Diversity of Gymnosperms

Modern gymnosperms are classified into four phyla. Coniferophyta, Cycadophyta, and Ginkgophyta are similar in their pattern of seed development and also in their production of secondary cambium (cells that generate the vascular system of the trunk or stem and are partially specialized for water transportation). However, the three phyla are not closely related phylogenetically to each other. Gnetophyta are considered the closest group to angiosperms because they produce true xylem tissue, with vessels as well as the tracheids found in the rest of the gymnosperms. It is possible that vessel elements arose independently in the two groups

Conifers (Coniferophyta)

Conifers are the dominant phylum of gymnosperms, with the greatest variety of species (Figure). Typical conifers are tall trees that bear scale-like or needle-like leaves. Water evaporation from leaves is reduced by their narrow shape and a thick cuticle. Snow easily slides off needle-shaped leaves, keeping the snow load light, thus reducing broken branches. Such adaptations to cold and dry weather explain the predominance of conifers at high altitudes and in cold climates. Conifers include familiar evergreen trees such as pines, spruces, firs, cedars, sequoias, and yews. A few species are deciduous and lose their leaves in fall. The bald cypress, dawn redwood, European larch and the tamarack (Figurec) are examples of deciduous conifers. Many coniferous trees are harvested for paper pulp and timber. The wood of conifers is more primitive than the wood of angiosperms; it contains tracheids, but no vessel elements, and is therefore referred to as “soft wood.”

 Photo A shows a juniper tree with a gnarled trunk. Photo B shows a sequoia with a tall, broad trunk and branches starting high up the trunk. Photo C shows a forest of tamarack with yellow needles.. Photo D shows a tall spruce tree covered in pine cones. Photo B. Photo C Part D
Conifers. Conifers are the dominant form of vegetation in cold or arid environments and at high altitudes. Shown here are the (a) evergreen spruce Picea sp., (b) juniper Juniperus sp., (c) coastal redwood or sequoia Sequoia sempervirens, and (d) the tamarack Larix larcinia. Notice the deciduous yellow leaves of the tamarack. (credit a: modification of work by Rosendahl; credit b: modification of work by Alan Levine; credit c: modification of work by Wendy McCormic; credit d: modification of work by Micky Zlimen)


Cycads thrive in mild climates, and are often mistaken for palms because of the shape of their large, compound leaves. Cycads bear large strobili or cones (Figure), and may be pollinated by beetles rather than wind, which is unusual for a gymnosperm. Large cycads dominated the landscape during the age of dinosaurs in the Mesozoic, but only a hundred or so smaller species persisted to modern times. They face possible extinction, and several species are protected through international conventions. Because of their attractive shape, they are often used as ornamental plants in gardens in the tropics and subtropics.

Photo shows a cycad with leaves resembling those of a fern, with thin leaves branching from a thick stem. Two very large cones sit in the middle of the leaves, close to the ground.
Cycad. This cycad, Encephalartos ferox, has large cones and broad, fern-like leaves. (credit: Wendy Cutler)


The single surviving species of the ginkgophytes group is Ginkgo biloba (Figure). Its fan-shaped leaves—unique among seed plants because they feature a dichotomous venation pattern—turn yellow in autumn and fall from the tree. For centuries, G. biloba was cultivated by Chinese Buddhist monks in monasteries, which ensured its preservation. It is planted in public spaces because it is unusually resistant to pollution. Male and female organs are produced on separate plants. Typically, gardeners plant only male trees because the seeds produced by the female plant have an off-putting smell of rancid butter.

Illustration shows the green, fan-shaped leaves of Ginkgo biloba.
Ginkgo. This plate from the 1870 book Flora Japonica, Sectio Prima (Tafelband) depicts the leaves and fruit of Ginkgo biloba, as drawn by Philipp Franz von Siebold and Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini.


The phylogenetic position of the gnetophytes is not currently resolved. Their possession of vessel elements suggests they are the closest relative to modern angiosperms. However, molecular analysis places them closer to the conifers. The three living genera are quite dissimilar: Ephedra, Gnetum, and Welwitschia (Figure), which may indicate that the group is not monophyletic. Like angiosperms, they have broad leaves. Ephedra (Figurea) occurs in dry areas of the West Coast of the United States and Mexico. Ephedra’s small, scale-like leaves are the source of the compound ephedrine, which is used in medicine as a potent decongestant. Because ephedrine is similar to amphetamines, both in chemical structure and neurological effects, its use is restricted to prescription drugs. Gnetum species (Figureb) are found in some parts of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, and include trees, shrubs and vines. Welwitschia (Figurec) is found in the Namib desert, and is possibly the oddest member of the group. It produces only two leaves, which grow continuously throughout the life of the plant (some plants are hundreds of years old). Like the ginkgos, Welwitschia produces male and female gametes on separate plants.

 Photo A shows Mormon tea, a short, scrubby plant with yellow branches radiating out from a central bundle. Photo B shows a plant with large, teardrop-shaped green leaves. Photo C shows a plant with long, flat leaves radiating along the ground from a central part with pink buds.
(a) Ephedra viridis, known by the common name Mormon tea, grows on the West Coast of the United States and Mexico. (b) Gnetum gnemon grows in Malaysia. (c) The large Welwitschia mirabilis can be found in the Namibian desert. (credit a: modification of work by USDA; credit b: modification of work by Malcolm Manners; credit c: modification of work by Derek Keats)

Link to Learning

Watch this BBC video describing the amazing strangeness of Welwitschia.

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