Friday, January 8, 2021

Pine Cones: Nature’s (useful) seed bearers

As the landscape here in the Adirondacks changes from a sea of green to a frozen wonderland, coniferous trees now become the highlight of the forest flora. The cones that are produced come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the species of pine, and are prolific throughout the mountains as decorative items we see on wreaths, baskets arrangements and swags both inside and outside the homes of residents. Aside from their decorating uses, pine cones play an important role in nature. Like all plant parts, they have a very specific function in the plant world. There are approximately 6 species of pine tree in the Adirondacks that are identified by their needle like leaves, seed bearing cones and the bark.  Each cone produced has its unique size and shape and seed capacity.

Reproduction: A long process

Pine trees belong to a group of plants called gymnosperms and date back to prehistoric times. Gymnosperms are a group of plants who have naked seeds, not enclosed in an ovary.  Once a pine tree reaches sexual maturity, it grows separate male and female reproductive parts called strobili. The male strobilus grows pollen and releases it into the wind where it lands on the female strobili of neighboring trees to create new pine seeds. Pine cone development starts with the female strobilus. The female’s strobilus is larger than the male’s.  It is formed from modified leaf structures or pine needles, that spiral around a central axis, forming scale-type structures. Each scale has two ovules awaiting pollination. When the pollen is released from the male strobilus, it is transported by the wind to the female strobilus of other pine trees of the same species. The pollen sticks to the fluid in a structure called the micropyle, which leads to the nucellus of the ovule. The micropyle fluids evaporate, drawing the pollen grain closer to the ovule. This action stimulates the pollen grain to develop a pollen tube. Before the sperm from the pollen grain make it to the ovules, the female produces four cells called megaspores. Only one of these megaspores survives and develops into a multicellular megagametophyte. The megagametophyte then grows archegonia, which contain egg cells. The archegonia take a year to develop after the pollen grain first lands on the female strobilus. The pollen tube can now reach the female egg cells to deliver the sperm.  The pollen grain sends two sperm to the egg cell, one of which fertilizes the egg, creating a zygote.  The zygote is diploid, meaning it has two sets of chromosomes, one from the mother and one from the father. As the zygote develops, it forms the pine seed.  Pine seeds contain the embryos needed to grow new pine trees. It can take two or three years after fertilization before the embryo is fully developed.

Pine cones and edible pine nuts

All conifers produce male and female cones. Sometimes on the same tree, sometimes not. The pinecones we see are only the female cones. The male cones are much smaller and not showy and you may have never noticed them. The main function of a female pine cone is to keep a pine tree’s seeds safe by closing their scales to protect the seeds from cold temperatures, wind and even animals that might try to eat them. When it is warm and it is easier for the seed to germinate, Pine cones open up and release their seeds. Pine cones can take 3 years to fully develop and can stay on tree for more than 10 years before dropping to the ground. The fully developed seeds in the pine cone are not only consumed by animals but also by humans as a good source of thiamine (B1), Vitamin K, magnesium, and protein. They are also one of the best natural sources for manganese, phosphorus and zinc. Only 20 varieties of pine tree worldwide produce cones with large enough pine nuts for harvesting. The most commonly harvested seeds come from four particular pine tree varieties: the Mexican pinon, the Colorado pinion, the Italian stone pine, and the Chinese nut pine. Pine nuts are small, elongated ivory-colored seeds measuring about 1/2 inch long. When raw, the seeds have a soft texture and a sweet, buttery flavor. They are often lightly toasted to bring out the flavor and to add a little crunch and are commonly used in the U.S. in pesto, hummus and as a salad topper. As delicate and delicious as pine nuts are, they can have negative effects when eaten. Called “pine nut mouth” or “pine nut syndrome,” this condition means that simply eating pine nuts causes the other food you consume to have a metallic, bitter taste. Fortunately, this only lasts a few days and is believed to be caused by specific species of pine trees mainly found in China.

Fallen needles, cones

Once the female cones have fallen from the pine tree and released their seeds, they lie on the ground barren of their original purpose.  Some homeowners with pine trees on their property find them more of a nuisance than anything else. Evergreens can be viewed as messy, dropping needles and cones everywhere. But these stately looking trees make excellent windbreaks and natural privacy screens, so they continue to be an excellent addition to your landscape.  For the wise homeowner, they know all of those pine needles can be put to good use. And the many pine cones on their lawn are a blessing, rather than a curse.  Maybe you’re wondering what to do with these small, spiky treasures beyond a homey decoration?

Eight uses for pine cones:

1)Protect Houseplants from Pets and Pests Use pine cones in your houseplant containers to keep pets from digging.  If you have a cat or dog and you have houseplants where they can reach them, most likely, you’re often cleaning up potting soil from the floor. Put a layer of pine cones around the base of your plants to keep naughty pets at bay. This protective layer can also prevent a fungus gnat infestation. The gnats will only lay eggs in damp soil that they can easily get to. Putting up this natural barricade makes it harder for fungus gnats to get into the soil. Not to mention, they look nice around the base of your plants. If you go this route, be sure to water the plants below the pine cones, keeping the tops dry. This will further discourage a fungus gnat infestation. 2) Scented Pine Cones Easily create a natural air freshener with pine cones and essential oils. You can easily make your own scented pine cones at home with little more than a plastic storage bag, essential oils, and a spray bottle.  Scenting them yourself means you can mix a blend of essential oils to come up with your own home scent. Place the pine cones into a plastic zip-top storage bag; the gallon size seems to work best.  Then add a few drops of your choice of essential oil.  After a week, remove the pine cones and place them around your home as a natural air freshener. 3) Natural Fire Starters If you’ve got an abundance of pine cones, consider making these beautiful fire starters. They’re easy to make and require only paraffin wax.  However, to make them extra special, use pieces of a broken-up crayon to color the wax. And sprinkle the wet wax with dried herbs for a wonderfully scented fire. Thyme, rosemary, nutmeg, and sage all are wonderful herbs for these fire starters. 4) Peanut Butter Bird Feeder Get the kids to help you make these, and then get them interested in identifying the birds that come to visit.  This craft is great for little hands who don’t mind getting sticky.  Use a butter knife or clean popsicle stick to spread peanut butter all over the pine cone. Then roll the coated cone in birdseed. Press the seed into the peanut butter once it’s completely covered.  Add a length of string and hang these natural bird feeders from the branches of trees and off your porch.  Now sit back and enjoy the myriad of feathered friends you’ll attract. If you’re lucky, you’ll even find more adventurous squirrels swinging wildly from the pine cones while enjoying this tasty treat. 5) Mulch that Keeps Out Pests Protect your shrubs and flower beds with a layer of long-lasting pine cone mulch.  This is a great way for homeowners with pine trees on their property to put those bucketloads of pine cones to good use.  Pine cones make for excellent natural mulch around shrubs and flower beds. They’re slow to break down and will last for years. The natural resin coating the cones makes them water-resistant, meaning water will slowly drip down to the soil rather than being soaked up by the cones. This feature also prevents soil erosion.  And if you use whole pine cones as mulch, you can keep neighborhood cats and other four-legged critters from digging in your flower beds or fouling up your shrubs. 6) Container Gardening Save your back and your wallet with this great container gardening trick.  As anyone who has grown vegetables and herbs in containers can tell you, all of that soil gets pretty heavy. And filling up those containers with soil can get pretty spendy, pretty quickly.  Add a layer of pine cones to the bottom of each container before adding soil. Fill the container ¼ full of pine cones. This will make the containers lighter and save you money by using less soil. Not to mention it will improve drainage.  This tip shouldn’t be used for root crops such as carrots or potatoes but is great for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other vegetables that fruit above the soil. 7) Compost If your compost pile needs more ‘brown’ or dry additions, consider using pine cones. Pine cones are a great ‘brown’ addition to the compost pile. Because they’re so slow to break down, it’s best to break them up first. If you have access to a chipper, chipping the pine cones before adding them to the compost is the best way to go. 8) Ladybug Hotel Add these natural ‘ladybug hotels’ to your garden to encourage the beneficial bugs to stick around. Ladybugs are a fantastic beneficial insect to have around the garden. These aphid-munching beetles can be lured to your garden by giving them a place to hide and reproduce.  Scatter a few pine cones in and around the plants, and you’ll be providing these beneficial bugs with a place to live while keeping them close to your plants.  If you want to get the kids involved, have them paint the pine cones or decorate them to look like little houses. Whether you’re a forager with a basketful or a homeowner who’s got wheelbarrows full, I hope you’ll save some and enjoy put a few of these aged, natural structures to use in other purposeful ways.

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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.

6 Responses

  1. Stephen Daniels says:

    Love scented pine cones. Thirty species of pine tree in the Adirondacks seems a high number. I’m aware of about sixteen species of conifers in the pine and cypress family both native and naturalized that grow in the wild within the Adirondack Blue Line including pine, ground hemlock, spruce, tamarack, fir, hemlock, juniper, and arborvitae. I suppose if you added to the list non-native landscape ornamental plantings such as Japanese yew, Austrian pine, blue spruce, European larch, Douglas-fir, umbrella pine, white fir, dawn redwood, baldcypress, and a few others, the number might approach thirty.

    • Stephen Daniels says:

      Note Jackie Woodcock has written me the “30 pine” number was a typo the editor quickly corrected. I should known, given her vast experience in wildlife conservation, that it was indeed a typo.

  2. Whenever a Jackie Woodcock article appears, I know I’m about to experience a deepening knowledge of subjects I often wonder about, but more importantly, an expansion of knowledge, which draws the connections to other natural phenomena I didn’t realize existed. Great article!.

  3. Peggy VerDow says:

    Have you ever watched a squirrel sitting on its haunches nibbling away at pine cone in its paws? Classic ! Loved your article with all its great ideas. So appropriate at this time of year. Thank you for a delightful read.

    • Peggy,
      I have seen the squirrels chewing on cones. I know why they are but all I can think of is a gooey mess that half glues their jaws shut from the pitch! Hahaha. Thank you for reading the article and for your kind words. It means alot to me!!! I hope you will keep an eye for my next article that I have submitted about the amazing ways creatures adapt for the cold Winter.

  4. Doug says:

    I am trying to figure out what the sixth Adirondack pine tree is. I could only come up with five; Eastern White Pine, Red Pine aka Norway Pine, Pitch Pine, Jack Pine and the non-native Scotch Pine. What is the sixth?
    BTW – I thought that the artist’s rendition of a pine cone and needles more closely resembled a Norway Spruce, not a pine cone.

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