Pine Cones are a familiar holiday decoration, but how much do you really know about them? While many types of trees have cones, you’ve probably seen cones from pine, spruce, fir and cedar trees most often. These fascinating, intricate structures are the sexual organs of the trees they grow on (called conifers). Each of these trees has both male and female cones.
Both male and female get the name “cone” from their geometric cone shape. The familiar woody cone is the female cone, which produces seeds when fertilized by pollen from male cones. The shape, size and appearance of female cones varies widely between different tree families, so female cones are often the key to identifying conifer species. Male cones, which produce pollen, aren’t nearly as big or pretty. The individual plates of a cone are known as scales, which overlap each other like fish scales. Each scale on a male cone protects one or more pollen sacs. The female cone has two types of scale: bract scales and seed scales. The bract scales develop first, seed scales develop later to enclose and protect the seeds.
Pine cones open temporarily to receive male reproductive cells, close during fertilization, and then re-open at maturity to allow the seed to escape. Mature cones are open when dry and closed when wet, to make sure the seeds are released in dry weather so they will travel farther. A pine cone will go through many cycles of opening and closing during its life span, even after falling to the forest floor.
Closed cones indicate damp conditions, while open cones signal that the forest floor is dry. For this reason, pine cones have often been used to predict dry and wet weather, usually by hanging a pine cone from some string outside to measure the humidity of the air.
Male and female cones occur on the same tree, with female usually on the higher branches towards the top of the plant. Male cones often grow in large clusters, while female cones grow in small clusters or singly. Male cones are located at the base of the branch, while the females are at the tip. This arrangement improves the chances of pollination, as pollen is wafted upwards on the breeze.
Because they are so plentiful during the holiday season, cones have been a traditional part of holiday decorations like seasonal wreaths. They are popular in many cultures for arts and crafts like fire starters, bird feeders, and toys. Cone cows are traditional homemade toys, part of children’s culture in Finland and Sweden. Schools teach children how to make cone cows as part of outdoors education on nature and history. The most common design is a spruce or pine cone with sticks or matches for legs, which can easily be attached by forcing them between the cone scales. In Finland there is a fairground with cone cow sculptures large enough for children to ride on. Sweden has a video game in which players build virtual cone cows.
Pinecones are symbolic for the Pineal Gland, dubbed the “third eye.” Located deep in the center of the brain, the pineal gland produces melatonin, which helps maintain circadian rhythm and regulate reproductive hormones. Pinecones were also used as symbols of fertility in ancient Assyrian art. In Christian symbolism, they were closely symbolically related to the tree of life.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers.” “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.