Coniferous trees and shrubs play a key role in human society and provide wealth of both wood and non-wood products. They have been revered by many cultures and have become an integral part of human folklore, mythology and religion. Some conifers have served as political symbols, while others have been important in a variety of art forms.
Conifers are important sources of a wide range of non-wood products. They come from virtually every part of the tree, the foliage, bark, roots, resin, seeds and cones. The wood, foliage and resin of a number of conifers yield essential oils, which are important ingredients in perfumes, disinfectants, and cleaning products. Whole trees are important as landscape and ornamental materials, Christmas trees and speciality products such as bonsai or topiary. Conifer forests are the source of additional non-wood products. They include edible mushrooms, many of which are the fruiting bodies of ectomycorrhizal fungi associated with the roots of various conifers. They also include lichens which grow on stems and trunks of conifers and have been used as a traditional food, a dye source, livestock feed and for decoration and parasitic dwarf mistletoes which are locally important sources of livestock fodder. In at least one instance, a pine feeding caterpillar is a traditional food item.
Many non-wood products from conifers have been used for thousands of years. For example, tapping of pines and other conifers for resin has been practised at least since biblical times. The edible nuts of several pines and Araucarias have been important food sources in many parts of the world, probably since pre-historic times. The presence of pines, which produce edible nuts, provided a reasonably stable food source for an indigenous culture in south-western United States. This may have been a key factor permitting the development of an advanced culture, which ultimately evolved into an agricultural society with a complex social structure and many unique art forms. Traditional uses of bark and roots by indigenous forest dwelling societies living along the Pacific coastal regions of North America for food, medicine, construction, clothing and basketry is still another example of a long-term use of a non-wood product from conifers.
It is interesting to note the similarity of some traditional uses of non-wood conifer products in different parts of the world. The Fijians used resin from an indigenous conifer as an ingredient of a glue to build their ocean going canoes. The indigenous people of some North American cultures also used conifer resins to caulk their canoes. Similarly, the diuretic properties of the berries of Juniperus communis were known to Europeans, the people of the Indian sub-continent and the indigenous people of North America.
Some food items from conifers or conifer forests, which were once considered traditional staple foods of forest dwelling people, have become delicacies in today’s society. Pine nuts are now an ingredient in a number of "gourmet" dishes in the cuisines of Asia, southern Europe and south-western United States. The same is true of the nuts of Araucaria araucana in Chile, A. angustifolia in southern Brazil and Tórreya nucifera in Japan. Juniper berries flavour a number of traditional European dishes, especially those that include wild game and are also a key ingredient of the alcoholic spirit, gin. Edible mushrooms harvested from conifer forests have become an important item in international trade and the Japanese matsutake mushroom, which grows in forests of Pinus densiflora in Japan, is presently regarded as the world’s most expensive food.
Several non-wood products from conifers are of a more recent origin. A classic example is the recent discovery of the anti-cancer agent, taxol, in the bark of Taxus brevifolia. Other examples include the use of pine straw and bark chips as mulches and soil amendments. In addition, some long-term uses of a non-wood conifer product in one culture have recently become appreciated by other cultures. A case in point is the recent interest in the medicinal properties of extracts from the fruits and foliage of Ginkgo biloba in Germany and other European countries, something that has been used in Asia for thousands of years.
Some non-wood conifer products are presently major items in international trade. These include Christmas trees, evergreen boughs, essential oils, resins, certain species of pine nuts, edible mushrooms and decorative lichens. These products provide additional sources of income for people in many countries including a number of developing countries. On the other hand, the development of alternative sources of a non-wood conifer product by a developing country could reduce the need for that country to import that product. This has the advantage of reducing the need for foreign exchange required to import that commodity plus providing additional jobs. The development of a local cedarwood oil industry in India based on Cedrus deodara, which provides an acceptable substitute for imported cedarwood oils from China or the United States, is a good example of such an initiative.
While there has been an expansion in the development of some non-wood products of conifer forests, production levels of others have declined. In many cases, these declines have been regional in nature and are based on regional or local factors. For example, the decline in production of gum naval stores in countries such as France and the United States is directly related to the high labour costs associated with industrial economies which reduces the profitability of harvesting gum resins, a labour intensive process. Consequently, other alternatives such as the production of tall oil as a by-product of the Kraft pulping process or the extraction of resin from saturated pine stumps have become more economically viable resin sources.
Tapping of live trees for resin is still a viable alternative in developing countries, however, where labour costs are low. There are opportunities to further develop the resin tapping industry in places like Indonesia, China and several African countries that have a significant pine plantation resource. Decline of the tannin industry in eastern United States during the early part of this century was directly due to unsustainable harvesting Tsuga canadensis for bark, resulting in a shortage of raw material from which to produce tannin. This forced the industry to seek alternative sources of supply. In other cases, alternative products have been able to successfully compete with non-wood conifer products, for example, the use of excess pulp chips in place of bark residues for production of panels.
Enterprises based on non-wood products from conifers have provided many opportunities for employment for women. Collection of pine resin, sorting and grading of conifer boughs, harvesting of edible mushrooms, decorative cones and lichens, production of Christmas wreaths and related items, are examples. Women have also been directly involved in the use of non-wood conifer products for traditional uses, such as harvesting of bark for food, medicinal or artistic purposes, processing and storage of pine nuts and production of curious and artistic products (e.g. baskets and other items from conifer roots, bark or pine needles).
Non-wood products from conifers, which have enjoyed an increased demand in recent years, are evergreen boughs, certain medicinal products (e.g. Ginkgo biloba), decorative cones, edible mushrooms and lichens. Increased demand for these products has created new job opportunities in many areas. In the Pacific north-west region of the United States, employment opportunities created by increased demand for evergreen boughs, edible mushrooms and decorative cones has partially offset unemployment caused by a decline in the wood products industry due to the reduced availability of timber from public forest lands.
The increased demand for certain non-wood conifer products, such as evergreen boughs and edible mushrooms, is driven largely by a few, select industrialized countries such as Germany and Japan. As other countries develop economically and the quality of life of their people improves, there could be additional demands for these and other non-wood products from conifers. An example of this trend is the recent, sudden increase in demand for Christmas trees by the people of Mexico.
There is clear evidence that the harvesting of some non-wood forest products from conifers is compatible, perhaps even beneficial, to other forest management objectives. There are indications, for example, that harvesting of decorative lichens in the Nordic countries can increase success of pine regeneration and result in increased growth of pines on dry, exposed sites, thus making lichen gathering and wood fibre production compatible resource management objectives. The compatibility of harvesting evergreen boughs and Christmas trees from forests managed for wood production has been demonstrated both in Germany and the United States. The harvesting of pine straw in south-eastern United States can provide an income from pine plantations long before they are ready to harvest for pulpwood or timber. Harvesting of non-wood forest products from conifers also provides opportunities to utilize materials that were formerly considered to be waste products, which required disposal. The extraction of cedar wood oils from sawdust and other residues from the cedar wood products industry or from trees, which have been felled to create pasture for livestock grazing, are good examples. Another example is the initiatives of governments and the wood products industry to develop viable products to utilize huge volumes of waste bark, much of which was formerly disposed of by burning in tepee burners, often resulting in widespread air pollution.
Unfortunately, in other cases, unsustainable and damaging practices have been associated with the harvesting of certain non-wood forest products from conifers. In eastern United States, the harvesting of the bark of Tsuga canadensis for production of tannin is an outstanding example. This practice resulted in the virtual decimation of the old growth Tsuga canadensis forests that once covered extensive areas of this region. Another example of a non-sustainable harvesting practice is the intensive gathering of copal by the Tagbanua, a forest dwelling people on the island of Palawan in the Philippines. This activity is contributing to the gradual demise of the Agathis dammara forests on this island. There are indications too, that some lichen harvesting in Nordic countries may be too heavy to be sustainable. Furthermore, the harvesting of dwarf mistletoe branches for use as fodder, from infected Juniperus spp., in Pakistan and Turkey, has reportedly resulted in excessive cutting of host trees and the transport of this material could result in the spread of this parasite.
Harvesting of certain non-wood conifer products has also resulted in land use conflicts. A case in point being the conflict between commercial pickers of edible mushrooms and indigenous people harvesting in traditional sites in western North America. Illegal entry into pine plantations for harvesting of pine straw is another example of a conflict associated with the harvesting of a non-wood product from conifers.
Factors other than the harvesting of non-wood conifer products could affect their sustainability. There is evidence from Europe, for example, that a decline in production of fruiting bodies of ectomycorrhizal fungi, some of which are harvested as edible mushrooms, may be the result of soil acidification and nitrogen eutrophication. Not only could this affect future harvest of edible mushrooms, but because of their symbiotic relationship with conifers, could adversely affect overall forest health and productivity.
More recently, programs leading toward the expansion of existing non-wood conifer products or the development of new products have attempted to identify and address potential problems in the long-term sustainability of these products. The potential impact of increased demand for the bark of Taxus brevifolia, a small tree which occurs in limited quantities in the Pacific north-west region of the United States and British Columbia, Canada, for extraction of the anti-cancer ingredient taxol, was recognized early. This resulted in an immediate search for alternative sources of this material. The search for alternative sources of taxol has been successful to the point that there is now a reduced demand for yew bark and the pressure on a limited resource has been eased. Concern has been raised about the potential impact of increased harvesting of edible mushrooms from conifer forests on the sustainability of this increasingly important resource in several countries and research is already underway in the United States to look into this question. In addition, some concerns have been raised about the long- term effects of regular harvesting of pine straw on the soil nutrients in pine plantations and should be investigated.
There are many opportunities world-wide to develop or expand profitable,
sustainable and environmentally sound non-wood conifer products enterprises
in conjunction with economic development projects. Obviously, the development
of an enterprise which involves use of non-wood products from conifers
must be based on the availability of an existing conifer resource (natural
or planted) or the existence and availability of sites capable of supporting
conifer plantations. An appreciation of conifers and non-wood products
derived from conifers by local people is also an important factor to consider
when planning such enterprises. In addition to the potential economic benefits
to be derived from the harvesting of non-wood products from conifers, other
factors to consider are that the management and harvesting practices used
will ensure the sustainability of the non-wood resource and that its harvest
is compatible with other existing or planned uses of the forest.