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Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden
Native Plant Sale

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The garden is located at the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley, CA


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Conifers: Predecessors of Flowering Plants

by Glenn Keator

Mixed conifer forest along the Lower Canyon Lake Trail in the Trinity Alps Wilderness    Miguel Vieira


The conifers, a group of cone-bearing, needle- and scale-leafed trees and shrubs, predate the flowering plants by millions of years. Yet they retain their importance today for timber, creating forests despite their small number of species, between 600 and 700 worldwide. Although that figure sounds impressive, compare it to the flowering plants, whose numbers have swollen to around 300,000 species, a success story unrivaled by any other plant group. Flowering plants are diverse in part because of their use of pollinators; the conifers without exception are wind pollinated, a far less efficient and more wasteful pollen delivery system.


Pollen cones on a pine    Jonathan Vail

How do conifers reproduce? Conifers were among the early seed plants. Evolution of reproduction by seed streamlined the process of renewal compared with propagation by spores, assuring fertilization at any time of the year.
Conifers produce two kinds of cones, not just one: obvious, long-lasting seed cones and tiny, ephemeral pollen cones. The pollen cones produce dozens of pollen sacs, each sac containing hundreds to thousands of microscopic pollen grains light enough to travel on the gentlest breeze. The pollen grains contain germplasm that ultimately produces the male sperm needed to fertilize the eggs inside the seed cones. Pollen is shed at different times of the year, usually early spring in the pines and their relatives and often in summer and fall for members of the cypress family, with redwoods doing it in the heart of winter. Pollen can be seen as clouds of yellow dust, often settling on rain puddles or earth when they miss their target.



Conifer seed cones are built around a central core, arraying papery or woody scales in a spiral or whorled spike, each scale bearing from one to several seeds on its inner upper surface. Although conifers belong to the larger group called gymnosperms, named for their naked seeds, the cone scales are in fact pressed tightly together during development except for a short window when they open to allow pollen grains to sift in (timing is everything!). Once the pollen grains are safely ensconced inside the seed cones, the ovules (future seeds) exude a droplet that draws in the pollen grains, which sprout tubes that probe into the area where the eggs sit, awaiting fertilization. The pollen tube contains sperm, released when the tube reaches an egg, and fertilization follows. Even though most conifers have more than one egg per ovule, only one fertilized egg grows fast enough to outcompete its neighbors and form a seed. The burgeoning embryo plant that results from this fertilized egg utilizes a surrounding mass of tissue for food, allowing the embryo a long gestation before it starts life on its own.

Seed cone of sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana)    Frank Kovalchek


Cone and nuts of single-leaf pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla)    CCBryant Olsen

All of this is going on inside the closed cones until, at maturity after one to two years, the cone scales peel apart, and the seeds are released by the cone falling or shattering and scattering seeds or by the wind carrying the winged seeds away. The seeds then await the right conditions to germinate, sometimes requiring months, sometimes missing the right conditions, and sometimes being consumed by hungry animals, especially large seeds like the pinyon pines and bunya-bunya (Araucaria bidwillii).


Starting from seed, it can take anywhere from a few years for the fastest growing species to thirty or more years for the slower ones to start a new round of pollen and seed cones. The pace of growth varies tremendously: Fast growers like Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) and coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)  grow tall within 20 to 30 years, while the growth rate of the bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) is sluggish and small saplings may already be a hundred or more years old.

Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens)    CCBrian Gratwicke




California and eastern Asia are the two centers of conifer diversity, the Northern Hemisphere in general holding vaster stands of conifer forests and woodlands than the Southern Hemisphere. California alone has roughly one twelfth of the world’s species due to its vast soil and habitat diversity coupled with mild Mediterranean climates. Many of our trees, like the giant sequoia and the coast redwood, are relicts from a time when they were far more widespread.

Conifers fall into roughly five or six families, some found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, others in the Northern Hemisphere. Only the cypress family, Cupressaceae, shares territory in both hemispheres but with different genera, differentiated as the northern and southern land masses separated millions of years ago while evolution was creating new groups.


Here is a summary of the major conifer families.


Pinaceae, the pine family, is the largest and is found only north of the equator, typified by mostly large trees with needles produced either in clusters on spur shoots or spirally arranged on twigs and branches. The woody to papery seed cones produce two seeds per scale.
Bundles of needles and seed cone of Sierra tamarack pine (Pinus contorta ssp. murrayana) Gerald and Buff Corsi ©California Academy of Sciences
Cupressaceae, the cypress family, is second in size and shares territory in both hemispheres. Its saplings typically have pairs or triplets of needles, which later become scale-like. The exceptions are the redwoods and their relatives (formerly in the separate family Taxodiaceae), which have spirally arranged needles.
Scalelike leaves of western red cedar (Thuja plicata), a member of the Cupressaceae    Axel Kristinsson
Taxaceae, the yew family, is very small, with most members in the Northern Hemisphere. Members of this family are characterized by spirally arranged needles and peculiar, single-seeded fleshy seed cones that look more like berries than cones (some botanists consider this group separate from the true conifers).
Seed cone of California nutmeg (Torreya californica), a species in the Taxaceae    CCZoya Akulova
Araucariaceae has around twenty species strictly in the Southern Hemisphere and mostly around the Pacific rim from South America to New Zealand, New Caledonia, and Australia. Its rather broad leaves are sometimes needle like, other times not, and the immense seed cones shatter when ripe, each scale bearing a single seed.
Candelabra tree (Araucaria angustifolia) with young seed cones    ©Glenn Keator

Podocarpaceae is another mostly Southern Hemisphere family (some species grow as far north as southern Japan and Central America). It has a variety of leaf patterns—some leaves lance shaped, others classical needles—and seed cones with one to a few seeds atop a fleshy receptacle or foot.


Fleshy seed cones of yew plum pine (Podocarpus macrophyllus), which is neither a yew nor a pine but a member of the Podocarpaceae    ©Glenn Keator


Here is a sampling of California’s remarkable conifer flora.


The world’s tallest tree, the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) at over 360 feet tall and living two thousand or more years, is a survivor from early, wetter climates when it grew across much of North America and Europe. Now confined to the coastal fog belt of central and northern California, coast redwood dominates forests along margins of waterways, sometimes also climbing hills in diminished form. Among its major attributes are pitch-free bark, self-pruning branches (no dead snags to catch fire), excellent quality wood, fast growth, and the beauty of the forest understory, a wonderland of ferns, perennial wildflowers, and ground covers. The redwood forest reaches maximum development in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Redwood National and State Parks, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, all north of Eureka.

Coast redwood forest understory at Humboldt Redwoods State Park    CCScrubhiker

Massive trunk of a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)    ©Glenn Keator


Closely related, the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) forms groves intermixed with other conifers from the central Sierra south, attaining gigantic girths and containing more board-feet of wood than any other tree in the world. Its beautiful cinnamon-colored spongy bark and massive size dwarf any of its companions, so remarkable that the first Europeans to see it were spellbound and were considered purveyors of myth. Fortunately, the brittle wood makes this tree problematic for logging.

The Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), a shrublike understory tree abundant in the Klamath Mountains and scattered in other northern areas, contains the remarkable compound Taxol, used to treat certain cancers. Before the trees were overharvested (and they grow very slowly), chemists found a way to produce Taxol from extracts of more-abundant nonnative yews so stripping away bark to obtain Taxol ceased to be a threat to California yews’ survival.

Shrublike Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), the original source of Taxol    ©Glenn Keator



Fleshy seed cone of Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)    CCKeir Morse

Several so-called cedars grace the mountains and northern forests of California, though none are truly cedars (true cedars live in Africa, Europe, and western Asia). California cedars’ fragrant wood is rot resistant and widely used for commercial purposes, especially the western red cedar (Thuja plicata). Beautiful to behold, the Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) is restricted to a small part of northwestern California and southwestern Oregon and is threatened by a water mold. It is a favorite source of genetic variants used in the development of numerous cultivars, including variegated and dwarf forms, outshining any other conifer for diversity and importance, especially in dwarf conifer gardens.

Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)    ©Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary's College


Top of mandolin, made by Niel Peterson, is Port Orford cedar wood (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)    Ken and Margie Brown


Among our pines, we have the world’s tallest, the sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana), a stalwart of the middle-elevation conifer forests in most of our mountains and also a desired source of lumber for its strong white wood. (It belongs to the white pine group.) As well, sugar pine cones are the longest of all, sometimes measuring nearly two feet long.
Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana)    CCLaura Camp


For nutritious pine “nuts,” both the single-needle pinyon (Pinus monophylla), from the high desert mountains, and the gray pine (P. sabiniana), from our summer-hot inner foothills, provide nutrient-rich, flavorful seeds that should enjoy wider use. Why not replace the standard Italian stone pine nuts with our own native species?

Speaking of pines with large nutritious seeds, another species, Coulter pine (P. coulteri) stands out for large seeds and the world’s heaviest pine cones at close to four pounds each.

Huge seed cones of Coulter pine (Pinus coulteri)    CCRick Sidwell


California’s closed-cone pines—Monterey pine, Bishop pine, and knobcone pine—use a fascinating tactic for survival after fire. Since many of California’s original wildlands had periodic lightning-caused fires, these pines evolved to grow fast and produce hundreds of tightly closed seed cones that release their seed after a fire sweeps through. The downside of these pines is that their rapid growth and normally short life span predisposes them to weak wood and rapid aging. Nonetheless, the Monterey pine (P. radiata) is the world’s most widely planted pine because its fast growth produces timber in dry climates.

On the other end of the spectrum, bristlecone pine (P. longaeva) is reputed to be the world’s oldest tree at close to 5,000 years of age. Some contenders, including clones of quaking aspen, may live longer, but they spring from a common root system, the original parent trees having died out, while the bristlecone pine is a single tree. A trip to the White Mountains east of Bishop and the Sierra Nevada provides breathtaking views and groves of the oldest and largest bristlecone pines.

Wind-pruned bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), the world's longest-lived tree    ©Glenn Keator


The Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), not a true fir nor a hemlock (the genus name means false hemlock), is another gigantic tree of the northern coastal forests and northern Sierra. It is one of the most valuable of all the timber trees and reaches well over 200 feet high.


Finally, our cypresses (Hesperocyparis spp.) are more diverse in California than anywhere else in the world, with many restricted to unusual and nutrient-poor soils like sandstones and serpentine, where they eke out a living without much competition. Fire adapted like the closed-cone pines, they too grow quickly to maturity and bear tightly sealed cones. The most famous and arguably the most picturesque of these is the rare Monterey cypress, (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa), widely planted in coastal areas where strong winds and salt spray in the air don’t undermine it. In fact, the Monterey cypress and Monterey pine gave us fast-growing wind breaks to tame the windy sand dunes in San Francisco, allowing the establishment of Golden Gate Park.

Monterey cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa) at Point Lobos    ©Glenn Keator

Brewer's weeping spruce (Picea breweriana)    CC Keir Morse


With all this wonderful native conifer diversity, there are many areas to visit, but none surpasses the species-rich Russian Wilderness area west of Mt. Shasta and northeast of the Trinity Alps near the tiny town of Etna. There, a trail to Little Duck Lake takes the explorer through many zones, with 18 common and rare conifers along the way, including the seldom-seen subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), the mat juniper (Juniperus communis), the isolated Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), and the rare and beautiful Brewer’s weeping spruce (Picea breweriana).

With our rich conifer diversity, it may seem challenging to learn to differentiate the species, probably because attention is usually lavished on recognizing flowers. But not all pines and firs look alike! Like any other task involved in distinguishing seemingly similar items, learning conifers can be fun and challenging. A good start is planning trips to destinations of known species to experience them first hand. ♦



Glenn Keator and the Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden are offering two special opportunities to get to know conifers—to learn their identifying features and natural histories and visit them in botanic gardens and the wild—through workshops this coming winter and spring. Part 1 (four classes beginning on January 24) will introduce conifers from around the world. Part 2 (four classes beginning on April 23) will focus in on conifers of California. For more information and to register, visit the Friends classes page

Garden Volunteer and Docent Training

We’re offering Garden Volunteer Training and Docent Training at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden starting in mid-January. The first 10-week session, on either Tuesday or Thursday mornings, is designed for anyone who wants to volunteer at the garden in any capacity: propagating plants for the garden’s sales, assisting the gardeners, collecting seeds, helping the Friends, or leading tours as a docent. The second 10-week session, on Tuesday mornings in April through early June, is for prospective docents who have completed the first 10 weeks of Garden Volunteer Training and want to lead tours of the garden. In docent training you’ll learn about techniques for interpreting the garden for visitors of all ages and specifics of themed tours we offer at the garden.  Follow these links for more information and a registration form for Garden Volunteer Training or Docent Training.


Taxonomy Master Class with Dr. Glenn Keator

Learn to recognize and understand California’s vast and diverse flora; get in-depth experience with native plant families and build a framework for identification; and become a keen observer of flowers, shrubs, and trees. The Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden and Dr. Glenn Keator are offering a two-part Taxonomy Master Class in California Native Plant Families beginning January 31. For more information, visit the Taxonomy Master Class page. 


Jepson Herbarium 2016 Workshops

The Jepson Herbarium at UC Berkeley launched its first series of workshops in 1994, introducing participants to local flora and the skills needed to identify them. This year’s programs include workshops designed to accommodate both beginners and specialists and are open to anyone with an interest in California plant life. Participants in the workshops gain a unique perspective on the flora of California as they learn from experts and interact with fellow plant lovers and botanists. Workshops take place in a variety of formats including classroom lectures, lab activities, and extended field excursions.  For more information about this year’s Jepson Herbarium Workshops and to register, visit the 2016 workshops page.
Danielle Peña


No Longer Accepting Used Pots

The garden can no longer accept used one-gallon and other size plastic pots because of stricter sanitary rules necessary to prevent the spread of the serious plant pathogen Phytophthora. Most East Bay cities will now accept these containers for recycling.

Upcoming Classes
Click here for full descriptions of the classes as well as the class registration form.
January 17


Mushrooms! A First Dive into the Fungal Kingdom Space Available
January 31 thru mid-July Taxonomy Master Class in California Plant Families, Part 1 Space Available
January 24, February 6 & 20, March 5 Conifers of the World Space Available
April 23, May 7 & 21 & June 4 Conifers of California Space Available
February 7 Seed Propagation of California Natives Space Available
March 6 Year of the Lichen Space Available
March 19 Listening to the Birds Space Available
March 31, April 7 & April 14 Designing a Native Garden Space Available
March 26, April 9
& 30, May 14
Wildflower Hotspots



Space Available
March 28- April 2 Desert Wildflowers of Anza Borrego State Park Class is Full
April 3

Plant Portraits and Garden Images – Photo Workshop

Space Available
April 17 Bee-friendly Habitat Gardening in California Space Available