From the home window of my residence office, I have the right to look with a grove the loosely-spaced Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa) and into a dense floodplain collection of black Cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa) interspersed v a couple of Mountain Alders (Alnus incana).

You are watching: Similarities between coniferous and deciduous trees

The pines room a stable existence from one season to the next, but in this summer season the deciduous tree seem come throb through life together light and water mingle in a seasonal photosynthesis dance. In just a few short mainly they"ve created a dense canopy of new leaves, and also by the end of November they"ll have burned them.

The black color Cottonwoods and also Ponderosa Pines, the Methow Valley"s iconic tree species, stand for two different divisions the plants and also two an extremely different evolutionary strategies. Both varieties rely top top their leaves to transform water, carbon dioxide, and also nutrients into power that they can use to grow and reproduce. But they go around it in really different ways.


Ponderosa pine and aspen at Baron ar in the Methow Valley. Photographer: Catherine Hovanic, all rights reserved.

Most (not all) conifers store their leaves year round, while numerous broadleaved tree (including all of those that prosper in the Methow) burned their pipeline in the fall and grow new ones in the spring—an technique to life that appears wasteful, if not downright profligate, on its face. But nature is nothing if not efficient, so…there should be a reason.

How, exactly, carry out conifers and broadleaved trees approach the task of surviving and also reproducing? What walk each have actually to get from its method of doing things? just how does each one usage the sources at its handle to thrive?

I"m writing here about evergreen conifers—those that keep their leaves during the winter—and deciduous broadleaves—those that shed their pipeline in the fall. Those qualifications apply to all of the trees that are native to the Methow Watershed, with two exceptions—the Alpine and Western larches (Larix lyallii and L. Occidentalis)—deciduous conifers that have adjusted to extreme environments by adopting features of both species of tree.

Deciduous trees space those the drop their pipeline at the end of the cultivation season and produce new leaves in the spring. Castle are generally angiosperms, or flowering plants. Flowering trees are likewise known together broadleaved trees. Flower plants space much an ext recent arrivals than the conifers, or gymnosperms. The table below shows some of the distinctions between flowering plants and also conifers.

Conifers and Flowering Plants: A Comparison

​Scientific Name Common Name ​​​​Age ​​​​Etymology​Distinguishing Characteristics
​Angiosperm ​​Flowering Plants 60-100 million year old ​Angeion = vessel​Angiosperms bear seeds in vessels—fruits, capsules, etc.
​Gymnosperms​Conifers​300 million year old​Gymno = bareConus = cone​Gymnosperms carry out not produce fruit—their seeds are bare, back they might be well protected by a sharp-toothed cone


Although castle are family member newcomers, flowering plants have actually enjoyed significant success. Broadleaved trees compete well through conifers in numerous environments. One advantage that has enabled them to complete for sources is annual leaf loss.

Annual sheet loss might seem like a surprising competitive strategy. Keeping leaves for number of years saves a tree the expense of producing them anew every spring.

Conifer needles last for number of years, with spruce needles living as much as a decade and those that Bristlecone pines in California lasting 20, 30, or also as lengthy as 40 years. Holding onto needles during the winter also allows the tree to photoyynthesize year round…as long as temperatures room mild enough and also days lengthy enough.

In a few very harsh environments, winter needles may not sell that advantage. Deciduous conifers favor larches have evolved to accounting those demanding niches.

However, leaves should be difficult to make it through the winter. They space subject to desiccation (drying out) when the air is cold and dry, abrasion from snow and also ice, and browsing by pets that have actually fewer food sources in winter that during the growing season.

One way conifers defend their pipeline is v a waxy coating, the cuticle, i beg your pardon helps avoid water loss and also makes the leaves more durable and less palatable than their undefended counterparts.

Growing a cuticle comes at a price, though. It calls for an investment of carbon, which the tree must recruit via photosynthesis. Individual trees, and each species as a whole, must find just the appropriate balance in between costs (like farming a cuticle) and benefits (like sturdy leaves) that foster survival.

Whereas conifers invest in farming long-lived leaves, deciduous trees placed their resources right into creating an ext leaf area. Since they photoyynthesize for just a short period, lock must catch as lot sun as they can during the months when they space in leaf.

The leaves of numerous conifers are well-known as needles, for your slender form as well together their pointy tips. Other conifers prosper scale-like leaves—the west Red-Cedar (Thuja plicata) is a neighborhood example.

In either case, conifer leaves room compact. The compact type minimizes surface area and so to reduce water loss. It also allows the leaf to bury its vascular tissue—through which water moves—in protective photosynthetic tissue. The cell that usage sunlight are close come the surface, when the water-bearing cells room deep in the needle, maintaining the priceless liquid safe from evaporation.

Deciduous trees take a various approach. Fairly than try to conserve water, they prosper where over there is much more of it—for instance, follow me watercourses, in the shade of conifers, or in areas with high summer precipitation. Climate they spread out their leaves large to catch as much sun as possible.

In the course of a growing season, many of those leaves will be take it by the wind, eaten by insects, pecked through birds, and also colonized through fungi and also bacteria. The in its entirety leaf area is so much greater, though, the the short-lived leaves are still a an excellent investment. Your photosynthetic capacity—that is, their capacity to record carbon and convert it to nutrients—is higher than the of the longer-lived coniferous leaves.

So, what various other mechanisms do conifers usage to preserve their compete edge? Canopy shape and needle setup both job-related in their favor. The standard conical shape intercepts sunlight more efficiently 보다 a rounded canopy. A really broad canopy would also catch a many sun, but, in a climate favor ours, it would certainly be also susceptible to damages by ice and also snow to it is in efficient.

In the Methow, also deciduous trees often tend to be relatively upright in kind so that their branches are less likely to record snow and less most likely to break once snow go accumulate. Losing leaves helps defend deciduous trees" branches, too. Conversely, conifers space shaped to burned snow, the upright branches that broadleaved trees would be further jeopardized if the pipeline were current in winter.

Conifer needles have tendency to it is in clustered top top branches, helping irradiate to penetrate the canopy. And, since the needles are small and often tend to be fairly widely spaced ~ above the tree, irradiate can additionally spread an ext easily once it is in ~ the canopy.

Looking in ~ those Ponderosa Pines exterior my window, I can see that nearly all the needles are being touch by the sun. In contrast, the shade keeps plenty of deciduous leaves from achieving their photosynthetic potential.


As noted above, deciduous pipeline have better photosynthetic capability than perform coniferous ones. That is partly because of their greater surface area, and partly due to the fact that they invest much more nitrogen in leaf structure to start with.

High-nitrogen leaves photosynthesize an ext efficiently (This is a large statement based upon observed correlations. One reason for the correlation in between foliage nitrogen levels and also photosynthetic performance may be that photosynthesis calls for nitrogen-containing enzymes.) They space also more costly to maintain, being far better stocked through proteins and other energy-demanding components.

So, it makes sense for the tree to shed them at the begin of the cold season and produce new ones in the spring…if there is an sufficient supply the nutrients with which to develop those new leaves, that is.

Where nutrients are in quick supply, the evergreen habit may be much more efficient. That is in ~ least part of the factor conifers often tend to predominate at greater elevations in the Methow.

Long-lasting leaves stand for a smaller annual investment that nitrogen, which have the right to be a limiting element in cold or dry places. The cuticle that coats conifer leaves likewise helps keep nutrients in the leaves; lock are less likely to it is in leached through precipitation than are the nutrients in deciduous leaves, at the very least in the short run.

In the course of a needle"s life, the may lose as countless nutrients as a deciduous leaf would in its few months on the tree, however in a single year, the will lose much much less nitrogen.

Finally, conifers and broadleaved trees use different mechanisms to command water. In conifers, water move in structures referred to as tracheids. In broadleaved trees, water moves in much more efficient structures called vessels and in tracheids, further supporting quicker growth and larger leaves.

All the those adaptations include up come improved capacity to survive and also reproduce in a particular environment.

Here in the Methow, both conifers and also deciduous tree have uncovered niches. Deciduous trees normally predominate near to trusted water sources—where sources are plentiful, your adaptations have given them the edge.

Conifers may additionally grow in riparian areas, but they are additionally able to survive in upland environments. It is there that their capability to weather harsher conditions becomes a actual advantage.

Other settings are conquered by either coniferous or deciduous trees.

The naval northwest is an example of one area overcame by conifers. It shows up that the northwest"s dry summers provide conifers an advantage.

Photosynthesis might stop or slow way down as trees close the stomata in their pipeline to reduce evapotranspiration—a genuine hindrance to tree that just bear pipeline for a couple of months a year. In the winter, temperatures are usually mild enough that conifers can keep photosynthesizing, and, the course, there is plenty of rain to fuel growth.

At the opposite finish of the spectrum are tropical rainforests, which have tendency to be dominated by broadleaved evergreen trees. When problems are favorable, wide leaves are an ext efficient 보다 the needles and scales that conifers.

Conditions in dry rainforests are favorable in 2 respects: no temperature nor moisture boundaries growth. In areas where the cultivation season is not interrupted by cold winters, also angiosperms can photosynthesize every year round—and castle don"t need tough needles and scales to do it. Neither do they should conserve water, therefore leaf develops that limit surface area and also evapotranspiration room not needed.

On the various other hand, nutrient are likely to be limiting in tropical rainforests—the high rainfall leaches them from the soil—so an evergreen habit confers an additional advantage, permitting leaves to exploit nutrients because that a longer duration as well together take advantage of the sunshine year-round. The vessels the angiosperms use to transport water may even help their seedlings obtain off come a quicker start 보다 those of conifers.

The an extremely harsh winter environments uncovered at high altitudes and high latitudes are a third extreme, and also one that has led to a specialized adaptation: deciduous conifers. The larches, pointed out earlier, room the ideal known example; a few other genera take place world-wide.

Larches rely on needles rather than broad leaves and they grow brand-new needles annually (although the needles of juvenile trees might survive the first winter—perhaps safeguarded by the woodland canopy above).

How execute they execute it? First, they prosper in areas where there is little competition—other trees room not adjusted to the harsh settings in i beg your pardon larches have developed themselves. And second, they depend on efficient kind and reliable use of nutrient to capture light and also grow leaves and also structural components.

Come winter, the view from my window will alter. The pines will stand out, cinnamon-orange bark and green needles highlighted by snow. The beauty, beauty of the deciduous trees will certainly be starker, the riparian stand more easily penetrated by the eye. Those trees will certainly stand stiller and less colorful. They"ll be waiting.


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"The taiga or boreal forest." Accessed in march 5, 2012 in ~