by Aug 2, 2019TREES


Part 5. The Order of the Conifers, also known as ‘Order of the Pinales’, of which are around 600+ species, are subdivided according to the taxonomy into about seven families. A number of them also occur in Europe such as: the Pine family (Pinaceae), the Cedar family (Cedrus), the Cypres family (Cupressaceae), the Spruce and Fir families (Picaceae), and the Taxus family (Taxaceae).

For most families it applies that the tree species that belong to it can grow to 40 to 50 meters, and sometimes even higher, under the right climatic conditions and after many centuries of growth.

Please note this article is a long read. It is an attempt to provide a general overview of the most common Conifer species, as well of the vast and fascinating world of Conifer trees! It also dives a bit more in depth into the naming and specification of the various species and some of the language differences therein. And as the author is still learning about this topic, the content can be further edited and updated in time.

It should also be mentioned that this information is largely derived from internet sources, which can be quite different in the taxonomic classification. Sometimes it is not logically arranged for a layperson, or the determination isn’t quite obvious.

For example, the afore mentioned families consist of different ‘genera’ taxonomically. In Dutch the word ‘genera’ is referred to as ‘geslacht’, which could either mean: 1) ‘descendants’ -the species that are supposedly generated from the primordial families, being the pedigrees from the prim(a)eval trees-, 2) ‘sexe’, and 3) ‘has been slaughtered’ (stemming though from ‘slag’ as the g and ch often sounds the same, meaning someones essence (aard). It is however spellend with ‘ch’.

Therefore, the English word ‘genera’ is in a certain sense closer to the meaning than the Dutch version, as it stems obviously from ‘generation’ or ‘being generated from’. That is why the word Genera is also used more consistently in the Dutch version of this article.

To give an example of some genera of the above mentioned families:
Fir and Spruce: Fir (Abies), Hemlock Fir: (Tsuga), Douglass Fir (Pseudotsuga), Larch (Larix), Pseudolarix (1 species: the Japanese golden larch Pseudolarix amabilis ) and the Yew family (Taxaceae).

A Conifer family can accommodate one genus or more genera. And a genus can again contain one or more species. And a species can also consist of different varieties, including many Cultivars (genetically modified variants). Well do you still see the wood for the trees? Also, is quite easy to mix Conifer species up, as they are named differently in other languages as well, which is very confusing.

Pina and Pica
To test this against an example, the differentiation between the words ‘Pina’ and ‘Pica’ hasn’t been entirely clear. Both of the family names ‘Pinaceae’ and ‘Picaceae’, stem from the classical Latin word ‘pinna’, being a ‘pointed formation’.

In late Latin, we have the ‘pinnaculum’, diminutive of ‘pinna’, meaning ‘pin’ and ‘point’, and ‘top’ or ‘peak’ as of a mountain, or as a small turret or spire, and ‘peak’ as the accumulation of something (e.g. peak performance). Hence the two family names of the Conifers most likely refer to the pinnacle top of the green crowns of the trees, and probably also to the shapes of their cones!

Peak and ‘piek’
Also in Dutch language, the afore mentioned words have the same meaning. ‘Peak’ is spelled ‘piek’ in Dutch language. The spelling is different but it’s a diphtong, as the words sounds the same. In both languages it is also the ornamental Christmas decoration, the tree-topper that is placed on top of the Christmas tree. And interestingy enough, the Christmas tree is usually a Fir from the Picaceae family. Coïncidence or what? The Dutch word ‘piek’ also has the double meaning of pinnacle, as being the highest point of accumulation, or as a physical marker, e.g. the mountain-peak or tower-peak.

Most likely the Order of the Coniferales is the all encompassing umbrella for all Conifer families (subdivided into around 600 species), for all Cone bearers so to speak, whereas the Order of the Pinales could be more specific for all Conifers with a pinnacle shape.

As I will point out later on in this article, for a layman this logic might probably be more easy to follow, all the more because trees and plants are popularly sometimes referred to differently, than they are indicated in botany or science. There are also sometimes different views among experts about the classification and appointment, also when cultivars come at play.

The ‘nomenclature’ applies to science, in which the names are clearly displayed in a systematic way. For example, the name of a species always starts with the name of the genus (or the family name), which by default starts with a capital letter. The second part of the name then indicates the specific type. That is the ‘epithet’, a word that comes from the Greek and means ‘placed there’. That is then written in lower case according to the rules.

However, we might wonder if it is better to write this second name with a capital letter as well, as it often concerns the specific designation of the original species, and is an independent unit. Sometimes the second name indicates where the species comes from, as we often see in the earlier Latin names, for example ‘Pinus Siberica’. This Pine originates from Siberia obviously.

Many Cultivars usually have a third name. For example, a tree can be grown by color, for example the Scots Pine ‘Pinus Sylvestris Glauca’. The Glauca then stands for the blue-gray color. And perhaps this tree is called ‘Grove Den’ in Dutch because it has not improved in beauty as a cultivar. Here’s why: These trees sometimes reach a height of only 15 meters, get a peeling bark at adulthood, revealing orange-colored wood, and remain infertile.

It might not be wise planting these trees on homesteads and everlasting forests, as nature cannot then generate in the long term. The cones of cultivars may grow smaller in size, be weakened and release fewer pollen. It therefore leads also to a weakening of the habitat for people and animals.

With regard to the nomenclature terminology however, the intention in this series of articles is to simply present information and an opinion. This article therefore preferably only concerns tree species that occur naturally, which is not always so easy for lay people and even specialists to trace, since in many countries primeval forests have virtually disappeared.

That’s why we prefer to provide the most logical suitable name for the species. This is usually a Latin or Greek name that is included in taxonomic science, which is usually based on characteristics of the family, genus and species. This historical name is often more accurate than contemporary invented names. Just think of strange Dutch-language corruption such as: ‘weeping willow’, ‘monkey bread tree’, ‘snake tree’ or ‘tree of life’. These are usually appointments from Cultivars, that may or may not be based on a so-called historical event or a so-called popular invention.

However, it may also be due to a poor translation. For example, in Dutch language, a pine tree, is originally named ‘den’ (pine) or ‘denne-boom’. (pine-tree). But nowadays, for the last two decennia or so, it is also sometimes called a ‘pijn-boom’ on the internet, which actually means ‘pain-tree’ and in the Dutch supermarkets the pine seeds are sold as ‘pain-tree kernels’.

Therefore people usually do not interpret the word ‘pain’ as such, as they think the seeds are derived from some sort of exotic tree from Africa or the Brazillian rainforest, as they are not familiair with this modern naming of the den. Apparently in these cases, the name of both the ‘pain-tree’ and the ‘pain-tree kernels’ have been creatively derived from the English word ‘pine’. Because, ‘pine’ sounds virtually the same as the Dutch word for ‘pain’, which is written as ‘pijn’. The ‘ij’ and ‘i’ here are a so-called ‘diphthong’, which represent a ‘two-tone’. This means that different letters, in particular the vowels, can have the same sound in a different mutual relationship.

The words ‘paintree’, and ‘paintree-kernels’ as ‘pijnboom’ and ‘pijnboom pitten’, are therefore incorrectly derived from the English language, as they are wrongly spelled and named. This is a bit strange since the tree used to be traditionally popularily known and spoken about as the ‘den’ or ‘denne-tree’. Hence the seeds of the pine, should have been called in Dutch: ‘denne-seeds’, and for the edible varieties they could also be called ‘denne-nuts’, just like we would call ‘beech nuts’, that are even smaller in size.

Kernels or Seeds?
It is also a question of where the addition ‘kernels’ comes from in the designation ‘paintree-kernels’ (pijnboom-pitten). Because the characteristic of the Dutch word for ‘kernel’ is ‘pit’, and the plural of it is ‘pitten’, which are the single seeds in drupes or stone fruits, such as an apricot kernel, a prune-kernel, an avocado kernel or, as a smaller variant, the cherry kernel, so one well in a fruit.

The translation in English for the plural word ‘pitten’ however is ‘pips’, which are small fruit seeds, such as in an orange or apple. We would call these ‘zaden’ which means ‘seeds’, or ‘zaadjes’ which means ‘small seeds’. However, there are dozens of small seeds in a ripened pine cone, around 80 of them, and not a numer of large ‘pits’ or ‘kernels’. Not sure if the average native English speaker can follow me here, but hold on, it gets more complicated even!

In Dutch language, a ‘pine-cone’ is often named ‘denne-kegel’ which is the proper naming as it refers to it’s conical shape. But it is also often called ‘denneappel’ which means ‘pine-apple’! And I remember being puzzled by this word as a kid, as a pine-cone is a soft wooden non edible structure to hold the seeds. And I used to think, how come, a pinecone isn’t an apple, and not even a fruit?

And then when translating, we come across the English ‘pineapple’, which is a fruit indeed! And prior to the internet, I didn’t know myself that this is a fruit that grows on top of a plant, and not on the branches of a tree. And this specific fruit we call in Dutch ‘Annanas’. And the pineapple is also named ‘Annanas’ in many langages, or derived from it.

Now indeed, the leaves of the fruit have a pinnacle shape, both the leaves and the fruit have a bit of a geometrical structure as well, and also have a rough texture. But that’s about it. The leaves are green, the fruit is tropically sweet, it is large and oval in size, hence it doesn’t resemble an ‘apple’ at all. And where the ‘apple’ comes from, being a soft wooden seedholder for the pinetree? That isn’t quite clear as well. Makes one wonder huh!

The Cedar family (Cedrus)
Of the Cedrus species are around 4 genera, all of which consist of a single species: The Atlas Cedar (Cedrus Atlantica), Cyprus Cedar (Cedrus Brevifolia), Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus Deodara), and the Lebanon Cedar (Cedrus Libani).

The trees usually grow higher in mountainous areas in the Himalayas, western Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, America, Japan and Australia. In the Netherlands, Cedar trees even grow well on the west coast, or the part which is from ancient history described as ‘the low lands’ (Nether = low), and even below sea level, so it can be. The trees can reach a height of 50 meters under ideal conditions!

In America many Cypress species are called ‘Cedars’, such as the Coniferous shrub ‘Mountain Cedar’ (Juniperus ashei) with small leaves, and ‘Yellow Cedar’ (‘Cupressus nootkatensis’, also named Alaskan Yellow Cedar or Sitka Cypress) with wide fanning leaves, while -also in America- these belong taxonomically to the Cypres family.

Other Cypress trees are also commonly called: Western Red Cedar, Pacific Red Cedar, Giant Arborvitae or Western Arborvitae, Giant Cedar, or Shinglewood.

In Russia, the Siberian Pine (Pinus Siberica), has also been called Cedar, due to the word ‘Kedre’, which was initially translated into English and Dutch as ‘Cedar’, as it resembles the word. But is has not yet been recognized as a Cypress variety, nor is it being recognized as a Cedar in the Netherlands. And that is correct, as according to the Latin classification, the tree belongs to the Order of the Pinales and more specific, belongs to the Pinaceae family, because it’s a Pine. But… there’s more to say about this (which will follow later on below).

Ancient forests
There is the estimated three thousand years old giant Thuja Picata, a Cypress of the Cupressaceae family, which were once the most widespread trees in the Pacific Northwest. A few of those remaining giants can still be admired in Northern Western America and Canada, which are probably the last remnants of prehistorical woods.

At breast height, these trees are around 18′ feet in diameter (which is around 5.4 metres), and 177′ feet tall (almost 54 metres). Skyscrapers they are! But… as they belong to the Cupressaceae family, well they then should have been called Western Red Cypress then? Or was Cedar their original name?

The naming is therefore not really logical, but it is important to know. Maybe some tree types need to be classified or named more specifically? Many people already know about the differentiation, but for a laymen it is important to get a bit of an idea of the complexity of information out there. Once one knows where to look at, it becomes more simple to make informed decisions. As I gained new insights, I’ll further elaborate on this below. But it takes some semi-etymologic reasoning to get to my conclusion. So please bear with me!

Cedar versus Kedre
As stated earlier, the different naming is also similar in Russian, the Siberian Pine is called ‘Kedre’, and in Albanian (and Arabic?) ‘Kedri’. This is considered in translations for ‘Cedar’, while it is a Pine. So I looked it up.

In ancient Greek, Cedar is ‘Ké’dros’, which stands for resinous trees with fragrant wood, and perhaps the name is derived from it in several languages. The Greek ‘Kedrostos’ or ‘Kédrou’ means ‘made from Cedar wood’, such as a ‘cedar table’.

Perhaps the Dutch word for ‘Cone’, which is ‘Kegel’ also stems from the Greek ‘Ké’dros’. In both cases the first two letters ‘Ké’ sounds the same. Hence the Dutch word ‘Kegel’ might also refer to all Conifers  as they are cone-bearing, but the trees theirselves also have a tapered canopy in a conical shape, which is characteristic of Conifers, and we do not see with other tree species. So there’s some sort of logic to it.

‘Cone’ in Greek is ‘Kónos’ (κώνος) and ‘Conc’ in Latin. So also with this word we see the C and K interchanged, we see Ke and Co, just as with Ke of Kedre and Ce of Ceder or Cedar. They all could be related somehow, especially since all Conifer species are considered to belong to the Order of the Pines (not just the Pines family), while the species can vary considerably.

Timber trade
In the timber trade, Cedar Wood was used as a name for various types of coniferous wood. And the same is also true with the Dutch word for Pine: ‘Den’. In the ‘Koenen manual dictionary of the Dutch language’ from 1974 (first edition 1897), Pine is described as: ‘Den’:

The English meaning for ‘Den’ is being either the home of a large fierce wild animal such as a lion, or a centre of secret esp illegal activity, or a comfortable quiet room in a house where a person can be alone, in Dutch however it has the sole meaning of ‘Pine’:

Den: ‘Name of different species of ‘needle trees’ (Lat. Pi’nus): followed by the saying: “as slender as a pine”, meaning very slender.’

In English there are more expressions surrounding pine, such as:
‘to pine away’, with the meaning to become thin, less active, and lose strength and health slowly, through disease or esp. grief, or: ‘to have a strong desire, esp. that is impossible to fulfil.’

A little further on the same page is: ‘Den’dro’ which is derived from the Greek ‘Den’dron’, which means ‘tree’.

And ‘dendrography’ is: ‘tree description science, part of the botany that deals with the study of trees and shrubs.’
(Also think of ‘Rhodondendron’, a shrub with large flowers, the ancient Greek ‘Rhodon’ = Rose, so the word in its entirety means ‘Rose tree’.)

Giants of yesteryear
‘Ceder’ in the Dutch dictionary contains the following: ‘Ceder m -s, -en, (Gr. Ke’dros) large pine tree, among others on the Lebanon: (b. Ps. 29, 5) The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; yea the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon; bn. made of cedar wood.’

‘The voice of the Lord’ may have to do with the construction of large temples and buildings in times gone by, and ‘Ceder’ can either mean the tree or its wood. So yes, that’s about the glorious Cedar giants of yesteryear.

Lebanon Cedar
Since above Lebanon is mentioned, the Lebanon Cedar has small leaves of around 1½ to 2 cm, which is gathered star-wise on the branches and twigs. There are a few century old remnants in Lebanon of these trees. The tree is also the national symbol and shows in the flag of Lebanon. Sadly, there aren’t much of these trees left, let alone forests.

Ceder and Cedar
Further the Dutch dictionary states:
‘Cede-ren’, h eed (Lat. Cede) 1) cede, transfer; 2) yield.’
‘Ce’derhout’ o wood of the cedar; in the timber trade as coll. for various types of ‘naaldhout soorten’ = literally translated: ‘needle-wood species’, Cedar-oil: oil of some cedars, used for perfumery and embalming.

And the English dictionary states:
LONGMAN Contemporary English: ‘Cedar – a tall evergreen tree, also cedar wood, the hard reddish sweet smelling wood of this tree used for making pencils, decorative boxes, furniture, etc.’

What I find interesting is the different color descriptions of the wood, for Pine it is obviously white and soft and for Cedar hardwood and red. But this is for those two specific languages the dictionaries are derived of. (NL and UK).

From all of the above info, I have distuingished the Pine and Cedar also historically stemming from different families, despite their overlapping and resembling names in different languages. But when classified in their order, they are indeed both from the Order of the Pinales, which then justifies their different names in several languages!

So when terminology is being used such as Alaskan ‘Yellow Cedar’, the ‘Ringing Cedars’ of Russia, the German ‘Tannenbaum’ or the Dutch ‘Denneboom’, their names could refer very well to the ORDER of the trees in which they are categorized, which is the Order of the Pinales, but the families they belong to are named differently in many languages worldwide.

The Cypress family (Cupressaceae)
A number of trees from this group of Cypress Conifers, such as the Thuja species, have been cultivated as ‘garden conifers’ because they have a fanning leaf with a soft texture, and are evergreen, and therefore look good in garden hedges all seasons. This is how most people know them.

They have been described as ‘THE Conifer’ by professional growers, which makes many people think also that it is the Conifer par excellence. According to growers they can be classified in two major groups: the Thuja Plicata and the Thuja Occidentalis. (Thuja Plicata: redbrown trunk dark green leaves, Thuja Occidentalis: brown trunk, with a slightly ligher green leaf and mat color).

Wikipedia states however there are five species in the genus Thuja, two native to North America and three native to eastern Asia. The genus is monophyletic and sister to Thujopsis. Members are commonly known as arborvitaes, thujas or cedars. The original (primeval) varieties of Thuja grow very tall and are not suitable for small gardens or low hedges. Below a few wellknown species.

Thuja Occidentalis (binomial named by Carl Linnaeus 1753), (also named ‘Northern White Cedar’, ‘Eastern Arbovitae’, ‘Platycladus Orientali’ – (north east of USA and south east of Canada, wet forests, coniferous swamps), red brown bark with longitudial strips, originally 125 ft tall (38 m), as a cultivar widely cultivated, over 300 cultivars, and then only 49 ft tall (15 m high), 3.0 ft diameter (0.9 m).

Thuja Plicata (‘Western Red Cedar’, ‘Pacific Red Cedar’, ‘Giant Arbovitae’, ‘Western Arbovitae’, ‘Giant Cedar’, ‘Shinglewood’, ‘Giant Tree of Life’ – 80 meters high). Of these are still a few remnants in ancient forests, estimated to be 2000 to 3000 years old.

Italian Cypress (‘Cupressus Sempervirens’), the California Cypress (‘Cupressus Chamaecyparis Lawsoniana’, allegedly also naturally occurring in Oregon), and the Japanese Hiba Cypres (‘Thujopsis Dolobrata’, ‘Hiba Arborvitae’). All these trees have a wide sheet type of Conifer Leaves.

Juniperus Communis (Common Juniper) is an exception in this Cypres family, and may therefore not be classified very taxo-logically. It has sharply pointed small-leaves that grow around the branches. It is a tree or shrub of 10 meters high and is two-sided. It is a wind bloomer that shows small white catkins every year, which produce small black to dark blue / purple berries with a conical structure (strobili). The thrush (bird) eats the bluish purple berries and spreads the seeds.

Man uses the berry as a spice in small quantities, because it has a bitter taste. Furthermore, the berry is used for the production of alcoholic beverages and for medicinal applications. The Common Juniper has a large distribution area worldwide: from the polar circle to the subtropical regions, as well as Asia, Canada, America and Europe. I’m wondering if this tree could be better classified as a Conifer Bush type with strobili cones.

The Pine family (Pinaceae)
There are about 111 species of the Pine family worldwide. All Pine species have medium to long small leaves of about 3 to 8 inches, which are grouped in bundles in groups on twigs or short shoots, in clusters of 2, 3 or 5 long small-leaves.

Well-known pine trees are: Pinus Cembra (‘The Alpine Pine’), Pinus Sibirica (‘Siberian Pine’), Pinus Sylvestris (‘Common Pine’) in England and Scotland and (‘Grove Den’ = ‘Rough Pine’) in the Netherlands, (‘Scotch Pine’) in America.

Naturally occurring pines in eastern North America are the Pinus Strobus (‘Eastern White Pine’), which has long small-leaves (17 cm) in bundles. Each bundle contains clusters consisting of 5 narrow leaves.

Pinus Resinosa (‘Red Pine’), has long-leaves 17 cm, Pinus Banksiana (‘Jack Pine’), has short-leaves in bundles of 2, forming a V. The female cones lie along the branch and point outwards, seen from the trunk.

Pinus Sylvestris (‘Scotch Pine’), has medium-sized leaves (7 cm). These are in bundles of two, which rotate slightly around each other at the end. The bark of the trunk at the top of the tree often comes loose, including – as mentioned earlier – an orange color of the wood layer under the bark. The cones on the branches of this tree are pointed towards the trunk. This is illogical in the context of wind pollination. Perhaps it is therefore a cultivar that was planted on a large scale a few decades ago because of the possible rapid growth, specially cultivated for wood production.

The Spruce or Fir family (Picaceae)
Spruce and Fir are often mixed up with the naming of their species. (Results below most likely from my search results as well. But, it’s a start 🙂

The Spruce family includes around 5 genera and around 35 species. From it are obtained tar, turpentine and rosin. Well-known are:

Picea Abies (Norway spruce), which we know as Christmas tree, the Picea Pungens (Blue spruce), Picea Omorika (Serbian spruce), Picea Orientalis (Caucasian spruce), Picea Sitchensis (Sitka spruce), and the Picea Obovata (Siberian Fir).

The Fir has short-leaves of 1 cm to 2½ cm, which grows evenly and loosely spread on the branches or twigs. The narrow blade can be both hard and soft, the diameter flattened or round, the end sharply pointed or sloping around.

Pseudotsuga Menziesii (‘Douglas Fir’ and ‘-Glauca’, ‘Coast Douglas Fir’ and the ‘Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir’ in America), is often planted in Dutch forests as well.

Tsuga (Hemlock Fir), genera with 9 species, North America and Asia, and is also planted for lumber in Europe, New Zealand and South America. Spruce can reach a height of 30 to 50 meters, the height varies per species. Hemlocks have hanging branches, with flexible flat-shaped small-leaves with white stripes at the bottom, and a round end.

The Larch Family (Larix)
Larix Decidua (‘The European Larix or Lork’), Larix Kaempferi (‘Japanese Larix’), both lose their small-leaves in the fall and winter, which are star-shaped and grouped on the branches. The Larch is a tree of high mountains and of the northern regions of Europe, but large Larch forests also occur in Canada, Siberia, the Himalayas, South-West China and Japan. The tree adapts less well in the Netherlands, although a Larix forest has been planted in the northern area Drenthe.

The Taxus Family (Taxaceae)
Taccus Baccata is the only species in this family (‘Yew Family’ in English) Yew Baccata is two-pronged, and is also growing in the Netherlands. Overhere, they are small tree shrubs that grow with several trunks and reach a height of around 4 meters.

Characteristic is the dark green small-leaf which is flat, and the red conical berries. The seed in the berries is toxic to humans, so do not consume these berries. It is said that the birds do eat it and tolerate it well (they would not digest the seed which, therefore, leaves the body through the faeces undamaged).

There are about 5 almost identical genera, with almost only a geographical difference, of which about 10 species. The species is also cultivated. Taxus Brevifolia (North America) and Taxus Wallichiana (China and Japan) and Taxus Globosa (Mexico) are threatened with extinction (according to certain internet sources).

The Exotic Families
The exotic Conifer families do not naturally occur in Europe. These are to some internetsources: the Araucariaceae (41 old species in three genera: ‘Agathis’, ‘Araucaria’, ‘Wollemia’), Podocarpaceae (200 species, about 15 genera, leaf leaves), Sciadopityaceae (1 genus, 1 species: ‘Japanese umbrella pine’) and Cephalotaxaceae (‘Knoptaxus’, small trees and shrubs).

© 2019 | Margreet Wilschut


Click on the link for the next or previous part:
Next part: