by Ian Brand

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

THE rain is lashing against the study window and Almscliff Crag (normally seen eight miles away) is obscured by low cloud. It is not going to be a day for venturing out; instead I am going to have an indulgent day of botanical study in the warmth. Already on the desk, collected in anticipation of today’s poor weather, is an array of jam jars with sprigs of conifers. The ID books, magnifying glass and microscope lie ready.

Despite the large number of conifers growing in our gardens and woods, we only have three native UK species; Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris)(see photo), Juniper (Juniperus communis) and Yew (Taxus baccata).

Conifers are not flowering plants but belong to a group of seed producing plants called gymnosperms, along with cycads and Ginkgo. The term comes from the composite Greek words; “gymnos” - naked, and “sperma” - seed. Much like the Ancient Greek origin of gymnasium (now shortened to just gym), literally translated means naked exercise.

The term, gymnosperm is based on the unenclosed nature of their seeds (called ovules in their unfertilised state). The naked state of their seeds contrasts with the seeds and ovules of flowering plants (angiosperms), which are enclosed within an ovary, which will go on to form the fruit. Derived from the Greek “angeion” - case or casing.

Today the 400,000 species of flowering plants worldwide way out number the 1,000 species of gymnosperms. Although conifers did predominate when early dinosaurs walked the Earth during the Triassic and Jurassic periods, before flowering plants evolved. Whitby Jet famously worn by Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 is a fossil remnant of these ancient coniferous forests. Unlike most gemstones, Whitby Jet is organic and is naturally formed from fossilised wood similar to our present day Monkey Puzzle or Araucaria trees. Why not take a winter trip to Yorkshires own Jurassic coast? Where Whitby Jet can be found in seams of shale between Robin Hoods Bay and Staithes. Then walk along the beach and collect your own piece of botanical history.

Finally is it too late to wish you all a Happy New Year? Make sure in this 75th anniversary year of The Wharfedale Naturalists, to continue to enjoy the wonderful plant and wildlife of Wharfedale, where we are so lucky to live.