The fossil history of the Christmas tree

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their family around a Christmas tree. From the Illustrated London News (1848)

The Christmas tree is one of the most iconic tradition of modern culture. But long before the advent of Christiany, Egyptians, Celts and Vikings used evergreen plants and trees to celebrate the winter solstice. During Saturnalia, held between 17 and 25 December, Romans also decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In the 16th century, Germans started the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it. They carried the custom to Britain, though it wasn’t until 1846 that the fir tree became a worldwide custom, after Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. 

Conifers are cone-bearing seed plants that originated in the Northern Hemisphere during the Middle Pennsylvanian, approximately 310 million years ago. During the LateTriassic and Early Jurassic, the group experienced a considerable diversification that resulted in the divergence of several modern families. Conifers range from small wiry shrubs to giant trees: Sequoiadendron giganteum reachs almost 100 m high, while Microcachrys tetragona from Tasmania has about few centimeters high. The group declined in diversity and abundance after the rise of angiosperms, and many taxa now have very restricted geographic distributions. Conifers also have the longest living non-clonal terrestrial organisms on Earth, with some examples of Pinus longaeva exceeding 4,600 years of age.

Pityostrobus pluriresinosa. From Smith et al., 2016.

Modern Christmas trees belong to a family called Pinaceae, the most species-rich clade of living conifers. The other conifer families include Cupressaceae, Araucariaceae, Podocarpaceae, Cephalotaxaceae, Taxaceae and most recently, the monotypic family Sciadopityacea. Numerous fossils, which include a number of anatomically preserved ovulate cones with many systematically informative characters, documeted the evolutionary history of Pinaceae.

Leaves and ovulate cones are widely variable and help to highlight the Cretaceous radiation of the family. Preserved fossil pinaceous ovulate cones include Pseudoaraucaria, Pityostrobus, Obirastrobus and Eathiestrobus. The estimated age for the initial crown split in Pinaceae between abietoids and pinoids is in the Early Jurassic, ~188 mya. Recent phylogenetic analyses suggest that the earliest- known member of the Pinaceae, Eathiestrobus mackenziei may be more closely related to Pinus than to other extant lineages; while various species of the widespread Cretaceous form genus Pityostrobus are stem members of both extant abietoids and pinoids.




Leslie, A. B., Beaulieu, J., Holman, G., Campbell, C. S., Mei, W., Raubeson, L. R., & Mathews, S. (2018). An overview of extant conifer evolution from the perspective of the fossil record. American Journal of Botany. doi:10.1002/ajb2.1143 
Smith, S. Y., Stockey, R. A., Rothwell, G. W., & Little, S. A. (2016). A new species of Pityostrobus (Pinaceae) from the Cretaceous of California: moving towards understanding the Cretaceous radiation of Pinaceae. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 15(1), 69–81. doi:10.1080/14772019.2016.1143885 

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