By Neil Moran

          One of the more fascinating gifts of Mother Nature is the cones of conifer trees. Conifer cones can be used in many different craft projects, have an interesting seed dispersal method and they smell nice! There are a number of conifers that produce cones, including pines, spruces, firs, redwood, cedar, juniper and cypress. Cones come in all shapes and sizes, and even colors. For instance, the immature cones of a Norway spruce are a pretty pink-purple color. Those of the blue spruce are light tan in color. Some are very small, such as the one-inch black spruce cones. Some are very large like the two-foot long sugar pine. Can you imagine one of these falling on your head?

          Cones also make it easy to identify a conifer tree because of their shape, texture and uniqueness. For example, spruce cones have a papery feel, pine cones are more woody to the sight and touch. So if you find a woody cylindrical cone about six inches long on a conifer it is likely that of a white pine. 

          Cones captivate the interest of botanists and even casual observers of nature. They are gymnosperms, which are a rather primitive group of plants. Unlike flowering plants, which botanists call angiosperms, that are mostly pollinated by insects, gymnosperms are pollinated by the wind. Trees such as the Scotch pine have separate male and female cones. It takes some female cones, such as that of the Scotch pines, three years to mature and bear seed.

          The seeds of cones are trapped in the scales of each cone. Typically, warm weather releases the seeds of mature conifer cones, usually while the cone is still on the tree. The winged “nut” is dispersed in the wind where it can travel quite a distance. To ensure survival of the species, a single tree produces literally thousands of seeds within the cones it bears. These seeds flutter about in the wind– some even ending up in streams and rivers where they may be transported for miles to a spot where they can germinate and become a tree.

          I’ve been lucky on occasion to be able to gather cones that had fallen to the ground in a wind storm with their seeds still intact.  I’ve taken these cones and spread them out on a table in a sunny spot in a greenhouse. Within hours the scales will open and release copious quantities of seeds. And should you get some of the sticky sap on your hands from the cones, simply wash it off using cooking oil like you would soap.

          It’s the sap of the cone that produces the fragrant aroma. This aroma has been duplicated synthetically in cleaning products (think Pine Sol) and those Christmas tree-shaped air fresheners. Pine and spruce trees also produce sugars, which turn into resin and turpentine, which is used in manufacturing.

          Did you know?

  • The coulter pine has the heaviest cone in the world. At up to 10 pounds apiece it is no wonder the loggers dubbed them “widow makers.” The Indians ate the nuts, or seeds, of these cones.
  • Some cones need the intense heat of fire to open up their scales and release their prize. The Jack pine and pinyon pine are two trees with such cones. The Indians also ate the nuts of the pinyon pine and used parts of the tree for medicinal purposes.
  • The lodgepole pine cone is only a couple of inches long. However, they’re popular with crafters because they are easy to work with.
  • The sugar pine not only has the longest pine cone in the world (up to two feet), but is also the tallest of the pines. The Indians used the sticky sap like glue and chewed it like gum.
  • One of the more widely distributed pines in North America is the ponderosa pine. It’s nickname, “prickly ponderosa,” comes from the prickly scales of the cones. It is one of the most “environmentally beneficial choices” in wood products, according to the Western Wood Products Association.
  • The state flower of Maine is the white pine cone and tassel, but it’s not technically a flower. Indians use the sticky sap as a bandage.
  • Pine nuts are harvested from the larger species of pine. They are actually the seeds of pines and are high in protein and dietary fiber.

For an interesting site that contains The Legend of the Silver Pine Cone as well as crafts and decorations that can be made using pine cones, log onto:







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