Conifers - Ancient Survivors



























conifer 004-230x153Millions of years before Dinosaurs roamed the Earth ancient Conifers covered the Planet in towering forests. Today, these are the Ancient Survivors from some of the earliest forests ever to appear upon the Earth.
The true Conifers first developed during the Carboniferous Period about 360-290 million years ago. During this Period Carbon Dioxide CO2 levels and temperatures were as low as they are today; which is as low as they have ever been in Earth’s entire geological history.  Great Carboniferous Forests covered the Planet. This massive forestation quickly raised the Oxygen level of the entire Planet to 35%.
The development of these giant forests and greatly increased levels of Oxygen also resulted in gigantism in both Amphibian Tetrapods and Insects. Giant Dragon Flies filled the air and in the landscaped roamed the first large Spiders. This also created the ideal conditions for the development of the first early Lizards and Reptiles which produced the first eggs. These would ultimately adapt millions of years later into the Dinosaurs and Synapsids which are thought to have continued to evolve into modern-day Birds and Humankind. Thus from at least 300 million years ago the evolutionary development of plants like Conifers have been linked to that of Humans.
In those early days of the Carboniferous Forests things looked very different from today. Shallow seas and swampy land covered much of the Planet. There were giant plumed trees of which modern Horsetail is a descendent. Giant Ferns were common and the first Tree Ferns, relatives of modern Cyathia appeared in many forms 30m/100ft high throughout the forests. Other trees closely resembled modern Palms. There were Lycophytes (close relatives of today’s tiny Club Mosses). But these were enormous branching trees known as Lepidodendron. Their much-branched tops were covered in needle-like scales that closely resemble those of Araucaria like the modern Norfolk Island Pine.  And in many forests and swamps Calamites: giant Horse Tail Rush trees, towered like massive fringed Bamboo.
One of the most distinctive and important of the Carboniferous forest trees were the cone/seed Ferns called Cordaites. These were tall, branching trees with long strap-like leathery leaves in large clusters near the ends of the branches creating beautiful plumy Cordaite Trees. Since both the Cordaites and Lepidodendron trees were related cone/seed-bearing genus it is thought that perhaps these cross bred.  For soon the forest trees had adapted and changed into the first true Araucaria-type Conifers.
These were branching trees like the Cordaites but with branches closely clad in needle-like scales like the Lepidodendrons. These started to appear near the middle and end of the great Carboniferous Forest period as a great cold Climate Change Event plummeted temperatures around the world. Perhaps this was an adaptation to the cold, which gave the branching Cordaites an additional needle/scale layer of insulation.
From then onward to this present day, Conifers continued to adapt, diversify and proliferate around the World. Today their descendants are known as the Pinophyta Division of plants. They include 8 Families, 68 genera, at least 630 living species and many thousands of cultivars and hybrids all different types of Conifers.
These living fossils are classified as Gymnosperms which literally means “naked seeded” plants that developed on Earth long before the advent of flowers. Female trees of most species produce naked ovules borne between scales of a cone. The Monkey Puzzle Tree which adapted in the Southern Hemisphere and the Pine Tree of the Northern Hemisphere are classic examples.
Male Gymnosperm trees produce pollen-bearing cones, organs or sacs often like upright catkins in clusters. The pollen was transferred mostly by air currents or wind and occasionally Animals, Birds or Insects. Once pollinated the female cone develops. The Southern Hemisphere’s Podocarpus and later arrivals like Junipers and Yews adapted to a changing world by developing fleshy fruits on male and female plants. These could be conveniently eaten by Animals and mostly Birds which digested the fleshy fruit and passed the harder seed in their fertile droppings. Juniper “berries” are perhaps the most endeared example surviving today as their fermented fruits produce alcoholic Gin.
Fossil records suggest that almost all Coniferous species have always remained evergreen. Much later in the Paleocene Epoch 65.5-55.8 million years ago the climate became very warm and tropical even near the Poles where evergreen forests thrived.  In the warmer latitudes broad-leafed evergreens took over as Conifers became much rarer in these warmer climates. But Conifers species survived the tropical heat above 70 degrees North and South Latitude where the climate remained cooler and temperate.
In the moderate climate of the Southern Hemisphere Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle and Norfolk Island Pine), Dacrydium, Northofagus (Southern Beech) and Podocarpus developed into their near-modern evergreen species. But in the Northern Hemisphere the climate was seasonal and a bit more extreme. As an adaptation to these climate extremes, a few Conifer species like Bald Cypress (Taxodiurn), Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia) and Larch (Larix), began to drop their leaves in Winter. In the colder regions of the Southern Hemisphere some species of Northofagus (Southern Beech) also learned to become (partly) deciduous, too. To this day these are the only known ancient surviving deciduous Coniferous species.
Because the heritage of these ancient survivors originated in very wet Geological Periods, most Conifers love moisture. Conifers thrive in many coastal locations where the weather is often damp and foggy and they also quickly adapt to cloudy, misty mountains. They enjoy abundant sunshine provided it is not too hot and scorching. And their resinous saps make them well adapted to extremes of cold.
Bright Autumn and Winter sun combined with colder temperatures enhances the colour on some Conifer species turning their foliage golden or bronze/red. This is because as the temperatures grow colder, the green chlorophyll contained in the Conifers’ resinous sap recedes deeper into the protection of the branches, trunk and roots much as what happens in deciduous species. This leaves the cellulose and colourful pigments in the leaves which give the evergreen fronds their bright Autumnal colour.
However, while these Ancient Survivors are hardy, they prefer rather constant or slowly moderating conditions. Cold nights followed by warm Late Winter sun, especially when combined with exposure to drying winds and dry soil can burn and ruin foliage or even kill the tree. In such extreme sites Conifers are often planted in groves on a bank or hillside sloping away from the hot sun and also which is sheltered from the driest winds and remains in partial shade. Remember that Conifers are naturally gregarious forest trees that naturally cluster together creating their own humid, moist microclimate. They are often much more vulnerable when placed out in the open on their own.
Ordinary soils suit most Coniferous species provided they have excellent drainage. Most Conifers prefer these loose and opens soils so that their roots receive adequate air flow as well as nutrient rich water flowering through. This is important to keep their foliage fresh and supple. For example, the beautiful, ornamental foliage of Chamaecyparis and Thuja (Arborvitae) will grow even in sandy land provided they receive abundant moisture and a good mulch or surrounding ground cover or some other form of ground shade that insures that their roots remain cool and never dry out.
Some Conifers like Taxodium (Bald Cypress) and to a lesser extent, Larix (Larch) have adapted from geological periods that were very swampy so they can even grow in water! They have also adapted to growing on dry land, but prefer to maintain their roots in abundant ground water. When grown in drier locations, often these Conifer species will naturally loose internal branches or foliage during Late Summer dry periods. This is a natural way that they mulch themselves as a protection against drought and dry soil. A deep, good soaking will often correct this problem. Providing deep and generous organic mulch year-round is a natural preventative to branch and foliage drop on these species.  When grown with abundant and constant moisture Larch and especially Taxodium become beautifully feathery and graceful conical Conifers with arching boughs that nearly sweep the ground.
Conifers make an excellent avenue planting. They are wonderful for border plantings, lawn features, groves, and screens for privacy as well as a shelter belts. Conifers are the endeared Christmas Tree of Yule, and evergreen coniferous foliage is traditionally symbolic of the Christmas Holiday season and many ancient traditions as it represents longevity and renewal. The long-lasting foliage of many Conifer species is highly prized by Decorators and Designers; Floral Artists and Florists and draws a good price on the commercial export market.
Many Conifers make wonderful container plants. Most Coniferous species will naturally dwarf to the size of their growing space. One of Japan’s oldest living Bonsai growing in Bonsai Omiya Village is a Sargent (Shimpaku Juniper) that is at least 500 years old. It still grows in a container small enough for a Man to easily pick up! And most of the finest and longest lived Bonsai in the world are Conifers. Growing Conifers in barrels, landscape planters and tubs is extremely easy and successful provided they remain well cared for and regularly watered.
Conifers can be planted from established container plants at almost any time, provided they receive regular care. But by far the easiest time to plant Conifers is during the cooler and damper months from whenever the rains return in Autumn throughout the Winter into Early Spring. They don’t always transplant easily. Bare roots should never be left exposed to the air but are covered in damp burlap or ‘healed-in’ to moist peat, untreated sawdust or soil if not immediately replanted.
Conifers are traditionally lifted and shifted while dormant during the Winter months. They should be replanted as quickly as possible after lifting. The planting hole needs to be a little wider than it is deep. Back fill with good quality, organically rich and porous soil. In heavy land mix the soil with peat. Most Conifers prefer somewhat acid pH soils ranging from about pH 6.0-7.3.
Always stake Conifers upon planting as their evergreen boughs create a natural sail that will catch the wind causing them to rock back and forth. This rocking action will often loosen the root ball and break delicate young roots. If new roots break or become damaged, this will often starve the tree of food nutrients and water. Or the damaged roots can invite fungal infection and/or rotting diseases any of which can quickly leading to the Conifers’ sudden death.
Newly planted Conifers must be kept constantly moist, but not sodden, for several months following transplanting until they become well established. This often necessitates misting or spraying over their foliage as well as maintaining abundant and even ground moisture. And because of their natural ancestral background, Conifers will always require plenty of water, especially so during prolonged dry spells, not only during hot summery periods but also during extended periods of dry Winter cold, especially if humidity remains low and snow cover is limited. Almost as many Conifers are damaged and burnt by very cold, dry and windy Winter weather as by Summer heat!
Important tips to remember when planting Conifers: Be generous with the size of the planting hole, as there is only one chance to get this right and Conifers have large and spreading root systems. Be generous with the compost that goes in to the planting hole as Conifers are big feeders with many branches and needles to support. This compost must be water-retentive, well-rotted, but light and fluffy enough to allow air circulation around its roots as much as water retention for sustained growth.
Mulch all Conifers immediately upon planting. This cools and shades the ground; balances and retains adequate moisture levels around the roots; helps produce a humid canopy from beneath the Conifer; and protects the young tree especially through that first vulnerable year after planting. Stake all newly planted Conifer trees especially securely if they might ever be whipped by winds. Keep all young Conifer trees weed free.
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