From the home window of my house office, I can look with a grove the loosely-spaced Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa) and also into a dense floodplain gallery of black Cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa) interspersed through a few Mountain Alders (Alnus incana).

You are watching: Similarities between coniferous and deciduous trees

The pines room a stable visibility from one season come the next, yet in this summer season the deciduous trees seem to throb with life together light and water mingle in a seasonal photosynthetic dance. In simply a couple of short mainly they"ve produced a dense canopy of brand-new leaves, and also by the finish of November they"ll have shed them.

The black Cottonwoods and also Ponderosa Pines, the Methow Valley"s above tree species, represent two various divisions that plants and also two very different evolutionary strategies. Both types rely on their leaves to transform water, carbon dioxide, and also nutrients into energy that they have the right to use come grow and reproduce. However they go about it in really different ways.


Ponderosa pine and also aspen in ~ Baron place in the Methow Valley. Photographer: Catherine Hovanic, all civil liberties reserved.

Most (not all) conifers save their leaves year round, while numerous broadleaved tree (including all of those that grow in the Methow) melted their pipeline in the fall and also grow brand-new ones in the spring—an strategy to life that appears wasteful, if no downright profligate, top top its face. However nature is nothing if not efficient, so…there must be a reason.

How, exactly, do conifers and broadleaved trees method the job of surviving and reproducing? What go each have actually to gain from its way of act things? how does each one use the resources at its handle to thrive?

I"m writing here about evergreen conifers—those that keep their leaves throughout the winter—and deciduous broadleaves—those that lose their pipeline in the fall. Those qualifications apply to every one of the trees the are native to the Methow Watershed, v two exceptions—the Alpine and also Western larches (Larix lyallii and L. Occidentalis)—deciduous conifers that have adapted to extreme settings by adopting features of both varieties of tree.

Deciduous trees room those the drop their leaves at the end of the farming season and also produce new leaves in the spring. Castle are normally angiosperms, or flower plants. Flowering trees are also known as broadleaved trees. Flower plants space much more recent arrivals 보다 the conifers, or gymnosperms. The table listed below shows several of the distinctions in between flowering plants and conifers.

Conifers and also Flowering Plants: A Comparison

​Scientific Name Common Name ​​​​Age ​​​​Etymology​Distinguishing Characteristics
​Angiosperm ​​Flowering Plants 60-100 million year old ​Angeion = vessel​Angiosperms bear seed in vessels—fruits, capsules, etc.
​Gymnosperms​Conifers​300 million years old​Gymno = bareConus = cone​Gymnosperms perform not create fruit—their seeds room bare, although they might be well safeguarded by a sharp-toothed cone


Although lock are relative newcomers, flower plants have actually enjoyed considerable success. Broadleaved trees compete well through conifers in plenty of environments. One advantage that has permitted them to compete for resources is yearly leaf loss.

Annual sheet loss might seem favor a surprising competitive strategy. Maintaining leaves for number of years saves a tree the cost of producing them anew every spring.

Conifer needles last for number of years, through spruce needles living approximately a decade and those of Bristlecone pines in California lasting 20, 30, or also as long as 40 years. Holding onto needles during the winter also permits the tree to photosynthesize year round…as lengthy as temperatures are mild enough and days long enough.

In a couple of very harsh environments, winter needles might not market that advantage. Deciduous conifers like larches have advanced to occupy those demanding niches.

However, leaves should be hard to survive the winter. They are subject to desiccation (drying out) once the air is cold and also dry, abrasion native snow and also ice, and browsing by animals that have actually fewer food sources in winter that during the growing season.

One method conifers safeguard their leaves is through a waxy coating, the cuticle, i m sorry helps protect against water loss and also makes the leaves an ext durable and less palatable than their undefended counterparts.

Growing a cuticle come at a price, though. It calls for an invest of carbon, i beg your pardon the tree must recruit via photosynthesis. Individual trees, and each species as a whole, must find just the appropriate balance between costs (like cultivation a cuticle) and also benefits (like resilient leaves) that foster survival.

Whereas conifers invest in growing long-lived leaves, deciduous trees put their resources right into creating an ext leaf area. Because they photosynthesize for only a brief period, castle must capture as lot sun together they can during the months as soon as they are in leaf.

The pipeline of countless conifers are known as needles, for your slender kind as well as their pointy tips. Other conifers grow scale-like leaves—the west Red-Cedar (Thuja plicata) is a local example.

In either case, conifer leaves are compact. The compact form minimizes surface area and also so reduces water loss. That also enables the sheet to ask its vascular tissue—through i m sorry water moves—in protective photosynthesis tissue. The cells that usage sunlight are close come the surface, if the water-bearing cells are deep in the needle, keeping the priceless liquid safe from evaporation.

Deciduous trees take a different approach. Fairly than shot to conserve water, they thrive where there is an ext of it—for instance, along watercourses, in the the shade of conifers, or in locations with high summer precipitation. Climate they spread their leaves broad to capture as much sun together possible.

In the course of a cultivation season, plenty of of those leaves will be torn by the wind, consumed by insects, pecked by birds, and colonized through fungi and also bacteria. The all at once leaf area is so lot greater, though, the the short-lived leaves are still a an excellent investment. Their photosynthetic capacity—that is, their capability to capture carbon and convert it to nutrients—is greater than that of the longer-lived coniferous leaves.

So, what other mechanisms carry out conifers usage to preserve their competitive edge? Canopy shape and needle setup both work in your favor. The standard conical shape intercepts sunlight more efficiently than a rounded canopy. A an extremely broad canopy would likewise catch a lot of sun, but, in a climate like ours, it would be too susceptible to damages by ice and also snow to it is in efficient.

In the Methow, also deciduous trees tend to be relatively upright in kind so the their branches are much less likely to catch snow and also less likely to break as soon as snow go accumulate. Shedding leaves helps defend deciduous trees" branches, too. Conversely, conifers room shaped to shed snow, the upright branches the broadleaved trees would be further endangered if the pipeline were present in winter.

Conifer needles have tendency to it is in clustered top top branches, helping irradiate to pass through the canopy. And, because the needles are little and have tendency to be reasonably widely spaced top top the tree, light can additionally spread more easily as soon as it is within the canopy.

Looking at those Ponderosa Pines external my window, I deserve to see that virtually all the needles are being touched by the sun. In contrast, shade keeps plenty of deciduous leaves from achieving your photosynthetic potential.


As detailed above, deciduous pipeline have better photosynthetic ability than execute coniferous ones. The is partly due to the fact that of their greater surface area, and also partly since they invest more nitrogen in leaf building to start with.

High-nitrogen pipeline photosynthesize an ext efficiently (This is a broad statement based on observed correlations. One reason for the correlation in between foliage nitrogen levels and also photosynthetic effectiveness may be that photosynthesis calls for nitrogen-containing enzymes.) They space also more costly to maintain, being much better stocked v proteins and also other energy-demanding components.

So, it provides sense for the tree to melted them in ~ the start of the cold season and produce new ones in the spring…if there is an sufficient supply that nutrients with which to produce those brand-new leaves, that is.

Where nutrients space in brief supply, the evergreen habit may be an ext efficient. The is in ~ least part of the reason conifers have tendency to predominate at higher elevations in the Methow.

Long-lasting leaves stand for a smaller yearly investment that nitrogen, which deserve to be a limiting aspect in cold or dry places. The cuticle the coats conifer leaves also helps save nutrients in the leaves; lock are less likely to it is in leached through precipitation than are the nutrient in deciduous leaves, at the very least in the brief run.

In the food of a needle"s life, that may lose as many nutrients together a deciduous leaf would in its couple of months top top the tree, but in a solitary year, the will lose much much less nitrogen.

Finally, conifers and also broadleaved tree use different mechanisms to conduct water. In conifers, water moves in structures called tracheids. In broadleaved trees, water moves in an ext efficient structures referred to as vessels as well as in tracheids, additional supporting faster growth and larger leaves.

All of those adaptations include up to improved capability to survive and reproduce in a details environment.

Here in the Methow, both conifers and deciduous trees have found niches. Deciduous trees typically predominate nearby to trusted water sources—where resources are plentiful, their adaptations have offered them the edge.

Conifers may also grow in riparian areas, but they are likewise able to endure in upland environments. It is there that their ability to weather harsher conditions becomes a genuine advantage.

Other settings are conquered by one of two people coniferous or deciduous trees.

The maritime northwest is an instance of an area overcame by conifers. It appears that the northwest"s dried summers give conifers an advantage.

Photosynthesis may stop or slow way down as trees near the stomata in their pipeline to reduce evapotranspiration—a actual hindrance to trees that just bear leaves for a couple of months a year. In the winter, temperature are generally mild sufficient that conifers deserve to keep photosynthesizing, and, that course, over there is lot of of rain to fuel growth.

At the opposite end of the spectrum space tropical rainforests, which tend to be conquered by broadleaved evergreen trees. When problems are favorable, broad leaves are an ext efficient than the needles and also scales the conifers.

Conditions in dry rainforests space favorable in 2 respects: no temperature nor moisture borders growth. In locations where the cultivation season is no interrupted by cold winters, even angiosperms deserve to photosynthesize every year round—and castle don"t need challenging needles and also scales to do it. Neither carry out they need to conserve water, therefore leaf forms that limit surface area and also evapotranspiration are not needed.

On the various other hand, nutrient are likely to it is in limiting in dry rainforests—the high rainfall leaches them indigenous the soil—so one evergreen habit confers one more advantage, allowing leaves to exploit nutrients because that a longer duration as well as take benefit of the sunshine year-round. The vessels the angiosperms usage to transport water may even aid their seedlings gain off to a faster start 보다 those the conifers.

The really harsh winter environments discovered at high altitudes and high latitudes are a third extreme, and one that has actually led come a dedicated adaptation: deciduous conifers. The larches, mentioned earlier, are the finest known example; a few other genera happen world-wide.

Larches count on needles rather than wide leaves and also they grow new needles yearly (although the needles of juvenile trees may survive the very first winter—perhaps protected by the woodland canopy above).

How carry out they do it? First, they grow in areas where there is tiny competition—other trees space not adapted to the harsh settings in which larches have developed themselves. And second, they depend on efficient kind and effective use of nutrients to catch light and also grow leaves and also structural components.

Come winter, the watch from my window will alter. The pines will stand out, cinnamon-orange bark and green needles emphasize by snow. The beauty, beauty of the deciduous trees will be starker, the riparian stand more easily penetrated by the eye. Those trees will certainly stand stiller and also less colorful. They"ll it is in waiting.


Forseth, I. N. "The Ecology of photosynthetic Pathways." Nature education Knowledge 1(11):4 (2010). Accessed march 9, 2012 at

Givnish, thomas J. On the economic climate of Plant type and Function: Proceedings the the sixth Maria Moors Cabot Symposium. Accessed march 5, 2012 at

Gower, Stith T., and James H. Richards. "Larches: Deciduous conifers in one evergreen world." Bioscience, v. 40, no. 11 (December, 1990).

"Larix laricina—Tamarack: Adaptations." Accessed in march 5, 2012 in ~

Lerner, B. Rosie. September, 2010. Evergreen Needles Don"t last Forever. Accessed march 6, 2012 at

Mathews, Daniel. 1999. Cascade-Olympic natural history: A trailside reference. Portland: raven Editions.

Myers, Vanessa Richins. "What room deciduous conifers?"

See more: Difference Between Kosher Dill And Dill Pickles, (With Pictures)

"The taiga or boreal forest." Accessed march 5, 2012 at