.  Examples are Chamaecyparis spp. (dwarf species/cvs), Juniperus spp. (dwarf species/cvs), Picea spp. (dwarf species/cvs), Pinus spp. (medium species/cvs) and Tsuga spp. (dwarf species/cvs)

Leader and laterals
Conifer leader laterals
Conifer leader laterals

A habit with Leader and Laterals is defined as “a plant with a single dominant shoot with significant side shoots.”  For example Abies spp. (medium species/cvs), Cedrus spp. (medium and vigorous species/cvs), x Cupressocyparis spp. (vigorous species/cvs), Larix spp., Metasequoia spp., Picea spp. (medium and vigorous species/cvs), Pinus spp. (vigorous species/cvs), Tsuga spp. (vigorous species/cvs).

Single Leader
Conifer single leader
Conifer single leader

A conifer with a single leader is defined as a plant with “a single dominant shoot evenly furnished from top to base with light, comparatively short side shoots which, when carrying leaves, virtually cover the leader from top to bottom with foliage.”  For example:  Chamaecyparis spp. (vigorous species/cvs), X Cupressocyparis spp. (medium/vigorous species/cvs.), Juniperus spp. (medium/vigorous species/cvs.), Picea spp. (larger dwarf species/cvs.), Thuja spp. (medium/vigorous species/cvs.)

The exception is Taxus spp.  where a number of leaders is acceptable, furnished to base.