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Concept in action

Watch this video to see the process of seed production in gymnosperms.

Diversity of gymnosperms

Modern gymnosperms are classified into four major divisions and comprise about 1,000 described species. Coniferophyta, Cycadophyta, and Ginkgophyta are similar in their production of secondary cambium (cells that generate the vascular system of the trunk or stem) and their pattern of seed development, but are not closely related phylogenetically to each other. Gnetophyta are considered the closest group to angiosperms because they produce true xylem tissue that contains both tracheids and vessel elements.


Conifers are the dominant phylum of gymnosperms, with the most variety of species. Most are tall trees that usually bear scale-like or needle-like leaves. The thin shape of the needles and their waxy cuticle limits water loss through transpiration. Snow slides easily off needle-shaped leaves, keeping the load light and decreasing breaking of branches. These 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 ( [link] ). A few species are deciduous and lose their leaves all at once in fall. The European larch and the tamarack 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 referred to as “soft wood.”

 Photo A shows a tall spruce tree covered in pine cones. Photo B shows a sequoia with a tall, broad trunk and branches starting high up the trunk. Photo C shows a juniper tree with a gnarled trunk. Part D shows a forest of tamarack with yellow needles.
Conifers are the dominant form of vegetation in cold or arid environments and at high altitudes. Shown here are the (a) evergreen spruce, (b) sequoia, (c) juniper, and (d) a deciduous gymnosperm: the tamarack Larix larcinia . Notice the yellow leaves of the tamarack. (credit b: modification of work by Alan Levine; credit c: modification of work by Wendy McCormac; credit d: modification of work by Micky Zlimen)


Cycads thrive in mild climates and are often mistaken for palms because of the shape of their large, compound leaves. They bear large cones, and unusually for gymnosperms, may be pollinated by beetles, rather than wind. They dominated the landscape during the age of dinosaurs in the Mesozoic era (251–65.5 million years ago). Only a hundred or so cycad 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 ( [link] ).

 Photo shows a cycad with leaves resembling those of a palm tree. The compound leaves radiate out from a central trunk. Two large orange cones are in the center.
This Encephalartos ferox cycad exhibits large cones. (credit: Wendy Cutler)


The single surviving species of ginkgophyte is the Ginkgo biloba ( [link] ). Its fan-shaped leaves, unique among seed plants because they feature a dichotomous venation pattern, turn yellow in autumn and fall from the plant. For centuries, Buddhist monks cultivated Ginkgo biloba, ensuring its preservation. It is planted in public spaces because it is unusually resistant to pollution. Male and female organs are found on separate plants. Usually, only male trees are planted by gardeners because the seeds produced by the female plant have an off-putting smell of rancid butter.

Illustration shows the green, fan-shaped leaves of Ginkgo biloba.
This plate from the 1870 book Flora Japonica, Sectio Prima (Tafelband) depicts the leaves and fruit of Gingko biloba , as drawn by Philipp Franz von Siebold and Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini.


Gnetophytes are the closest relatives to modern angiosperms, and include three dissimilar genera of plants. Like angiosperms, they have broad leaves. Gnetum species are mostly vines in tropical and subtropical zones. The single species of Welwitschia is an unusual, low-growing plant found in the deserts of Namibia and Angola. It may live for up to 2000 years. The genus Ephedra is represented in North America in dry areas of the southwestern United States and Mexico ( [link] ). 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. Like angiosperms, but unlike other gymnosperms, all gnetophytes possess vessel elements in their xylem.

Photo shows Mormon tea, a short, scrubby plant with yellow branches radiating out from a central bundle.
Ephedra viridis , known by the common name Mormon tea, grows in the western United States. (credit: US National Park Service, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)

Concept in action

Watch this BBC video describing the amazing strangeness of Welwitschia.

Section summary

Gymnosperms are heterosporous seed plants that produce naked seeds. They appeared in the Carboniferous period (359–299 million years ago) and were the dominant plant life during the Mesozoic era (251–65.5 million years ago). Modern-day gymnosperms belong to four divisions. The division Coniferophyta—the conifers—are the predominant woody plants at high altitudes and latitudes. Cycads resemble palm trees and grow in tropical climates. Gingko biloba is the only species of the division Gingkophyta. The last division, the Gnetophytes, is a diverse group of species that produce vessel elements in their wood.

Art connections

[link] At what stage does the diploid zygote form?

  1. When the female cone begins to bud from the tree
  2. When the sperm nucleus and the egg nucleus fuse
  3. When the seeds drop from the tree
  4. When the pollen tube begins to grow

[link] B. The diploid zygote forms after the pollen tube has finished forming so that the male generative nucleus (sperm) can fuse with the female egg.

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Source:  OpenStax, Concepts in biology (biology 1060 tri-c). OpenStax CNX. Jan 15, 2014 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11617/1.1
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