Conifers in the British Isles

This week I was inspired to write something about the Ethnobotanical uses of conifers!

Conifers are magnificent, awe-inspiring plants that have resisted 300 million years of whatever the planet has thrown at them!

Scots Pines at Church Preen, Shropshire

My earlier posts have all been about Flowering Plants or Angiosperms which evolved from ~125 million years ago.

The main difference with the conifers is that the seeds develop in ovaries and are surrounded by a protective fruit.

The conifers are also called Gymnosperms or Naked seeds bearers in plain English..

See here for a longer explanation between Gymnosperms and Angiosperms.


Conifers in the British Isles

The Larch

  • Larix x marschlinskii or Dunkeld Hybrid Larch
  • Larix decidua or European Larch
  • Larix kaempferi or Japanese Larch

Pinus sylvestris or Scotch Pine

Taxus baccata or Yew

Juniperus communis or Common Juniper

Thanks are due for the information found on various websites (mainly Wikipedia) and books for which I provide links. There is colour coding for easy reading. Blue and yellow for general interest, green for wildlife and other uses and pink where there are medicinal uses or warnings about use. All pictures are by Matt Summers otherwise mentioned.

Conifers in the British Isles:

There are many genera of conifers in the British Isles but most of those are introduced garden species which sometimes self seed and naturalize.

Stace lists 18 genera which are in 5 different families.

But, from the 18 genera, only 4 are truly native: the Hybrid Larch (Larix x marschlinskii) , Pinus sylvestris or Scots Pine, Taxus baccata or Yew and Juniperus communis or Common Juniper are truly native.

The Larch

Larix x marschlinskii ( L. decidua x L. kaempferi) or Dunkeld Hybrid Larch

A deciduous conifer, widely planted for timber in plantations and mixed woodland and occasionally for landscaping, amenity and as a specimen tree in parks and gardens. It is fertile and can back-cross with either parent, and regeneration from seed is frequent.

A short description of both its parent first:

A branch of L. decidua clothed with the typical small cones and golden needles in autumn!

Larix decidua or European Larch is probably the more widely planted larch in cultivation. It is thought to have been first cultivated in Britain in 1629. John Evelyn encouraged its wider planting and use. Three successive Dukes of Atholl planted it widely and the fourth Duke wrote “Observations on Larch” in 1807 encouraging further its cultivation, which he practiced on a large scale.

Larix kaempferi or Japanese Larch is the other non-native larch used for ornamental purposes in parks and gardens. It is also widely used as material for bonsai. The dwarf cultivars ‘Blue Dwarf’, growing to 1.5 m (4.9 ft) tall and broad, and ‘Nana’, growing to 1 m (3.3 ft) tall and broad, have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

The Dunkeld Hybrid Larch was first discovered at Dunkeld, E. Perth, in 1904 among progeny from seed collected from L. kaempferi growing in mixed stands and nowadays planted for forestry more than either parent, occasionally backcrossing and often originating anew.

Ornamental Uses:

A large, to 50 m. tall, specimen tree and unusual for a conifer in that it is deciduous and has attractive bunches of needle like leaves, which become a beautiful yellow in autumn.

The little cones are very attractive too and attached on the branches which often drop out of the trees making them useful for Christmas wreaths and decoration.

Forestry Uses:

A fast growing, wind-resistant tree, it can be used in shelterbelts. Wood – strong, heavy and durable.

Other Uses:

Resin is extracted by tapping the trunk, it has a wide range of uses including wood preservatives, medicinal etc. The bark is a source of tannin..

Medicinal Uses:

The Larch is a source of turpentine which is extracted by boring holes into the trunk. Preparations from Larch have been used externally for eczema and psorias, as inhalants for respiratory tract infections and also internally for cystitis.

Pinus sylvestris or Scots Pine

Scots pine is the only pine native to northern Europe, forming either pure forests or mixed with Norway sprucecommon junipersilver birchEuropean rowanEurasian aspen and other hardwood species.

In Britain it now occurs naturally only in Scotland. Historical and archaeological records indicate that it also occurred in Wales and England until about 300–400 years ago, becoming extinct there due to over-exploitation and grazing; it has been re-introduced in these countries.

The Scots pine formed much of the Caledonian Forest, which once covered much of the Scottish Highlands. Overcutting for timber demand, fire, overgrazing by sheep and deer, and even deliberate clearance to deter wolves have all been factors in the decline of this once great pine and birch forest.

Additionally, the Scots pine is the plant badge of Clan Gregor and has been proposed as the national tree of Scotland.

The orange-red bark is a key feature of Scots Pine

It is readily identified by its combination of fairly short, blue-green leaves and attractive orange-red bark high up in the tree.

Forestry Uses:

The wood is used for pulp and sawn timber product.

Other Uses:

  • The pine needles can be made into a beautiful basket as shown in the pictures below. According to my friend Sally who made this: ‘Pine needle baskets are quite tight when they’re made which means they’re perfect for scooping water/carrying flour/sugar without it falling through gaps!’ 
  • In Scandinavian countries, Scots pine was used for making tar in the preindustrial age.
  • The pine has also been used as a source of rosin and turpentine.
  • Scots pine fibres are used to make the textile known as vegetable flannel, which has a hemp-like appearance, but with a tighter, softer texture.
  • It has been widely used in the United States for the Christmas tree trade.

Ornamental Uses:

Several cultivars are grown for ornamental purposes in parks and large gardens, of which ‘Aurea’, ‘Beuvronensis’, ‘Frensham’, and ‘Gold Coin’ have gained the Royal Horticultural Society‘s Award of Garden Merit.


Medicinal Uses:

  • Various species of Pine are used as a source for Oil of Pine, essential oil.
  • An infusion of leaves is taken or inhaled or a drop of the oil of pine is inhaled as steam to relief coughs, catarrh, laryngeal and bronchial infections.
  • Also helpful with asthma.
  • Bark used in rheumatism.

See for an inspiring video all about the edible and medicinal uses of the pine here.

Inside one of the Ancient Yew hedges at Powys Castle

Taxus baccata or Yew

This evergreen conifer is mainly a plant of well-drained calcareous soils, but occurs locally over acidic rocks. It grows in mixed deciduous woods on limestone and also forms pure stands; ancient woods of T. baccata occur on the chalk in southern England and on limestone in south-western Ireland. It is also very widely planted in churchyards, parks and large gardens, from where it seeds freely. The cultivar ‘Fastigiata’ arose in Ireland in the 18th century and has been widely planted, particularly in churchyards.

This is probably the most iconic and important native conifer with many uses. It is not just native of the British Isles but most of Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia.

Taxus baccata can reach 400 to 600 years of age. Some specimens live longer but the age of yews is often overestimated. Ten yews in Britain are believed to predate the 10th century.

The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland, has the largest recorded trunk girth in Britain and experts estimate it to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old, although it may be a remnant of a post-Roman Christian site and around 1,500 years old. More about significant trees here.

The entire yew bush, except the aril (the red flesh of the berry covering the seed), is poisonous. It is toxic due to a group of chemicals called taxine alkaloids. Yew poisonings are relatively common in both domestic and wild animals who consume the plant accidentally, resulting in “countless fatalities in livestock”. Due to all parts of the yew and its volatile oils being poisonous and cardiotoxic, a mask should be worn if one comes in contact with sawdust from the wood.

Folklore and Religion:

The yew is traditionally and regularly found in churchyards in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Northern France (particularly Normandy).  Some yew trees were actually native to the sites before the churches were built. King Edward I of England ordered yew trees to be planted in churchyards to offer some protection to the buildings. Yews are poisonous so by planting them in the churchyards cattle that were not allowed to graze on hallowed ground were safe from eating yew. Yew branches touching the ground take root and sprout again; this became a symbol of death, rebirth and therefore immortality.

Wildlife Uses:

Yew hedges are incredibly dense, offering protection and nesting opportunities for many birds. The goldcrest and firecrest nest in broadleaf woodland with yew understoreys.

The seed is covered in a red, or rarely a yellow fleshy berry, called an aril. They are eaten by thrusheswaxwings and other birds, as well as small mammals, including squirrels and dormice. The hard seeds disperse undamaged in their droppings. The seeds themselves are poisonous and bitter, but are opened and eaten by some bird species including hawfinchesgreenfinches and great tits. The aril is not poisonous, it is gelatinous and very sweet tasting.

The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the satin beauty moth.

Ornamental Uses:

Clipped Yew at Arley House in Cheshire

Due to its dense, dark green, mature foliage, and its tolerance of even very severe pruning, it is used especially for formal hedges and topiary.

Medical Uses:

The yew tree is a highly toxic plant that has occasionally been used medicinally, mainly in the treatment of chest complaints.

Certain compounds found in the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) were discovered by Wall and Wani in 1967 to have efficacy as anti-cancer agents. The precursors of the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel (taxol) were later shown to be synthesized easily from extracts of the leaves of European yew which is a much more renewable source than the bark of the Pacific yew.

The leaves have been used internally in the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, hiccup, indigestion, rheumatism and epilepsy. Externally, the leaves have been used in a steam bath as a treatment for rheumatism. A homeopathic remedy is made from the young shoots and the berries. It is used in the treatment of many diseases including cystitis, eruptions, headaches, heart and kidney problems, rheumatism etc. Ingestion of 50-100g of needles can cause death.

Other Uses:

The wood from the yew is easy to work and highly esteemed by cabinet makers. It possesses a remarkable elasticity, making it ideal for products that require springiness, such as the traditional  longbow,

 The yew was historically a prized wood for lute construction. (stated by Robert Lundberg, in his 2002 book Historical Lute Construction

Fruit is very sweet and gelatinous, most people find it delicious though some find it sickly[Ken Fern from PFAF]

A decoction of the leaves is used as an insecticide.

It makes a good firewood. The wood is burnt as an incense.

Juniper foliage and ‘berries’, which are in fact the female cones (picture Wikipedia)

Juniperus communis or Common Juniper

A dioecious evergreen conifer of basic and acidic soils in a wide range of open habitats, including chalk and limestone grassland, limestone pavement, heather moorland, oceanic heaths, rocky slopes and in the understorey of upland birch and oak woods and Caledonian Pinewoods. Regeneration is inhibited by continuous grazing.

Juniper has been declining throughout the UK in range and abundance. 

The plain species is not often seen or planted in cultivation but has 3 known native subspecies:

a. Ssp. communis is a spreading shrub to erect tree and very local throughout the B.I. on both limestone and acid soils, but absent from most of SW, C & E England.

b. Ssp. hemisphaerica is a low compact shrub and confined to maritime low cliffs in W Cornwall.

c. Ssp. nana is a procumbent matted shrub on rocks and moorland mostly in upland areas.

There are also frequent intermediates between ssp. communis and the other 2 sspp.

Interesting fact:

This evergreen conifer has the largest geographical range of any woody plant, with a circumpolar distribution throughout the cool temperate Northern Hemisphere from the Arctic south in mountains to around 30°N latitude in North America, Europe and Asia. Relict populations can be found in the Atlas Mountains of Africa

Wildlife Uses:

Common juniper provides dense cover for nesting birds, such as the goldcrest and firecrest, and, in northern upland areas, the black grouse. It is the food plant for caterpillars of many species of moth, including the juniper carpet moth, juniper pug and chestnut-coloured carpet. A number of birds eat the fruit, including the fieldfare, song thrush, mistle thrush and ring ouzel.

Ornamental Use:

The following cultivars gained the Royal Horticultural Society‘s Award of Garden Merit in 1993:

  • Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’
  • Juniperus communis ‘Green Carpet (prostrate shrub)
  • Juniperus communis ‘Hibernica’ (Irish juniper)
  • Juniperus communis ‘Repanda’ (prostrate shrub)

Medicinal Uses:

This is a classic remedy for cystitis but care must be taken never to administer where there is co-existant kidney inflammation. Never taken in pregnancy.

The berries produce an oil which can be used to aid respiratory and digestive problems.

Other Uses:

The most famous use of juniper berries is in the flavouring of gin.

They have also recently become a popular ingredient in liqueurs and sauces and are used as a spice, particularly in European cuisine.

The aromatic wood has a warm, sandy, golden colour and is used for wood turning and carving as well as for burning to smoke food.

The essential oil is also used in aromatherapy and perfumery.

Leave a Reply