We summarize information on naturalized and invasive conifers (class Pinopsida) worldwide (data from 40 countries, some with remote states/territories), and contrast these findings with patterns for other gymnosperms (classes Cycadopsida, Gnetopsida and Ginkgoopsida) and for woody angiosperms. Eighty conifer taxa (79 species and one hybrid; 13% of species) are known to be naturalized, and 36 species (6%) are ‘invasive’. This categorization is based on objective and conservative criteria relating to consistency of reproduction, distance of spread from founders, and degree of reliance on propagules from the founder population for persistence in areas well outside the natural range of species. Twenty-eight of the known invasive conifers belong to one family (Pinaceae) and 21 of these are in one genus (Pinus). The Cupressaceae (including Taxodiaceae) has six known invasive species (4%) in four genera, but the other four conifer families have none. There are also no known invasive species in classes Cycadopsida, Gnetopsida or Ginkgoopsida. No angiosperm family comprising predominantly trees and shrubs has proportionally as many invasive species as the Pinaceae.
Besides the marked taxonomic bias in favour of Pinaceae, and Pinus in particular, invasiveness in conifers is associated with a syndrome of life-history traits: small seed mass (< 50 mg), short juvenile period (< 10 year), and short intervals between large seed crops. Cryptomeria japonica, Larix decidua, Picea sitchensis, Pinus contorta, Pinus strobus, and Pseudotsuga menziesii exemplify this syndrome. Many rare and endangered conifer species exhibit opposite characters. These results are consistent with earlier predictions made using a discriminant function derived from attributes of invasive and noninvasive Pinus species. Informative exceptions are species with small seeds (< 4 mg, e.g. Chamaecyparis spp., Pinus banksiana, Tsuga spp. — mostly limited to wet/mineral substrates) or otherwise ‘non-invasive’ characters (e.g. large seeds, fleshy fruits, e.g. Araucaria araucana, Pinus pinea, Taxus baccata that are dependent on vertebrates for seed dispersal). Most conifers do not require coevolved mutualists for pollination and seed dispersal. Also, many species can persist in small populations but have the genetic and reproductive capacity to colonize and increase population size rapidly. The underlying mechanisms mediating conifer invasions are thus easier to discern than is the case for most angiosperms. Further information is needed to determine the extent to which propagule pressure (widespread dissemination, abundant plantings, long history of cultivation) can compensate for low ‘inherent invasiveness’.