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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: a product of two or more different species or cultivars (or, rarely, two different genera).

Seedling Selection: a plant that is a result of a chance seedling which demonstrates unusual and desirable traits. Example: Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Coneybearii Aurea’


Witch’s Broom*:

Witch’s Broom* Seedling:

Genera species:


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.

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