Conifers

Coniferophyta

The word “conifer” is derived from the Latin word meaning “cone-bearing”. Trees in this group include the well known pines, spruces and larches. However, some conifers such as yews and junipers, produce a berry-like fruit instead of a cone. Most conifers have needle-shaped or scale-shaped leaves and most are evergreen, keeping their leaves throughout the winter.

Besides serving mostly as garden decorations, most dwarf conifers can be prepared and eaten for medicinal benefits. Conifers have a long history of medicinal use and played an important role in the Canadian colonial exchange. Canada is home to approximately thirty native species of coniferous trees, and for the Indigenous peoples of eastern Canada, coniferous forests offered sources of food, building materials, and medicines for human survival (Turner). The ability of conifers to withstand harsh climates and their general availability and distribution made them a pharmacological staple for all indigenous groups of Eastern Canada (Buchanan). The general medicinal usage varied from astringents and antiseptics to stimulants. But most importantly, many conifers contain high levels of vitamin C, which made them a cure for scurvy – a disease that is common in northern climates.

In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier found himself stranded while exploring the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Suffering from scurvy that threatened his life and the lives of his crew, Cartier turned to the local St. Lawrence Iroquois for help after he noticed that some of them suffered from the same affliction as his men, but unlike his men, they made full recoveries. From Iroquois first nations, Carter learned that the cure for the disease could be prepared from the juice and sap of the leaves of a tree that the first nations peoples called the “Ameda” tree. Within six days of continuous drinking of the prepared concoction, Cartier and his crew made full recovery and collected the tree specimen to be presented in front of the French king, branding it as “The Tree of Life”. The tree saplings were planted in the Royal Gardens, but the story of the miraculous cure was forgotten for nearly a century.

The doctor typically credited for solving the mystery of scurvy was Scottish surgeon James Lind, who was practicing in the 18th century. However, his 1772 treatise of scurvy demonstrates that he was aware of the therapeutic properties of the “spruce beer” consumed by the Indigenous peoples of Newfoundland. Likewise, Lind was aware of Cartier’s story of the Ameda tree but mainly saw coniferous concoctions as preventative medicine rather than the cure itself. Eventually, Lind served as a surgeon on board HMS Salisbury and after witnessing and recording the scurvy outbreak aboard the ship, he performed one of the first controlled group experiments where he added orange and lemon juice to the sailor’s meals. This experiment forever linked vitamin C (and lemons in particular) with a cure for scurvy. It is interesting to note, however, that coniferous juice extract contains higher levels of vitamin C than lemons (Buchanan). While citrus fruits have become firmly associated with the treatment of scurvy, the coniferous teas prepared by the Indigenous peoples of eastern Canada were a more effective medicine for both prevention and treatment of the disease since they provided higher levels of vitamin C as well as other important medicinal elements.

Arboretum’s Dwarf Conifer genus collection is a robust genome bank consisting of over 150 specimens. Trees in this group include the pines, spruces, and larches. Some conifers like yews and junipers, however, do not bear cones and produce a berry-like fruit instead. Most conifers are considered evergreen (they keep their foliage throughout the winter) and have needle-shaped or scale-shaped leaves. Arboretum dwarf conifers are slow-growing northern species, and most have less than 15 centimeters of growth each year, reaching a maximum average height of 1.8 meters.

Dwarf conifers are often used for property and garden decorations and are usually selected by horticulturalists based on the aesthetics of their genetic mutations. It is interesting to note, that most conifer species sold in commercial plant nurseries are, in the essence, all clones of the same aesthetically pleasing specimen, genetically identical to each other. Arboretum conifers, however, are not bred for aesthetics; strong genetic diversity ensures that the future saplings are resilient to diseases and parasites.

The composition with conifer species is a product of musical co-creation; first, conifer species biodata was collected and recorded through a galvanometer device. Then, the collected readings were converted to MIDI, and finally, based on the frequency and range of the collected biodata, musical interpretation followed.

The conifer biodata sample was one of the slowest in tempo, perhaps because the collection process was done during very cold weather and it could have affected the water circulation inside of trees. More than one Dwarf Conifer genus tree was sampled and contributed to the final composition.

Because the biodata had on average a slower rhythm to it, I associated this composition-to-be with northern communities, and a kind of reserved sturdiness and perseverance that is necessary to survive in winter conditions. I wanted the composition to reflect winter. One of the essential instruments in this arrangement that helped me to deliver this "winter sound" was cello. I wanted cello to sound deep and rich, and not brassy or bright - so I significantly reduced high-end frequencies during the mixing of the composition to emphasize lower frequencies. 

Operatic singing in this composition served as an ornament instead of taking the spotlight. I wanted the vocal arrangement to lead the listener into this composition, while giving way to soundscapes produced with the conifer biodata. 

When I was working on this track, I imagined snowy winter evening; As the pale winter sun disappears on the horizon and the temperature drops, the frosty and sharp winter air softens as if preparing for an early night. Soft cello pizzicato by the end of the track is meant to create a lullaby-like effect, lulling the listener to sleep. Maybe next time you take an evening winter stroll in Arboretum, you can tell me if this composition matched the atmosphere?  

Dwarf Conifers @ Arboretum website

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