Gymnosperms, meaning “naked seeds,” are a diverse group of seed plants and are paraphyletic. Paraphyletic groups are those in which not all members are descendants of a single common ancestor. Their characteristics include naked seeds, separate female and male gametes, pollination by wind, and tracheids (which transport water and solutes in the vascular system).
Gymnosperm seeds are not enclosed in an ovary; rather, they are exposed on cones or modified leaves. Sporophylls are specialized leaves that produce sporangia. The term strobilus (plural = strobili) describes a tight arrangement of sporophylls around a central stalk, as seen in cones. Some seeds are enveloped by sporophyte tissues upon maturation. The layer of sporophyte tissue that surrounds the megasporangium, and later, the embryo, is called the integument.
Gymnosperms were the dominant phylum in Mesozoic era. They are adapted to live where fresh water is scarce during part of the year, or in the nitrogen-poor soil of a bog. Therefore, they are still the prominent phylum in the coniferous biome or taiga, where the evergreen conifers have a selective advantage in cold and dry weather. Evergreen conifers continue low levels of photosynthesis during the cold months, and are ready to take advantage of the first sunny days of spring. One disadvantage is that conifers are more susceptible than deciduous trees to infestations because conifers do not lose their leaves all at once. They cannot, therefore, shed parasites and restart with a fresh supply of leaves in spring.
The life cycle of a gymnosperm involves alternation of generations, with a dominant sporophyte in which the female gametophyte resides, and reduced gametophytes. All gymnosperms are heterosporous. The male and female reproductive organs can form in cones or strobili. Male and female sporangia are produced either on the same plant, described as monoecious (“one home” or bisexual), or on separate plants, referred to as dioecious (“two homes” or unisexual) plants. The life cycle of a conifer will serve as our example of reproduction in gymnosperms.