Conifers: “the ones that bear cones”
All living conifers are woody plants, mostly trees, and some shrubs. The world’s tallest, most massive, and oldest living trees are all conifers. They are an ancient family of trees, with fossil records dating their appearance on the landscape to the late Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) period, about 300 million years ago. Conifers are ecologically, economically, and culturally valuable tree species providing wildlife with food, habitat and shelter; are a major part of the Earth’s biomass and act as a carbon sink (removing and storing atmospheric carbon); serve as important timber and pulp species; and have been a long-standing presence and influence on many cultures for the shelter, warmth, food, medicine, beauty and symbolic meanings they provide.
So, first things first; not all conifers are pines. Pines are just one of the conifer tree families, but they are the family most people are familiar with and also the largest of the conifer tree families, so it’s a common misconception that all trees with needles are pines. It can get a little confusing, though, as the pine family (Pineaceae) includes other commonly known conifers besides the pines such as the spruces, firs, larches, and hemlocks. Junipers, sequoias, redwoods, and cypress trees are part of the cypress family (Cupressaceae). In total, there are seven conifer families and around 600 different species worldwide.
If you’ve ever opened up a tree ID guide, one of the first things you probably noticed was that the whole first section of the book is about conifers and then the rest of the book covers all the other trees and woody plants. Conifers get a section all their own for a few distinct reasons: 1) they generally have needle or scale-like leaves and are, for the most part, evergreen instead of deciduous, and 2) they are gymnosperms instead of angiosperms, which is a major evolutionary distinction among trees.
Another important detail to clarify: the terms conifer and evergreen are not interchangeable. Not all conifers are evergreen. Most are, but there are some conifers that are deciduous, shedding their needles or leaves each year, such as the larch and cypress. So, if they aren’t evergreen, why are they considered a conifer? Because they bear cones. So, are all evergreen plants considered conifers, like holly and boxwoods? No, although these plants are evergreen, they do not bear cones.
Although most conifers are evergreen, the true distinction between a conifer and other evergreen trees or shrubs, is the presence or absence of cones. Conifers are “the ones that bear cones.” However, cones have a variety of forms. What about the yew? I bet you are thinking that with those red, berry-like fruits, it must be an evergreen but not a conifer, right? Nope. Those structures are known as fleshy cones. Juniper “berries” are another example of a cone structure that looks a lot like a berry instead.
Most gymnosperms are conifers but not all, such as the gingko tree, although it was once classified as a deciduous conifer. Most angiosperms have deciduous leaves, but not all (I feel like I’ve said that a lot …), such as the rhododendron, but what really separates an angiosperm from a gymnosperm is how the seeds are housed. Gymnosperms have “naked seeds” which are not enclosed in an ovule and are usually found on a cone scale. Angiosperms surround mature seeds in an ovule housed in a flower or fruit (think of an apple).
On a timescale, gymnosperms are much older than angiosperms. Angiosperms evolved close to 200 million years after the gymnosperms, during the late Cretaceous Period, about 125-100 million years ago. Many gymnosperms went extinct during the rise of the angiosperms or “flowering plants,” that developed flowers to attract pollinators rather than relying solely on the wind for pollination, like the gymnosperms. Fortunately, though, some gymnosperms persisted, such as the conifers whose presence in the landscape bears great importance ecologically, environmentally, and culturally.
Tallest Tree in the World: “Hyperion,” a coast redwood measuring 380 feet tall and located in the Redwood National Park, California, U.S.
Most Massive Tree in the World: “General Sherman,” a giant sequoia that is 52,500 cubic feet and located in Sequoia National Park, California, U.S.
Oldest Tree in the World: “Methuselah,” a Great Basin bristle-cone pine that is 4,852 years old and located in Inyo County, California, U.S.
Laura Bailey is Cornell Cooperative Extension of Yates County natural resources educator and Northwest regional director of the Master Forest Owner (MFO) Program.