By Nancy Penrose
Conifers are trees that produce seed-bearing cones. In fact, the word “conifer” comes from Latin and means “the one that bears cones.” Fossil records show conifers were growing in Europe and North America over 300 million years ago.
Conifers range in size from miniature and dwarf to intermediate and large. The pygmy pine for example, is less than a foot in height, while big trees like the coast redwood can grow to almost 400 feet tall.
Conifer tree shapes include narrow columns, conical, bun-shaped, oval, globe-shaped and mound-looking with weeping branches. Most conifers are evergreen trees. Even so, they come in a variety of colors, such as green, blue, grey and gold, as well as combined shades such as silvery-blue and blue-green. Some conifers are even yellow, orange, lavender or purple. The tree’s color can also change depending on the season. With some trees, growth can appear as bright contrasting colors such as yellow or red.
Conifers grow over vast areas of land in the Northern Hemisphere. Types of conifers include pines, hemlocks, spruce, cedars, Douglas-fir, cypress redwood, yews and junipers.
The leaves of a conifer are usually long and thin and look like needles. Some needles can grow as long as 15 or 16 inches.
The seeds of the conifer grow in protective cones called strobilus. With some conifers, the scales of the cone will eventually open up. This allows the seeds to fall out and the wind to distribute them. In other types of conifers, the cones will deteriorate and then release the seeds. Some seeds are also distributed by birds. The cones will remain on the conifer for various lengths of time depending on the tree. The seeds are also a food source for various small mammals.
In addition to cones, many conifers also produce resin, a secretion that helps protect the tree from insects and fungal infections. Many people confuse resin with sap. Resin has a caramel-like color and is used to produce different types of varnishes, adhesives and even food coatings that prevent water loss, as well as incense and perfumes.
When a resin hardens (fossilizes), it becomes amber. Throughout history, amber has been considered a gemstone. In addition to being used in jewelry and the decorative arts, it has a healing property in folk medicine.
Sap is a fluid that moves nutrients through the tree. It can also be cooked to create syrups (maple syrup, fir syrup, etc.).
Conifers provide nesting spots for birds and shelter during the winter. They also add an interesting element to landscapes, bringing year-round beauty to any environment. They live long and are fairly easy to maintain. Large conifers can make a striking backdrop for other foliage. They are also an excellent choice as a natural screen or privacy trees. Miniature or dwarf conifers can be placed in containers or added to flowerbeds and rock gardens.
Conifers are attracting more interest from American gardeners than ever before. If you are thinking about purchasing a conifer for your yard or commercial building, it is best to consult with a tree nurserys’ big trees expert who can help you choose the right tree for your project.