Most of us living in North America and Europe know these as the “Christmas tree” trees. Those of us living in the Pacific Northwest know them as every single goddamn tree in sight. Towering, evergreen, and ubiquitous in environments ranging from temperate rainforest, to rocky mountaintops, to high desert and salty seashore barrens. Many of us with some life science background in high school learned that these are what are called “gymnosperms” (meaning ‘naked seed’), and are not quite like other land plants, in that they do not produce flowers, and reproduce using things like cones and copious amounts of wind-driven pollen. Due to the visibility and familiarity of conifers in our lives, and their vast economic and ecological importance (beyond the scope of being fabulous living room decorations one month of the year), cone-bearing trees like pines, firs, yews, spruces, and cypresses are the only gymnosperms that come to mind for those of us lucky enough to have a rudimentary background in the exciting field of evolutionary botany.
The reality is that a vast range of gymnosperms exist out there. Beyond the tree farm, beyond the city park, beyond the ornamental cedar in the front yard…is an entire world of alien plants that share that prehistoric, familial association with the relatively primitive conifers we all know and love.
This highly simplified tree is one representation of a possible relationship between various groups within Pinophyta, which is but one of several such divisions making up the greater group of gymnosperm plants. Essentially every gymnosperm tree and shrub those in the western world of the Northern Hemisphere interacts with can be found in three families (highlighted in yellow) within that division. Pines, larches, cedars, firs, spruces, and hemlocks in the huge Pinaceae family; junipers, redwoods, sequoias, and cypresses in Cupressaceae; and and yews in the Taxaceae.
Neglecting entire wings of the gymnosperm family ‘tree’ (you see what I did there?) by listing only members of these three families is comparable to saying dogs, lions, and bears are representative of all the mammals on Earth.
One group of plants that are close relatives of our familiar conifers, and might be familiar to some of us, are the araucarias. Found all over the Southern Hemisphere, they achieve the highest diversity in southern South America, Australia, New Zealand, and the islands of Southeast Asia. The popular name of ‘monkey-puzzle’ given to a South American Araucaria (now used as a common ornamental tree) came about through the whimsy of Victorian garden-drifters, who surmised that in the far-off and scary wilds of the Andes, monkeys would have a difficult time climbing up the spiky trunk and branches. Regional monkeys were greatly offended at the lack of confidence in their climbing prowess, and the assumption that they would dare live in such an unforgiving and nasty climate. The thing is, araucarias reach their greatest level of ecological importance on the slopes of the Andes in Chile and parts of Argentina, where they fit in like Seuss-esque, tufted firs in some sort of bizarro, southern hemispheric version of a Cascadian, volcanic ecoscape.
Araucarias are essentially ‘living fossils’, meaning that they belong to an ancient clade and have changed relatively little in overall function and morphology. In the case of these plants, they trace their lineage directly back to the Mesozoic, when they provided shade to the dinosaurs. They are also members of what is termed the ‘Antarctic flora’, a group of plants that evolved on the formerly joined southern continents of Antarctica, Australia/New Zealand, Africa, and South America (known as Gondwanaland…and I’m being serious) before the whole thing broke apart many millions of years ago.
Ecologically, they fill the role of the conifers familiar to us. But there are some magical differences. Instead of little songbirds chirping among their branches, there are parakeets prying open their seed cones between giant, blade-like leaves situated on long, reptilian tentacles. Oh, and those seed cones look like furry Christmas tree ornaments.
A close relative within the Araucariaceae from the other side of the Pacific is the New Zealand kauri, Agathis australis, found only on the North Island of New Zealand. Incredibly ancient, with ancestors within the genus dating back to Jurassic, kauri are effectively the great-grandparents of your common spruce; their forests grand last stands of foliated AARP members, creaking and groaning in their age with every stiff breeze. What I’m trying to say is that these trees are fucking old. They also look like this:
Forty feet around and old enough to have been a seedling during the Battle of Thermopylae, with an unchanged genetic lineage ancient enough to have been food for sauropod dinosaurs…is the kauri. Look at it. It looks like something out of an environmentally conscious fantasy. This tree gives grandmothery, sagey advice to Pocahontas. This tree houses the Omaticaya clan on Pandora. If you look long enough, your mind will start implanting forest sprites and elves in those upper branches, looking down at you in wonder.
The kauri features strongly in the culture and creation stories of the Maori people. On the North Island, kauri was used for such things as carving boats and building structures, and the gum from the tree was used to light fires, as was the case with many trees, but there was a special reverence for the kauri tree. For example, when an important person died, the phrase “kua hinga te kauri o te wao nui a Tāne” which roughly translates to “the kauri has fallen in the sacred forest of Tāne” was employed. Tāne Mahuta was the ‘god of the Forest’, and was the strongest child of Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatuanuku, the earth mother, and featured strongly in the formation of life on Earth. He pressed his shoulders into the earth, and pushed his legs into the sky, and separated his parents so that light could enter the world and allow for life to flourish. It is said that his legs were made of the trunks of giant kauri trees.
Beautiful tree in the minds of modern westerners aimlessly grasping at native cultures for the affirmation of a spiritual ‘return to nature’ via cinema…and actually, legitimately, and viscerally important in the cultural and religious identity of the Maori people for more than a thousand years…so when Europeans first colonized New Zealand they, of course, predictably, logged the hell out of the kauri forests. In the 1700s, Europeans found that kauri was an economical twofer, providing high-quality wood for ships (wooden ships were really in at the time) and the gum was prized for varnishes. By the 20th century, much of the forests had been logged, and a small bit of protected stands are all that remains. The largest specimen is named after Tāne and rests in an accessible part of the Waipoua Forest in Northland.
Another relative of pines/larches/redwoods/whatever that gets no attention from us North Atlantic-straddlers is the podocarp, shown above as a plant that looks absolutely nothing like anything in your typical Pacific Northwest timber haul. Podocarps, members of the Podocarpaceae (imagine that), with centers of diversity in New Zealand, Tasmania, the Indonesian islands, and all over South America. Those fruity things on the branches are actually mature cones which have become swollen and fleshy to attract the attention of birds, which eat and disperse the seeds in their droppings. The seeds are usually positioned at the tip of the cone. So, the function is the same, but these are not fruit. Think juniper and yew “berries”, not berry berries. Also, podocarp cones may not be used to make gin like juniper, but often times they are much more immediately useful. Many are quite edible, and are gathered as a traditional foodstuff.
Extracts from one South African species, Podocarpus henkelii, has some promise as an anti-viral agent against animal disease like canine distemper virus and something called “lumpyskin virus.”
Even more ancient than the conifers, and far more enigmatic, is the ginkgo tree, Ginkgo biloba. There is only one remaining species, but at one time, they were as common as teeth in a shark’s face. With direct ancestors traceable to some 270 million years ago, pre-dating the rise of the dinosaurs, and having remained relatively unchanged for the last 200 million or so, ginkgos possess the highest seniority among Earth’s trees, and therefore have killer tenure.
Ginkgo trees pre-date the evolution of the cones of coniferous trees, and instead, in female trees, simply jut out some stalked ovules from their branches. When successfully pollinated, they form round, fleshy outer coverings of their nut-like seeds. This fruit-like covering, called a ‘sarcotesta’ gives the appearance of grapes when green and unripe…and festering, odiferous brown prunes that smell like bad dairy when ripe and on the ground.
In East Asia, the insides of the seeds are not uncommonly eaten, and are often used in dishes like congee and Buddha’s delight. The nasty sarcotesta is an altogether different story. Some people are so sensitive to chemicals in that sour, squishy stuff that they need to wear gloves when preparing the seeds, so not to have blisters and rashes erupt all over their hands. Extracts from the leaves of the ginkgo have long been thought to enhance cognitive function and memory. Modern clinical trials have shown that terpenoids in the leaves (ginkgolides, bilobalides) may have some impact on the development of dementia.
Another division of gymnosperms, possibly more closely related to angiosperms (flowering plants) than conifers are, are the Gnetophytes (pronounced ‘neat-o fights’, because botanists obviously find them highly intriguing). There are only three genera in this entire division, and two of them I’ll go over below. All of them are incredibly distinct from each other, look nothing alike, and are highly specialized to their respective environments. This division is a little bit of a freak-show in the world of gymnosperm plants.
This scrubby, shrubby thing is Ephedra, and this particular species is native to the western U.S. The name may tip you off that there is something special about this weird little plant. It is from Ephedra that we can, and have (since 5,000 B.C. in China), extract ephedrine, which is a compound used in a wide variety of ways. It is a potent stimulant, with enough kick to make caffeine sulk, ashamed, in the corner of the room. It has been used in modern times by athletes as an energy boost, or by students and white-collar workers as an insomnia-inducing stress boost. Ephedrine is also similar to methamphetamine in molecular structure, so it is coveted by meth cooks, who can very easily make the transition through ‘simple’ and ‘safe’ chemical means. Ephedrine can also sometimes be found in ecstasy product, as well as in “Strawberry”, in which it is combined with ketamine and selegiline. I imagine making your heart pop and lock itself into oblivion is countered by epic fruity deliciousness. Ephedrine is also effective at getting rid of pesky things like the ability to desire food.
However, ephedrine’s real medicinal value is in its traditional role as a remedy for congestion and seasonal allergies. This is ironic, considering that Ephedra produces pollen in bucketloads.
Another fun fact; Ephedra in the western U.S. is often called “Mormon tea.” Whether or not Mormon pioneers used the plant as a pick-me-up tea is disputed, and the naming may have nothing to do with the Mormon religion at all. Some Ephedra plants are called “jointfirs”, which is a name humorous in the mind of the infantile, such as myself.
In the Namib Desert of Namibia and Angola in southwestern Africa…one of the driest places on Earth…lives another gnetophyte; Welwitschia mirabilis. The only one of its kind on the planet, living in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Welwitschia is a superbly weird plant. Just…just fucking look at it:
It looks the mummified and discarded carcass of a Tangela.
The specimen above is the largest known Welwitschia, inventively dubbed “The Big Welwitschia”, and it stands five feet tall and twelve feet wide…so, big enough to be a problem if it decided to fucking kill you and eat you.
This alien mess of horrifically bad vegetative split-ends takes forever to grow to any appreciable size in its arid wasteland home, so the plant pictured above could easily be two thousand years old. The morphology of the plant is unique, in that it is essentially a woody, dense, slow-growing subterranean stem…with a tiny bit poking out of the ground for the attachment of two leaves (TWO!) and the generation of weird little cones all over the place. That tangle of green is the frayed coils of but two continually growing, strap-like leaves that slowly deteriorate into an unsettling heap of sun-bleached despair. This is most observable in very young individuals:
The Welwitschia isn’t under any immediate conservation threat, due to the fact it lives in one of the least accessible places in the world, and the only thing keep them from staying hunkered down in the sand are overzealous botanical collectors…which, in my opinion, if they are willing to travel across the world and go through with putting their hands near these monstrosities, then maybe they should be able to keep them. For now, it appears as though these plants will continue making one corner of Africa as intensely alien as possible for many millenia to come.
So, the gymnosperm family is much broader and stranger than the picture provided by our friendly neighborhood needle-bearers. Remember to go forth and promote gymnosperm diversity, vocally, loudly. Start Naked Seed Awareness groups on your campuses. March on your seats of local governance. Demand recognition, lose friends, and gain concerned attention from loved ones.
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