by Andrew Street
Rarely does such a small group of plants do so much for the planet, but conifers are indeed crucial to all living things. Being iconic members of the gymnosperms class of plants, conifers are an ancient group of trees—both in longevity and perseverance.
1.) Native Pine
2.) Agathis ovata
The oldest living thing on earth is a conifer; known as Methuselah, a particular bristle cone pine (Pinus longaeva) in Eastern California, the tree is thought to be over 4,800 years old!
Some old world Araucaria are living relics too, with fossils of their kind dating back to early Mesozoic time.
You might have heard of the Norfolk Island Pine. That’s actually the name given to the very common Araucaria we see towering above most other South Florida vegetation. Funny thing is this Norfolk Pine is not an actual Norfolk Pine… the tree we see in so many yards in Miami is really the Cook pine, or Coral reef Araucaria from New Caledonia (Araucaria columnaris), discovered during a voyage by a Captain James Cook. The real Norfolk Pine is Araucaria heterophylla; it looks fairly similar to the Cook Pine but is much less common in the local landscape.
In total, Conifers only represent about 588 species. This number is extremely small, considering that we can grow over 600 species of palm tree in South Florida—about a fourth of all palm species. The largest genus of conifer is easily the pine (Pinus) with about 240 species. Some species are tropical in nature, like our native pine, Pinus elliotii var. densa, but most are temperate species. Most species are evergreen trees, but some are deciduous; Cyprus trees (Taxodium) are a good example of a deciduous conifer. Despite the large distribution of the true Cyprus, there are but two—maybe three recognized species with many agreeing to just one species.
The most abundant tree in the world is a conifer. Surrounding the top of the world is a vast and cold circle of green. In that green circle, the Siberian larch makes up thousands of miles of uninterrupted forest, mixed in with other similar conifers. Known as the Taiga, roughly a fourth of the world’s oxygen is made here. The Taiga also is home to one third of all the trees on earth. As you might expect, the most cold-hardy tree is also a conifer; Larix gmelinii, or the Dahurian Larch can tolerate temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Centigrade, and is also found in that green circle at the top of the world.
The tallest tree on earth is also a conifer; Hyperion is a Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) that is about 380’ tall and growing, somewhere in Coastal Northern California. The largest tree on Earth goes to a Conifer, as well. Just down the road from the tallest trees in the world are the Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum).
Both of these conifers are some of the most impressive things the living world has to offer. If you see them, you never forget it.
Though relatively small in number, they are very large in stature. Having stood the test of time, conifers have, and continue to be some of the most important trees on the planet. Just because a plant is not thought of as an edible (pine nuts and gin are but small examples of edible conifer products) does not decrease the overall importance and significance of it. Here on the beach, we have a few representations in the garden of this amazing group of plants, including the native Slash Pine (pinus elliotii var. densa) as well as the exceedingly rare Agathis ovata, from New Caledonea.
We are proud to have conifers in our tropical garden, and look forward to increasing our diversity in this group of incredible plants.