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.

Further Reading:

The Deciduous Conifer Conundrum

Broad leaf trees get all the glory come fall. Their dazzling colors put on a display for a few weeks every year that is unrivaled. However, it isn't just broad leaf trees that are preparing for winter in this manner. There are some conifers doing the same. The handful that have evolved this deciduous strategy are just as dazzling as their broad leaf neighbors.

The most famous of these are the larches (genus Larix), however, there are others such as baldcypress (genus Taxodium) and the dawn redwoods (genus Metasequoia). So, why have these conifers evolved to be deciduous? There are likely many reasons these genera utilize this strategy but it most likely comes down to cost versus benefit. Needles that last for years are costly to make despite their advantages. They are no guarantee of success either, especially for the larches, which often grow in areas that experience some of the harshest winters on the planet. Heavy snow pack and deep winter chills can take their toll on conifers and many evergreen species show signs of frost damage and broken limbs from snow loads. The habitats in which deciduous conifers are found can be tough places to eek out a living.

By shedding their needles, the larches can get around these issues a bit. They also tend to grow in swampy areas where getting the nutrients needed for survival can be extra difficult. By producing relatively weak needles that are easily replaced from year to year, trees like larches and cypress may get around having to waste resources on more robust needles. Finally, it should be noted that this strategy is by no means less efficient. These genera do quite fine with their deciduous nature. For the most part, these trees are nonetheless successful and can live for centuries. It is mysteries like these that keep the wonderful world of botany interesting.

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