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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Link to Learning
Watch this BBC video describing the amazing strangeness of Welwitschia.