Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Conifers are of immense ecological importance

Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis) Siġra taż-żnuber

The conifers, are cone-bearing seed plants most being trees with just a few being shrubs. Typical conifers include the pines, cypresses firs, junipers cedars and redwoods. In Malta one can see a small number of native conifers in the countryside as well as several species of non-indigenous species in public and private gardens.

The best known species are the Aleppo pine, siġra taż-żnuber in Maltese and Malta’s national tree, the sandarac (għargħar in Maltese) a member of the cypress family. 

Although globally the total number of species is relatively small, conifers are of immense ecological importance. They are the dominant plants over huge areas of land especially in the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere. The area covered by conifers is so vast that they form a vast carbon sink trapping carbon which would otherwise add to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere thus exacerbating the green house effect about which we are hearing every day. Conifers are also of immense economic value as they are the primary source of timber and paper.

The leaves of many conifers are long, thin and have a needle-like appearance although some such as most of the cypresses have flat, triangular scale-like leaves. The leaves are often dark green in colour which may help absorb a maximum of energy from weak sunshine at high latitudes or under forest canopy shade. Conifers from hotter areas with high sunlight levels such as the Aleppo pine have yellowish-green leaves.

Many conifers have a distinctly scented resin, secreted to protect the tree against insect infestation and fungal infection of wounds. The resin of the Aleppo pine is used in Greece to give a particular wine known as retsina.

The size of mature conifers varies from less than one meter, to over 100 metres. The world's tallest, largest, thickest and oldest living things are all conifers. The tallest is a Coast Redwood, with a height of 115.55 metres. The largest is a Giant Sequoia, with a volume 1486.9 cubic metres. The thickest, or tree with the greatest trunk diameter, is a Montezuma Cypress, 11.42 metres in diameter. The oldest is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, 4,700 years old.

This article was published in The Times on 16 December 2013.

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