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Meet the World’s Most Threatened Christmas Trees

Some conifers’ survival is endangered by disease, deforestation and competition

Coast Redwood trees are one of the more than 200 species threatened by extinction around the world. (J. A. Kraulis/Masterfile/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Humans are pretty close with conifers. Each year, millions of people around the world invite those trees into their homes for the Christmas season. But as familiar as conifers are, the fact that many of them around the world are endangered might come as a surprise.

The Global Trees Campaign, a non-profit partnership between Botanic Gardens Conservation International and Fauna and Flora International, is drawing attention to the diversity of conifer trees as well as the threats they face. There are more than 200 species of conifers around the world that are facing extinction, Emily Beech writes for the organization’s blog. The trees face trouble primarily thanks to deforestation, pests and habitat loss - not the Christmas tree trade, as some might assume. 

Here are some highlights from Global Trees' #12TreesXmas roundup, which brings attention to threatened conifer species and efforts to conserve them:

  • The Fraser Fir is a popular Christmas tree, and often the species chosen for the White House tree. Outside of tree farms and holiday-decorated homes, the Fraser grows on “the highest slopes and summits of the Appalachian Mountains,” Global Trees writes. But wild populations are now endangered, largely thanks to a pest called the balsam wooly Adelgid.
  • The Saharan Cypress can live for more than two centuries. They grow in Algeria and Morocco and represent the last remnants of an ancient Saharan forest, which occupied that region when the climate was more like the Mediterranean. But it could soon go the way of the other trees that once thrived there; now it is endangered, too.
  • The critically endangered Paraná Pine provides food in the form of seeds called pinhões’ for many people in South America, but deforestation has made it one of the most threatened trees in Brazil
  • The Yuanbaoshan Fir, also critically endangered, grows only on the top of one mountain in southern China. Its rarity makes it especially vulnerable but little is known about the specific threats the tree species faces. 
  • A close relative of the Yuanbaoshan, the Ziyuan Fir, may only number 600 trees in the wild. It grows over a dense undergrowth of bamboo in three areas in China. Scientists are trying to hand pollinate the remaining wild trees because so few mature individuals exist that reproduction is tricky. The male trees often release their pollen before the female trees are ready, so this effort might be the only way for new individuals to get a roothold.
  • The Coast Redwood can stretch more than 377 feet above the forest floor. These titans line the Pacific coast of North America, but more than 96 percent have been cut down.
  • The Stinking Ceder earns its name with “pungent” cones and leaves. It once grew in ravines along the Apalochicola river in Florida’s panhandle, but all individuals capable of reproduction have died since the 1950s, perhaps because of an infection called stem canker disease. Now just 0.3 percent of the original population remain, making it one of the rarest conifers in the world.
  • The most recently discovered conifer in the world, the Vietnamese Golden Cypress, is also endangered. Until this year, all individuals from this species grown “ex situ” have been clones, but in July the first trees were grown from seed. 

This handful of species only hints at the many stories and facts that make all conifer species unique - including the one that is perhaps bringing holiday cheer to your own home. 

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