Pine Cones Are Like Hangars for Pine Tree Seeds

Over the past year I’ve written about the making of pine tar and the drinking of pine needle tea. But why stop there? Pines are a fascinating group of plants, worthy of myriad more posts, and so my exploration into the genus continues with pine cones and the seeds they bear.

Pines are conifers and, more broadly, gymnosperms. They are distinct from angiosperms (i.e. flowering plants), with the most obvious distinction being that they don’t make flowers. Since they are flowerless, they are also fruitless, as fruits are seed-bearing structures formed from the ovary or ovaries of flowering plants. Pines do make seeds though, and, as in angiosperms, pollen is transported from a “male” organ to a “female” organ in order for seeds to form. Rather than being housed in a fruit, the seeds are essentially left out in the open, which is why the term “naked seeds” is frequently used in reference to gymnosperms.

seed cone of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris ‘Glauca Nana’)

In the case of pines and other conifers, the seeds may be naked, but they’re not necessarily homeless. They have the protection of cones, which is where the female reproductive organs are located. Male, pollen cones are separate structures and are smaller and less persistent than the cones that house the seeds. A cone, also known as a strobilus, is a modified branch. A series of scales grow in a spiral formation along the length of the branch, giving the cone its shape. On the inside of these scales is where the seeds form, two per scale. First they are egg cells, and then, after pollination and a period of maturation, they become seeds. The scales protect them throughout the process and then release them when the time is right.

With more than 120 species in the genus Pinus, there is great diversity in the size, shape, and appearance of pine cones. While at first glance they don’t appear all that different from one another, the cones of each species have unique characteristics that can help one identify the pine they fell from without ever having to see the tree. Pine cones are also distinct from the cones of other conifers. For one, pine cones take at least two or, in some cases, three years to reach maturity, whereas the cones of other conifers develop viable seeds in a single year. Pine cones are also known to remain on the tree for several years even after the seeds are mature – in some species up to 10 years or more – and they don’t always part with their seeds easily. Lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta) require high temperatures to melt the resin that holds their scales closed, the cones of jack pine (P. banksiana) generally only open in the presence of fire, and the seeds of whitebark pine (P. albicaulis) are extracted with the aid of birds (like Clark’s nutcracker) and other animals.

immature seed cone of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)

Every pine cone is special in its own right, but some stand out in particular. The largest and heaviest pine cones are found on Coulter pine (P. coulteri), measuring up to 15 inches long and weighing as much as 11 pounds with scales that come to a sharp point. It’s understandable why the falling cones of this species are frequently referred to as widowmakers. Longer cones, but perhaps less dangerous, are found on sugar pine (P. lambertiana). The tallest trees in the genus, the cones of sugar pine consistently reach 10 to 20 inches long and sometimes longer.

Pine tree seeds are a food source for numerous animals, including humans. Most are so small they aren’t worth bothering with, however, several species have seeds that are quite large and worth harvesting. Most commercially grown pine nuts come from stone pine (P. pinea) and Korean pine (P. koraiensis). In North America, a wild source for pine nuts is found in the pinyon pines, which have a long history of being harvested and eaten by humans.

immature seed cone of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)

The seeds of many pines come equipped with little wings called samaras, which aid them in their dispersal. Upon maturity, pine cone scales open and release the seeds. Like little airplanes leaving the hangar, the seeds take flight. Wind dispersal is not an effective means of dispersal for all pines though. A study published in Oikos found that seeds weighing more than 90 milligrams are not dispersed as well by wind as lighter seeds are. When it comes to long distance dispersal, heavier seeds are more dependent on animals like birds and rodents, and some pines rely exclusively on their services. The author of the study, Craig Benkman, notes that “bird-dispersed pines have proportionately thinner seed coats than wind-dispersed pines,” which he points out in reference to Japanese stone pine (P. pumila) and limber pine (P. flexilis), whose seeds weigh around 90 milligrams yet rely mostly on birds for dispersal. Benkman suspects that the seeds of these two species “would probably weigh over 100 milligrams if they had seed coats of comparable thickness as wind-dispersed seeds.”

Whitebark pine, as mentioned above, holds tightly to its seeds. Hungry animals must pry them out, which they do. Pine seeds are highly nutritious and supplement the diets of a wide range of wildlife. Some of the animals that eat the seeds also cache them for later. Clark’s nutcrackers are particularly diligent hoarders, harvesting thousands more seeds than they can possibly consume and depositing them in small numbers in locations suitable for sprouting.

Even large seeds that naturally fall from their cones have a chance to be dispersed further. As the seeds become concentrated at the base of the tree, ground-foraging rodents gather them up and cache them in another location, which Benkman refers to as secondary seed dispersal.

Particularly in pine species with wind dispersed seeds, what the weather is like helps determine when the hangar door will open to release the flying seeds. When it is wet and rainy, the scales of pine cones close up. The seeds wouldn’t get very far in the rain anyway, so why bother? When warm, dry conditions return, the scales open back up and the seeds are free to fly again. You can even watch this in action in the comfort of your own home by following the instructions layed out in this “seasonal science project.”

immature seed cones of limber pine (Pinus flexilis)

mature seed cones of limber pine (Pinus flexilis)

Further Reading:

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Photos of pine cones were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho

Inside of a Seed: Gymnosperms

“Every tree has to stay where it put down roots as a seedling. However, it can reproduce, and in that brief moment when tree embryos are still packed into seeds, they are free. The moment they fall from the tree, the journey can begin.” — The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

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Seed plants – also known as spermatophytes – make up the largest group of plants on earth. Seed plants consist of five divisions, and among them the angiosperm division (a.k.a. flowering plants) dominates in its number of species. The four remaining divisions are referred to collectively as gymnosperms. This incudes the cycads (Cycadophyta), Ginkgo biloba (the only living species in the division Ginkgophyta), gnetophytes (Gnetophyta), and the conifers (Coniferophyta). Conifers are by far the largest and most widespread gymnosperm division.

Angiosperms and gymnosperms have different evolutionary histories, resulting in their distinct genetic and morphological differences. That being said, an overly-simplistic way of differentiating the two groups is to say that, while both groups produce seeds, angiosperms produce flowers and fruits while gymnosperms produce pollen cones and seed cones. There are always exceptions (Ginkgo biloba, for example, doesn’t produce cones), but for the most part, this is the case.

Pollen cones (top) and seed cones (bottom) of mugo pine (Pinus mugo) via wikimedia commons

Sexual reproduction in gymnosperms follows a familiar pattern. Pollen, which contains the male sex cells, is produced in pollen cones, which are essentially miniature branches with modified leaves called scales that house the male reproductive organs. Mature pollen is shed and carried away by the wind. Lucky pollen grains make their way to the female cones, which are also modified branchlets, but are a bit more complex. Scales sit atop bracts, and on top of the scales are ovules – the female reproductive structures. During fertilization, the bracts open to collect pollen and then close as the seed develops.

When pollen lands on an ovule it forms pollen tubes that help direct the male sex cells to the egg cells inside. The process is similar to pollen tubes extending down the style of a flower. In flowering plants, additional pollen cells combine with cells in the ovule to produce endosperm, a storage tissue that feeds the growing embryo. This doesn’t happen in gymnosperms. Instead, haploid cells within the ovule develop into storage tissue and go on to serve the same role.

The ovule eventually matures into a seed, and the cone opens to release it. The seed sits atop the scale rather than enclosed within a fruit, as it would be in an angiosperm. For this reason gymnosperms are said to have naked seeds. The development of seeds can also be much slower in gymnosperms compared to angiosperms. In some species, seeds don’t reach maturity for as long as two years.

Seed cones and winged seeds of mugo pine (Pinus mugo) via wikimedia commons

Seeds in the genus Pinus are excellent representations of typical gymnosperm seeds. Their basic components are essentially identical to the seeds of angiosperms. The seed coat is also referred to as an integument. It was once the outer covering of the ovule and has developed into the seed covering. A micropyle is sometimes visible on the seed and is the location where the pollen cells entered the ovule. The storage tissue, as mentioned above, is composed of female haploid cells that matured into storage tissue in the ovule. Like angiosperms, the embryo is composed of the radicle (embryonic root), the hypocotyl (embryonic shoot), and cotyledons (embryonic leaves).

Angiosperms can be divided into monocotyledons and dicotyledons according to the number of cotyledons their embryos have (monocots have one, dicots have two). Gymnosperms are considered multi-cotyledonous because, depending on the species, they can have a few to many cotyledons.

Seedling of Swiss pine (Pinus cembra) showing multiple cotyledons via wikimedia commons

For the sake of this introduction to gymnosperm seeds, I have offered a simple overview of the production of seeds in the conifer division. Sexual reproduction and seed formation in the other three gymnosperm divisions is a similar story but varies according to species. Even within the conifers there are differences. For example, the “seed cones” of several gymnosperm species can actually be quite fruit-like, which serves to attract animals to aid in seed dispersal. Also, the pollen of gymnosperms is often thought of as being wind dispersed (and occasionally water dispersed in the case of Ginkgo biloba and some cycads); however, researchers are continuing to discover the pivotal role that insects play in the transfer of pollen for many cycad species, just as they do for so many species of angiosperms.

All of this to say that Botany 101 is simply a window into what is undoubtedly an incredibly diverse and endlessly fascinating group of organisms, and that, as with all branches of science, there is still so much to discover.

Winter Interest

We are well into winter in the northern hemisphere, and the plants in our landscapes have been dormant for weeks now. Trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves, grasses have gone brown, and perennial forbs have died back – their roots harboring the food they will need to return to life in the spring. What little green that is left is provided mainly by evergreen trees and shrubs, but even they are resting – metabolizing slowly and putting off further growth until warmer temperatures return. The view outside may appear largely bleak and dreary, but there is still beauty in a frozen landscape, and much of that beauty is provided by the same things that brought color and interest during the warmer months.

Many plants, though appearing dead, remain attractive throughout the winter. From fruits and cones to seed heads and seed pods, there are various structures that remain on certain plants even after leaves fall that provide winter interest. Deciduous trees and shrubs show off their branches in the winter months, which when freed from the camouflage of leaves are like sculptures – art pieces in their own right. Perennial grasses can continue to provide structure to a garden bed when left in place and upright, and color is provided by evergreen foliage and colored bark, such as the red and yellow bark of some dogwoods (Cornus spp.).

Beauty surrounds us, even in unlikely places. Things are quiet and frozen now, and foggy, dismal days abound. But winter won’t last forever. Plants can remind us of that. In them we find remnants of brighter days and an assurance that there are more to come.

alnus viridis

Male and female cones on Sitka alder (Alnus viridis)

ericameria nauseosa

Seed head on rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)

SAMSUNG

Flower stalks on strict buckwheat (Eriogonum strictum)

sorbus scopulina

Cluster of berries on Cascade mountain-ash (Sorbus scopulina)

maclura pomifera

Ice crystals on the branches of young Osage-orange (Maclura pomifera)

rosa pisocarpa

Rose hips on cluster rose (Rosa pisocarpa)

sedum sp. seed head

Seed head on showy stonecrop (Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Joy’)

All photos were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.