Conifers

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In the early 1970s, the late author-naturalist Euell Gibbons filmed a series of television commercials in which he mentioned uses of several wild plants for food. In one of the commercials, he rhetorically inquired if his audience had ever eaten a pine tree and added, "many parts are edible."

The edibility of parts of many conifers was known to Native Americans long before Europeans set foot on the North American continent. In fact, early explorers found large numbers of pines stripped of their bark. For centuries, these inner parts (phloem, cambium) had been used for emergency food. The Adirondack Mountains of New York are believed to have received their name from a Mohawk Indian word meaning "tree eater," in reference to Native American use of the inner bark of eastern white pines. This material (specifically the phloem) contains sugars that make it taste sweet. Some tribes ate the material raw, some dried it and ground it to flour, and others boiled it or stored dried strips for winter food. Early settlers in New England candied strips of eastern white pine inner bark. To prevent scurvy, both they and local Native Americans drank a tea made of the needles, which are rich in vitamin C.

The seeds of nearly all pines are edible, but those of western North America include the larger and better-tasting

Introduction to See d Plants: Gymnosperms 433

species. The protein content of those analyzed generally ranges between 15% and 30%, with much of the remainder consisting of oils.

California Native Americans relished gray pine seeds in particular, but even the small seeds of ponderosa pine were eaten raw or made into a meal for soups and bread. Cones of pinyons were collected by tribes of the Southwest and thrown on a fire to loosen the seeds. These were then pounded and made into cakes or soup. The soup was often fed to infants. In Siberia, local residents crush the seeds of Siberian white pine to obtain a nutritious oil, but its use has declined since corn and cottonseed oils became available.

Italians and other Europeans cook "pignolias," the seeds of the stone pine, in stews and soups. The seeds are also used in cakes and cookies, and some are exported to the United States for this purpose. Many of the so-called nuts used by commercial American bakers in cakes and confectionery, however, are really seeds from the east Himalayan chilghoza pine. Other sources include the Mexican stone pine and a few pinyons.

Eastern white pines were often used as masts in sailing vessels. In colonial days, the royal surveyors marked certain trees for the use of the Crown, and severe penalties were imposed on colonists who ignored the ban on the use of any white pine not growing on private land. It was, however, legal for colonists to use white pines that had blown down, which gave rise to the term windfall. Eastern white pine wood contains less resin than that of other species and was extensively used for crates, boxes, matchsticks, furniture, flooring, and paneling. By the end of the 19th century, eastern white pines, which originally occurred over vast tracts of the northeastern United States and Canada, had been decimated by wholesale logging done with no thought to conservation. Bald cypress trees in the southeastern United States met a similar fate. White pine blister rust also took its toll. Although new growth is now being promoted, most white pine lumber used today comes from large stands of western white pine in the Pacific Northwest.

The trunks of lodgepole pines are used in both the United States and Canada for telephone poles; the straight-grained wood is also used for railroad ties, mine timbers, and pulp.

Smog has severely damaged ponderosa and other native pines in California. For a number of years, the U.S. Forest Service has experimented with Afghanistan pine, a smog-and drought-resistant pine from Russia and adjacent areas, as a replacement for native trees. Growth rates in tests have been very rapid. Rapid growth is a desirable commercial feature, since considerably more timber can be produced in the same time needed to obtain it from slower-growing species, but the wisdom of introducing non-native plants into natural communities is in question, since there are many examples of such activities thoroughly disrupting delicate ecological balances.

The resin produced in the resin canals of conifers is a combination of a liquid solvent called turpentine and a waxy substance called rosin. When a conifer tree is wounded or damaged by insects, resin usually covers the area, sometimes trapping the insects. Out in the air, the turpentine evaporates quickly, leaving a protective layer of rosin, which deters water loss and fungal attacks. Both turpentine and rosin are very useful products, and a large industry centered in the southern United States and in the south of France is devoted to their extraction and refinement. They are often referred to as naval stores, a term that originated when the British Royal Navy used large quantities for caulking and sealing their sailing ships. Today, most naval stores and a third or more of the lumber used in the United States come from a group of southern yellow pines, particularly slash pine.

Pitch pine, also a source of naval stores before slash and other yellow pines became more profitable, was used in the past for the waterwheels of mills. Pitch pine wood was also used as fuel for steam engines, as it produces considerable heat when it burns. Turpentine is considered a premier paint and varnish solvent; rosin is used by musicians on violin bows and by baseball pitchers to improve their grip on the ball. Batters apply pine tar to the handles of bats to minimize slippage.

In the past, pine pitch was used by Native Americans for patching canoes, and it has been suggested that Noah's ark was sealed with pitch from aleppo pine. Pine resin was used for purifying wine in the 1st century A.D., and today, Greeks still add it to certain wines. Colofonia is the Spanish word for a type of resin Monterey pines produced abundantly around the old Spanish capital of Monterey. The early California priest Padre Arroyo suggested during the first half of the 19th century that California received its name from this Spanish word. California was, however, the name of a mythical paradise in a Spanish novel published in the early 16th century, and no more than an interesting similarity between two Spanish words may be involved.

The huge kauri pines (Agathis) of New Zealand are in a family separate from that of true pines. They are the source of a mixture of resins called dammar that is used in high-quality, colorless varnishes. Dammar was also the resin originally used in the manufacture of linoleum.

In New Zealand, dammar, also called amber, is obtained primarily in fossil form from former or present kauri pine forest areas. Most amber, however, has come from extinct conifers that flourished 60 to 70 million years ago in the Baltic area of the former Soviet Union and from other extinct conifers in what is now the Dominican Republic. It occurs as lumps of translucent material with a deep orange-yellow tint. According to Greek mythology, amber was the congealed tears of Phaethon's sisters who, while weeping over his death, were turned into trees. Some of the lumps weigh up to 45 kilograms (100 pounds). The supply was at its peak at the turn of the century but is now nearing exhaustion. Remarkably lifelike preservations of prehistoric insects millions of years old have occurred in amber (Fig. 22.16).

Other products refined from resin are used in the manufacture of menthol for cigarettes (menthol also occurs naturally in members of the Mint Family), floor waxes, printer's ink, paper coatings, varnishes, and perfumes.

434 Chapter 22

Conifer Flowering
Figure 22.16 A prehistoric red wolf spider preserved in Dominican Republic amber. The amber is estimated to be between 20 and 30 million years old. (Photograph by John Yellen)

White spruce is the chief source of pulpwood for newsprint (Fig. 22.17) and other paper in North America. Enormous quantities of paper are used every day. A single midweek issue of a large metropolitan newspaper may use an entire year's growth of 50 hectares (123 acres) of these trees, and that amount may double for weekend editions. A large American publishing company, in an attempt to find ways of reducing paper consumption in the United States, tried trimming 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) from the width of all rolls of toilet paper in their building facilities. They found that the employees still used the same number of rolls per month as they had previously. From this, it was calculated that if all rolls of toilet paper were similarly trimmed in width, 1 million trees would be saved each year in the United States alone.

Split roots of the white spruce are quite pliable and were used by Native Americans for lashing canoes and for basketry. Spruce beer, brewed from young twigs and leaves with an added sugar source, such as honey or molasses, was once used as a remedy for scurvy. Resin of white, red, black, and Sitka spruces was used as a type of chewing gum by Native Americans, who sometimes hardened it slightly in cold water. Europeans who have tried it report that it has to be of the right consistency to be enjoyable, since it behaves like unhardened taffy if it is too soft and is bitter if it is too hard. In southeast Alaska, Sitka spruce buds are boiled in sugar water to make spruce bud syrup.

The tracheids of spruces have spiral thickenings on the inner walls. These apparently are responsible for giving the wood a resonance that makes it ideal for use as soundboards for musical instruments (Fig. 22.18). Sitka spruce of the Pacific Northwest produces a strong resilient wood that is a favorite material of manufacturers of light aircraft.

Larches, which along with the dawn redwood and bald cypress are exceptions to the rule that conifers are evergreens, have some of the most durable of all conifer woods. Fence posts of larch are known to last 20 years. In the southern and southwestern United States, posts of juniper wood and bald cypress last even longer, some remaining usable for 40 to 50 years or more. The resin of the western larch has been used in the manufacture of baking powder, and the European larch is the source of a special type of turpentine.

There are about 40 species of true firs that are widely used in the construction, plastic, and paper industries, as ornamentals, and as Christmas trees. The balsam fir produces on its bark blisters containing a clear resin. This resin, known as Canada balsam, was used in the past for cementing optical lenses and is still occasionally used for making permanent mounts on microscope slides. It has medicinal properties, too, and was used by New England colonists in sore throat medications.

Douglas fir, found in the mountains of the West, is not a true fir. In the Pacific Northwest, it grows into giant trees that are second only to the redwoods in size. It is probably the most desired timber tree in the world today. The wood is strong and relatively free of knots as a result of rapid growth, with less branching than most other conifers. It is heavily used in plywoods and is a major source of large beams. A useful wax is extracted from the bark of Douglas firs. Exploitation has nearly eliminated old-growth stands, but large numbers of new trees are being grown in managed forests.

Coastal redwoods are also prized for their wood, which contains substances that inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria. The wood is light in weight, strong, and soft, but it splits easily. It is used for some types of construction, furniture, posts, greenhouse benches, and for many other purposes. California wineries use it extensively for wine barrels. The Giant Redwoods (Big Trees) are so huge that a double bowling alley was built on the log of the first specimen cut down. They are no longer logged and now serve almost exclusively as tourist attractions in California. They are, however, being planted as timber trees in Romania and Yugoslavia.

Wood of the bald cypress, found in southern swamps, is like that of the redwood in being very resistant to decay. In the past, it was used for railroad ties, coffins, general construction, guttering, and shingles. The trees are well known for their "knees," which rise above the water as tapering growths from the roots (Fig. 22.19). At one time, it was widely believed that these were a means of admitting oxygen

Figure 22.17 A modern newsprint factory. (Courtesy International Paper Company)

Figure 22.18

spruce.

A violin with a soundboard made from red to the roots, but this is now in doubt. They are favored for making knickknacks, such as wall ornaments and lamp bases. The leaves of the bald cypress yield a red dye.

A dull red dye can be obtained from the younger bark of the eastern hemlock, which is also a source of tannins for shoe leather. The tanning industry so depleted the native eastern hemlocks that it now has had to use tropical substitutes. The wood of these small trees contains exceptionally hard knots that can chip an axe blade. It sputters and throws out sparks freely when placed on a fire. Native Americans made a poultice for scrapes and cuts by pounding the inner bark. British Columbia Indians used to scrape out the cambium and phloem of both the western and mountain hemlocks for food, killing the trees in the process.

Northern white cedar, also known as arborvitae, is a favorite ornamental in temperate areas. The wood is pliable, and several Native American tribes used it for canoes. The Atlantic or southern white cedar was the first tree to be used for the construction of pipes for pipe organs in North America. During World War II, old logs of this species found in a swamp in New Jersey were milled and used in the construction of patrol torpedo boats.

The fleshy red aril surrounding the seeds of yews is sweet and edible, but the seeds themselves and other parts of the plants are very poisonous. The wood is tough and resilient and is favored for making bows.

Chapter 22

Chapter 22

Swamp Cypress Trees With Knees
Figure 22.1Q Bald cypress trees in a southern swamp. Note the "knees" protruding above the surface.

English yew, the wood of long bows, changed history in 1415 and brought an end to the Middle Ages at the Battle of Agincourt, when the English long bow proved its superiority over heavily armored cavalry. A red or purple dye can be obtained from the bark and roots of yew. Podocarps, two species of which are valuable timber trees in New Zealand, have edible seeds.

In 1989, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center reported that 12 women with advanced ovarian cancers that had not responded to traditional therapies (including, in some cases, surgery) had a decrease of 50% or more in the size of their tumors and one woman's tumor disappeared altogether after treatment with taxol, a drug obtained from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. Pacific yew trees are small and do not occur in extensive stands. They also grow so slowly it takes more than 70 years to attain their full size, and removal of their bark kills them. Despite the problems of the drug's availability, scientists are excited about the potential of the drug in the fight against ovarian cancer, and the trees are now being mass-produced in nurseries.

The wood of incense cedars has been used in the manufacture of venetian blinds and pencils. Red cedar wood is also used for pencils, as well as for cedar chests, closet lining, fence posts, and cigar boxes. It was used at one time in Germany for smoking hams. An aromatic oil used in floor-sweeping compounds is extracted from red cedar wood, and the "berries" of this and related junipers are widely eaten by birds. Many Native American tribes used the berries and inner bark as survival food during bleak winters. Some roasted the dried berries and brewed a beverage from them. Western red cedar was the most important single plant of Native Americans of the Northwest who used it for housing, clothing, nets, canoes, totem poles, medicines, and other purposes. Berries of the dwarf juniper are used to flavor gin. Some authorities indicate that the word gin may have been derived from genievre, the French word for juniper berry.

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