It’s not really all that surprising. Gymnosperm is kind of a funny word; makes me think of some smarmy guy who hangs out at fitness centres, trying to pick up women. Of course, it’s nothing of the sort. Like many scientific terms, it is of Greek origin and basically means ‘naked seed.’
In technical terms, Gymnosperms are a group of seed-bearing plants whose seeds are not contained within an ovary. The most commonly-known members of this group are the conifers. Here in the north woods, we have a lot of different gymnosperms: spruce (pictured here), pine, tamarack and firs.
So, what exactly do they mean by naked seeds?
In other vascular plants, like flowers, broad-leaved trees and pretty much everything else out there but mosses and ferns, developing seeds are protected inside a closed chamber called an ovary. Instead, gymnosperm seeds are formed on specialized leaves known as sporophylls, which ultimately become the scales of the cones we know so well. Although they are somewhat protected by cones, the scales usually hang open, leaving the seeds exposed, naked.
The rest of the seed-bearing plants out there do things a little differently. They fall into a group known as angiosperms. In these plants, the seed is kept safe and sound inside the aforementioned ovary, which, once fertilized, becomes the fruit of the plant. As we all know from experience, that fruit comes in all manner of shapes and sizes from the winged seeds of a maple tree to a giant watermelon.
So, what’s the difference? Why should having a naked seed matter?
Having your seeds exposed makes you more vulnerable to the effects of the elements. Seeds that are out in the open are much more likely to dry out or be damaged in some other way. By keeping their seeds inside a protective core, angiosperms can withstand a wider scope of environments, allowing them to exploit more niches. This is why angiosperms have diversified into the most successful group of plants in the world, with possibly over 260,000 species.
Still, gymnosperms have been very successful in many places. Look at the boreal forest. In its northern reaches especially, they are the dominant tree species. The tallest living plant and the oldest single living organism are both gymnosperms. It’s all about making the most of what you have and when you do that in the right environment, you can’t help but flourish.