The northern coniferous forests are called taiga or boreal forests. They cover vast areas of North America from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and range across northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and across Asia through Siberia and Mongolia to northern China and northern Japan.
Short summers and long winters
Coniferous trees thrive where summers are short and cool and winters long and harsh, with heavy snowfall that can last as long as 6 months. The needle-like leaves have a waxy outer coat which prevents water loss in freezing weather and the branches are soft and flexible and usually point downwards, so that snow slides off them. Larches are one example of a coniferous tree found in some of the coldest regions. Unusually for coniferous trees they are deciduous, that is they shed their leaves in winter.
Coniferous trees such as cypresses, cedars and redwoods are found in warmer regions.
Life on the forest floor
Even evergreen trees eventually shed their leaves and grow new ones. The needles fall to the forest floor and form a thick springy mat. Thread-like fungi help to break down or decompose the fallen needles. These fungi provide nutrients from the decomposed needles back to the roots of the trees. But because pine needles do not decompose easily, the soils are poor and acid.
These forests grow under widely differing conditions of climate and soil - from the tropics to the subarctic, and from heavy clays to poor sands. However, coniferous trees are especially conditioned to the winter climate. The trees of the taiga grow at the highest latitude of any forest. The most common are spruce, pine and firs.
Reach for the sky!
Cypresses, cedars and redwoods grow upright; the tallest of them can reach 20m in height. The trees are usually pyramid-shaped. Short, lateral branches grow quite close together but they are so flexible that the snow simply slides off. The leaves are small, hard and evergreen.
Little light penetrates the thick canopy of trees to reach the forest floor. Because of this gloom, only ferns and a few herbaceous plants grow here. Mosses, liverworts and lichens are also found on the forest floor and grow on tree trunks and branches. There are few flowering plants.