Sigh … winter is upon us and the lovely greens of summer are but a faint memory. Amidst this however, some plants keep their greenery and add a splash of colour to the grays of winter. These are the conifers. This is a large group of trees that include spruces, firs, junipers, pines, hemlocks, cedars and yews.
First of all, let’s clarify the difference between deciduous and coniferous trees. Conifers are classed as Gymnosperms. This large group of trees includes the typical conifers listed above and a few unusual species (not found in Durham Region) such as Gynko, Cycads and a bizarre shrub called Clap-weed. All of these have characteristics in common, all are woody, their seeds develop in a structure borne on the branches of the trees (e.g. pine cones), and most contain aromatic resins, to discourage insects and animals from eating them and fungi from infecting these reproductive organs.
Hardwoods or deciduous trees and shrubs have leaves that are generally discarded annually (all at once in the north and periodically for southern species). They are classed as Angiosperms and their seeds develop within a closed ovary. Seems a bit complicated, but suffice to say – if it’s green in winter it’s a conifer! Oh yes, the anomaly is the Larch or Tamarac. This is a conifer, with needles for leaves, that annually sheds all of them just like a deciduous tree would. One type of Larch is the northernmost species of tree in the world.
Now, what about those needles? Are they really leaves and what purpose do they serve? Well yes they are leaves and they serve the same purpose as any leaf. They are responsible for helping the tree make food. They also provide protection to the tree by blocking sun, wind, ice, rain and more from damaging the cones and bark of the tree.
All conifers eventually shed their leaves, but they do it over a long period of time, not all at once like deciduous trees. Sometimes it’s quite dramatic, as in the White Pine. In late September into late October, many brown needles will be seen on the White Pines and it looks like the tree is in distress, but it is not. Under that brown hue of dead needles is a lush new crop that will carry the tree through the winter and into next spring. Cedars undergo a similar needle drop, where large areas in the outer branches are suddenly brown. A few good wind storms or rain help drop those to the ground and the new lush growth becomes evident.
The softwoods (conifers) have softer wood and generally are not good for building fine furniture or cabinetry, but if you need studding, framing or deck boards, they are ideal. Pine is well-known as a soft, but gorgeous wood, used to build lovely tables and cabinets, being softwood, the durability is much lower than maple or oak (e.g. hardwoods).
We’ve all seen the intricate cones that many trees produce, and long-time readers will recall a column I wrote, some months back that explained how to tell a female cone from a male!
Medicinal uses abound for conifer-derived products. White Pine has many traditional uses. The bark is used to make tea to treat colds, coughs, grippe, sore throats and backaches. The pitch was used as a poultice to treat boils, abscesses, rheumatism and inflammation. Our familiar White Cedar also has many uses, including: treatment of arthritis, rheumatism, congestion, headaches, gout, warts, piles, bed sores, fungal infections and urinary incontinence amongst myriad other uses.
Interested in reading more? Look up Princeton’s guide to the Trees of Eastern North America (https://press.princeton.edu). This is a great illustrated guide explaining everything about our eastern trees, both coniferous and deciduous.
So next time you’re feeling gloomy, look outside and enjoy the lovely green of our conifers, and marvel at the incredible life cycle they follow and the amazing uses and benefits they provide us.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
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Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.