Twenty odd years ago I was working as a consultant and spent a lot of time driving to and from various sites, and as I was driving along I would often ponder on different subjects. On one particualr drive I found myself musing on what made a conifer a conifer. What’s the difference between conifers and deciduous trees? As best as I remember, below are a few of the thoughts I had as I tried to figure it out as I was driving along.
The term evergreen is often used as a synonym for conifer. And that’s because, as we all know, conifers don’t shed their leaves (or needles). It turns out this isn’t strictly true, in fact conifers do shed leaves except they do it gradually rather than all in one go.
But more than that there are species of conifer that do shed their leaves. Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum), otherwise known as bald cypress drops it’s needles in the winter, as does the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), both of which are native to North America. In Asia there’s the Chinese swamp cypress (Glyptostrobus pensilis) which also sheds its leaves.
Closer to home we have European Larch which, as strongly suggested by its scientific name, Larix decidua, sheds its needles in the autumn.
But on top of that we have broadleaf trees that don’t shed their leaves in the winter. Holly? Box? So it isn’t whether a tree sheds its leaves or not that defines if it’s a conifer.
If you go into a timber yard and ask for softwoods you’re likely to end up with timber from a conifer. We all know that conifers are softwoods and broadleaf trees are hardwoods.
Except that isn’t always the case. In fact some conifers are pretty hard (think Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)), whilst there are broadleaf trees that are particularly soft (think Balsa).
I often talk about this dichotomy when I’m teaching fire by friction and allude to the fact that the terms softwood and hardwood aren’t particularly useful in a bushcraft context; take a look at this post for more information.
What’s the difference?
If it isn’t being a softwood or evergreen that makes a conifer a conifer then what is it?
The difference between conifers and broadleaf trees is in the way in which they reproduce. Conifers are gymnosperms or cone bearing trees, their name is derived from conus (cone) and ferre (to bear).
Whereas broadleaves are angiosperms or flowering plants.
Gymnosperms have been around for about 300 million years, whereas angiosperms evolved around 200 – 250 million years ago.
So essentally if it produces a cone then it’s a conifer, otherwise it’s a broadleaf. Although there are, as always, exceptions. Alder (Alnus glutinosa) is a broadleaf that has cones. The photo below was taken in the spring and so the ‘cones’ are green.
But they aren’t cones at all, they are in fact a modified female catkin.
Yew (Taxus Baccata) is often described as bearing fruit, and you can see from the photo below that it produces something that looks very much like a fruit, but is a modified cone. Please note that the ‘berry’ is delicious but the seed inside is poisonous.
So I figured out the difference but I have to say that I wasn’t a big fan of conifers. This is largely due to my early experiences with them . When I first started camping out in local woodlands, many of them were conifer plantations.
One particular woodland that I’ve spent well over a hundred nights in was a plantaion of Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). The trees were all closely planted in rows and had no growth apart from at the top; they were ugly! This photo, whilst not great, gives an idea of what I mean. The dog is Rick, a constant companion on my early bushcraft trips; he sadly died last year.
But then in 2009 I paid my first visit to Bedgebury Pinetum. And there I saw this magnificent tree.
Then I realised it was a Western Hemlock and I was stunned. Eventually it dawned on me that the conifers I’d seen weren’t representative at all, they looked the way they did because they were crowded together and that left to their own devices they could be beautiful trees. Take a look at this gallery for more photos of conifers, many at Bedgebury.
So once my interest in conifers was piqued I looked into them a little more. And I found that many of the ‘tree records’ are held by conifers:
- The top 10 oldest trees are conifers, with the oldest being a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) called Methuselah coming in at a staggering 4,850 years.
- The tallest tree in the world is known as Hyperion, a Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), and is 112m high.
- The largest tree in the world is a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) called General Sherman with a mass of 2,500cubic metres.
- The slowest growing species of tree is a conifer, White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis).
And of course in bushcraft conifers can be extremely useful to us, from fire by friction, cordage, glue, candles, bark containers, kindling and food sources they provide a wide range of uses. So my advice, get to know conifers!