The entire Gymnosperm group differs from other herbs because the plants do not have flowers that produce seeds. Instead, they develop their seeds in cone. Some have berry–like fleshy fruit.
Plum yews – Cephalotaxus sp
These, like their close cousins, the yews, are generally small, shrubby trees, usually with separate male and female bushes, the female being more obvious when the tree develops the pendulous fleshy drupes. Often the green top side of the leaf has a silvery underside. There are both Chinese and Japanese varieties.
English yew – (Taxus baccata) or common yew has black and bright red fleshy fruit. Like all the 10 species of this genus, these are very poisonous, as are the leaves. Livestock eating the foliage can succumb so quickly they have been found dead with the leaves still in mouth as evidence! Yews have ancient Druid associations and perhaps the transition of society to Christian practices saw a religious retainment of yew trees being traditionally planted in churchyards, around the place of worship. The timber of yew is hard and was the preferred wood to make bows in pre–gun days.
Pacific yew – (Taxus brevifolia) looked to be encouragingly of use in treating ovarian, lung and breast cancers because of its concentration of taxol. However, the continuing supply has proven difficult to sustain as the bark of six trees is needed to manufacture enough taxol to treat a single patient. (A mature tree grows to 15m.)
Canadian yew – (Taxus canadensis) has traditional use of tea brewing of the bark and twigs for influenza treatment by the American natives.
Californian nutmeg – (Torreya californica) is not to be confused with the nutmeg. (Being Taxaxeae they are highly poisonous.)
Japanese nutmeg – (Torreya nucifera) or kaya is another tall tree. Most of these yews attain large sizes. There are exceptions and the types that are dwarf with horizontal growth habits have been traditionally used for centuries to make bonsai trees in Asia.
This group includes all the swamp cypress varieties. They are a diverse family ranging from extremely tall trees which are harvested for their timber to smaller specimen trees that are useful for garden ornamentation. One which is handy for swampy, wet gardens is the swamp cypress. This is a hardy type that does well in New Zealand and grows in clay–bound soils that allow little drainage. All conifers in this group have the traditional cone. Rather than huge and hard cones like the pines, these are small, rounded and are used for decorative purposes.
Tasmanian cedar (Athrotaxis cuppressoides)
Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica)
Chinese fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata)
Chinese swamp cypress (Glyptostrobus lineatus)
Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
Umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata)
Californian redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
California big tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
Taiwania (Taiwania cryptomerioides)
Pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens)
Common swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum)
Other Conifers & Related Trees
These remaining conifers mainly have southern hemisphere origins. They include trees that are well known but often not associated with their more traditional conifer relatives of the northern hemisphere.
Kauri – (Agathis australis) Much has been written about the mighty kauri and many of us probably have a chest of drawers, a sideboard or even a humble chopping board or rolling pin that is made of kauri. Initially this conifer was much in demand by Europeans for its straight main trunk that was ideal for shipping and mast making. A much revered tree, the kauri has multiple uses. While the great stands of forest giants are long gone there is hope in the future. Even though it is not indigenous to other parts of New Zealand, given a ‘helping hand’ this native tree readily grows in parts far south of its original habitat. While other parts of the world have indigenous names for rubber booting that is water impervious and ideal for outdoor work, thanks to the Dalmation population that left Europe and came to dig out of the ground the much prized resin of the kauri tree, most kiwis these days have a pair of gumboots.
Araucarias – Just over the way from us is a burgeoning retirement village and rest home. My mother–in–law spent her last few months there and much admired was the stand of hundred–year–old trees planted around the original homestead. They continue to form a pleasant park that the rest home folk enjoy strolling through. Several Araucarias are numbered among these forest giants. Including some trees that are more familiar in northern Australia than Manawatu are two l arge bunya–bunya trees (Araucaria bidwillii). That they have survived the winter cold here is amazing. These trees are very closely related to the Chilean ‘monkey puzzle’ tree (Araucaria araucana). Growing in excess of 20m, these attractive trees make large specimens when planted in parks and reserves. They are definitely not backyard trees. And another cousin is, of course, the familiar Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla).
Sago palm – (Cycas revoluta) is a slow– growing conifer that is often mistaken for belonging to the large palm family rather than the conifer group. These conifers are highly poisonous and are not grown for harvesting the pith which is the source of sago. This true sago palm is Metroxylon sagu.
Maidenhair tree – (Ginkgo biloba) is a well –known herbal tree. This remnant of the dinosaur age is one of the oldest known herbs that has survived thousands of years. Much revered in Asian medicinal practice, ginkgo is known to have healing qualities that ensure the body is balanced and wellness maintained. In New Zealand it is uncommon to source the female plants. Overseas there is much controversy with civic plantings causing problems as the female drupe is large, fleshy and rather smelly. Cars parked under avenues of female ginkgo can cause concern as the fruit splats onto car roofs and causes an environmental issue. Brain food is a known use of ginkgo as it enhances mental capacity, especially in older people.
This is the final article on herbal conifers. Next year the whole herbal plant kingdom comes under the microscope. I hope you have enjoyed reading these articles on herbs and their family groups. It has proven to be a personal refresher course and new, fascinating information has been discovered on the journey.
When giving a talk at a day–long herbal workshop several years ago, the convenor gave me last–minute instructions about microphones, etc, when it was coming up my turn to take ‘centre stage’. I remarked that she would be able to take me through the process at the appropriate moment. “Oh no,” was the reply. “I have business to do down town so I won’t be here to listen to your presentation. That’s OK though as I already know all there is to know about herbs….”
Needless to say, she fizzled out from her involvement in the local herb group shortly after as she moved onto a new challenge. I often wonder how long it took her to learn all about her next project.
A favourite saying, gleaned from a gardening magazine interview with a crusty old retired gardener – “You never stop learning, do you? The gardener who says he has finished his garden is a ruddy liar. There is always something new to do and discover.”