Why are Gymnosperms Important

The most important gymnosperms are the conifers but even the rare species are valuable for what they can tell us about plant evolution and also as important members of their respective ecosystems, contributing food, shelter and clean air to the animals that live there. The conifers however are as important to the economic development of the human species as some of the flowering plants that contribute so much of our food and fibres.

The top species is arguably Pinus radiata. This pine tree species, originally from Monterey County California and now ironically endangered in its natural habitat, has been planted in huge plantations in New Zealand, Australia and other countries, often at the expense of diverse and endangered native forests. However from an economic point of view, Pinus radiata plantations are quite valuable, producing a variety of softwood timber products for use in the building industry.

In North America, Europe and Russia, old growth coniferous forests have been cut continuously for the past hundred or so years with the result that except in Canada and Siberia few old growth stands are left. The original forests fed the growth of industrialised nations, providing the timber needed to build cities. Many of the remaining forests have regenerated and are now being logged over and over on cutting cycles that will hopefully provide timber and paper products sustainably for future generations. Because the trees are smaller, the quality is not as high as the old growth timber but there is little that can be done about this in the foreseeable future.

Conifers are valuable for more than just timber products. They hold the soil and prevent soil erosion. They comb the moisture from the air and channel it down into roots, soil and the water table. They provide wildlife habitat and clean air. While they are growing, they provide a ‘carbon sink’, tying up carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. It used to be that the waste products from logging were burned, which contributed to the greenhouse effect. More and more these products are being used in other ways such as mulch for gardens and this is reducing the CO2 production.

Conifers are also valuable in gardens, as street trees and as Christmas trees. Whole businesses are centered around the production of young trees for home gardeners, Christmas trees and street trees. Such trees provide shade, clean up the air and provide homes and food for wildlife species such as possums and squirrels that can survive in urban and suburban environments. Conifers are also successfully used as Bonsai subjects.

Conifers have been used by indigenous cultures around the world for many purposes. The first and main purpose was undoubtedly as a fuel for the fires of hunter-gatherers, which were used to cook food, warm the tribespeople at night and as protection from predators. In Australia, the Bunya pine, a species of Araucaria, were also an important food source. When the Bunya pine nuts were mature, tribes held corroborrees and invited neighbouring tribes for feasting and trading. Conifers were used by North American Indians for canoes, lodgepoles and totem poles, as well as for fuel. Some conifers were also used medicinally and for natural dyes. The inner bark of some trees even served as a food. Essential oils were extracted from cedars, pines and cypresses and other useful substances such as turpentine and resins were also used.

These are only a few of the uses of the more than 600 species of conifers and other gymnosperms found worldwide. They are not as large a group as the flowering plants but they have been used by humans for thousands of years and will continue to be used for a long time to come. In return we need to protect them and replant them in areas where they have been cleared or excessively logged so that future generations can continue to benefit from these beautiful and useful plants.

References: http://www.fao.org/docrep/X0453e/X0453e00.htm www.kew.org/plants/conifers/uses.html