Conifer Leaf Drop

It's that time of year when evergreen trees become quite apparent. The most obvious are the conifers. These trees hold steady while everything else seems to be in a mad rush for winter. Despite the term "evergreen" the conifers are nonetheless preparing for winter as well, though on a much more subtle level. Anyone paying close attention will see some color changes happening to them too. Despite the designation as "evergreen" the conifers do shed leaves.

Timescales are everything for us humans. We tend to notice things that happen relatively fast, like an entire forest turning color in only a few weeks. The conifers have adopted a strategy that isn't as in tune with our perception. Conifers, for the most part, specialize in harsh habitats. Excelling in poor soils and extreme cold, they tend to invest in the long term. Needles are one such adaptation. Their minimal surface area and structural integrity make up for their costly production in nutrient poor conditions. When a conifer produces needles, they need to last for a while.

And that is exactly what they do. The average conifer needle has a lifetime of roughly 2 years (with some exceptions of course). It doesn't make sense for them to bank on a whole new set leaves every year. Because of the way they grow, conifers usually shed their leaves from the inside out. New leaves are produced at the tips of branches and, as older leaves get shaded out, conifers cut their losses and drop them. If you take a close look at conifers during the fall, this pattern becomes readily apparent.

Leaf drop doesn't always happen quickly either. They are often spaced out over time. One of the reasons I like plants so much is that they operate on vastly different timescales than we do. As you become more and more familiar with different species, plants can teach you to start looking at things a bit different than you are used to. Get outside and find some needle dropping conifers of your own.

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