This winter time of year is a time for many of us to fill our homes and offices with lots of spruce, fir, hemlock, pine and cedar — in boughs, trees, wreaths, swags and more.
The smell is divine, isn’t it? Around here, we start collecting them with the first November blow-downs and then they stay up for at least a month after the holidays. It’s what gets us through the winter!
We are so fortunate to have an abundance of conifers — the evergreens — here in the Pacific Northwest.
Having lived with them all my life, I am always startled that this is not true in other parts of the continent.
And what I have learned is that even the places where there are a lot of conifers, they do not have nearly the amount of diversity of species that we enjoy here! There is a reason my friend from the Midwest calls all the conifers “pine trees” – most of them are pines where he came from!
We are lucky to have over thirty species of conifers in the Pacific Northwest, which is more than any comparable area in North America. We can thank the evolution of our land masses, and the special kind of climate here.
Conifers are very old, among the oldest seed plants on Earth. They have been dated back 350 million years, before flowering plants came to be. Have you seen tiny conifers sprouting from crevices in rocks? Their ancestors were the first to come out of the swampy woods and establish themselves in higher ground, creating a different kind of forest.
Thirty million years ago, there were not many conifers here, as the hardwoods (deciduous) trees dominated. But 10 million years ago, when the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges had arisen, the mountains created a different climate — wetter, cooler, and protected from the cold air masses. For the last 1-2 million years, our Pacific Northwest forests have been overwhelmingly evergreen trees.
The climate is the big factor. Our mild winter temperatures, with marine air to moderate, keep the ground from freezing, while the sun dips to a very slanted position. The conifer trees, because they keep their needles (or ‘leaves’), can photosynthesize the sun light all winter long. Their oval, crown shape is excellent for capturing the maximum amount of oblique winter sun.
Unlike the deciduous trees that lose all their leaves in the fall, and some of them even earlier in an especially dry year, conifers keep most of their foliage (they do lose a little every year) and therefore, have a much smaller nutrient loss every fall. Of course when those needles do fall, they provide new nutrients through the roots of the tree, as they break down on the ground.
The summer droughts we have here cut into the water supply for all our plants. But conifers can store more water in their large trunks. The mighty Douglas fir, for instance, can get half of its daily need for water from the ground during the damp night, and can store that water in its trunk and branches. Conifers have many more needles (leaves) than deciduous trees, so they are able to collect much more of the moisture in the air at night, or the fog drip along the Coast.
Here in the Northwest, we not only have an abundance of conifers, but we also have many of the largest on the planet of each species.
For instance, we have the tallest kind of spruce (Sitka), the tallest hemlock (Western Hemlock), the tallest of the pines (Sugar Pine), the tallest of the true firs (Noble) and the world’s third tallest tree, the Douglas Fir (not a true fir, but in a genus of its own). The Western Red Cedar (not a true cedar) tops all kinds of lists for size, endurance, scent, and versatility. These are just a few of the superlatives for our conifers! They are way more amazing than we think, and graciously offer us their magnificence throughout the year.
—Naomi Maasberg is director of Stillwaters Environmental Learning Center. Contact her at email@example.com.