Learn About Conifer Origins
According to paleobotanists who study fossil plants, the first conifers appeared over 300 million years ago in parts of Europe and North America. However, most taxonomists working on plant nomenclature today are more concerned with the written record of a species or cultivar and that may only go back to the 19th Century and the great era of plant exploration.
In order to keep accurate records of cultivars, taxonomists, when presented with a possible new conifer, want to know its lineage in addition to where it was found, under what conditions, seasonal variation (if any), etc. Knowing the plant’s origin (when it was first collected and brought into cultivation) and whether it is scion or a hybrid of two different but related species, is important in proper identification and registration of that plant with one of the scientific bodies dedicated to plant taxonomy.
Further, plant breeders and growers – who may invest years in developing a new cultivar for the nursery trade – want to know a specimen’s cultural history for clues on the plant’s behavior over time and succeeding generations since they only want to bring to market a plant that will hold form and maintain its viability once released to the trade. Knowing a plant’s origin is crucial to the business of propagating, growing and distributing conifer cultivars.
The ConiferBase contains a data field labeled Origins that categorizes a plant as Hybrid, Seedling Selection, Sport, Witch’s Broom, Witch’s Broom Seedling or Genera/Species. These derivations are important for plant scientists and horticultural professionals, but not necessary for simply enjoying conifers!
- Hybrid — product of two or more different species or cultivars (or, rarely, two different genera). Cupressus × leylandii is the most well known hybrid conifer.
- Seedling Selection — a plant that a results of a chance seedling which demonstrates unusual and desirable traits. For example, see Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Coneybearii Aurea.’
- Sport — a stable mutation in foliage in the form of a different color or texture. Stable sports are the source of many of the golden, and variegated conifers we see today. For example, see Picea abies ‘Gold Drift.’
- Witch’s Broom* — a mass of short, sometimes symmetrical branching on a conifer that results from a single bud that has been genetically altered through such things as chemical exposure, radiation or disease. “Broom hunting” is a popular pass time and can be quite rewarding. Many fine dwarf conifers originated as witch’s brooms. For example, see Picea abies ‘Calvary Upright.’ The picture gallery even shows an historic photo of the mother broom.
- Witch’s Broom* Seedling — see above. Occasionally a witch’s broom will produce seed or pollen cones that will carry unique DNA. If one propagates seedlings derived from witch’s broom cones, wonderful and strange plants may result. For example, see Pinus sylvestris ‘Bexel.’
- Genera and Species — wild natural trees and plants formally described and named by botanists and taxonomists.
Note: The origin of the English phrase “witch’s broom” is the German Hexenbesen, which means “the broom of a/the witch”. You may see it styled ‘witches broom’ or ‘witches’ broom’ from time to time, but the ACS takes the position that it is singular possessive (witch’s) and is so named because the dense mass of shoots emanating from a single point resemble a witch’s broom. Witch’s brooms are spontaneous mutations and their origins are not completely understood, but may arise from viruses, insects, climatic conditions or a combination of some or all of the above. The 2016 Winter ConiferQuarterly contains an article about the etymology of the term.