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

Tea Time: Pine Needle Teas

Temperatures are cooling in the northern hemisphere, which has me looking forward to drinking more hot tea. Making tea is a simple way to try edible plants you’ve never tried before, which I have demonstrated in past posts about pineapple weed and chicory. Believe it or not, I’m interested in trying teas made from other plants besides weeds, which has led me to start a new series of posts. It’s tea time!

When you think of a pine tree, your first thought probably isn’t, “Hey, I could make some tea out of that.” Sure, pine trees are known for their pleasant scent; however, do you really want a tea that tastes like a Christmas tree or smells like the cleanser you mop your floors with? A mouthful of pine needles just doesn’t sound that appetizing. Luckily, tea made with pine needles has a considerably milder aroma and flavor than you might initially expect.

the needles of Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora)

Pines actually have a number of edible parts. Young, male cones can be boiled and eaten, pine pollen can be used in a number of ways, and roasted pine seeds (also known as pine nuts) are commonly consumed and used to make things like pesto and hummus. In addition, the inner bark, sap, and resin all have a history of being used as food and medicine. So, why not the needles?

However, it should be noted that turpentine comes from pine trees, which is quite toxic if ingested or used improperly. Turpentine is made by distilling the sap and resins found in pine trees. The high concentration of the chemical compounds found in these products is what results in turpentine’s toxicity.

Another caveat is that the word “pine” is used as a common name for a few species that are not in the genus Pinus and thus are not true pines. Also, coniferous trees and shrubs are frequently referred to as or thought of as pines by people who aren’t in the know. Hence, always make sure that you positively identify any and all plant species before you consume them. Additionally, various sources advise avoiding the consumption of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and a handful of other pines, which may in fact be perfectly safe in moderation, but the counsel is worth keeping in mind.

To drill these points home, consider this passage from The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms:

Most [conifers] would be too strong-tasting and unpalatable to eat, but many can be used safely as flavorings or to make beverages and medicinal teas, as long as they are taken in moderation and in low concentrations. Exceptions are the yews (Taxus spp.), which are highly toxic, and ponderosa pine, a tree of dry western forests with long needles usually in clusters of three. Some indigenous people ate the inner bark and seeds of this pine, but they knew that pregnant women should not chew on the buds or needles because it would cause a miscarriage. Eating the foliage of this pine is known to cause abortion in late-term pregnant cattle and other livestock due to the presence of isocupressic acid, which has also been found in lodgepole pine (P. contorta) and Jeffrey pine (P. jeffreyi). Other pines, such as loblolly pine (P. taeda) of the southeastern United States should also be regarded with caution.

I chose to make tea from the needles of two species that have a long history of being used for this purpose: Korean or Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Pinus densiflora occurs in Korea and Japan, as well as parts of China and Russia, and has been given the name red pine thanks to its attractive red-orange bark. It produces needles in bundles of two and is a member of the subgenus Pinus, also known as the hard pines. Pinus strobus occurs mainly in the northeastern corner of the United States and the southeastern corner of Canada. It’s a member of the soft pines (subgenus Strobus) and produces needles in bundles of five. Both of these trees (and various cultivars of them) are commonly grown ornamentally outside of their native ranges.

the bark of Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora)

To make the tea, I collected a handful of needles, chopped them in half or thirds and steeped them in hot water. Various sources that I read said not to boil the needles. The teas had a mild pine scent and a light citrusy flavor. I first made a tea from eastern white pine needles and accidentally added too much water. On my second try, using Korean red pine needles, I got the ratio better, and the tea didn’t taste so watered down. Some people add honey to pine needle tea, which I didn’t try this time around because I wanted to experience the taste of the needles. However, I think honey would be a nice addition.

Younger needles are said to be better than older needles for making tea, and I imagine that the time of year that the needles are harvested could have an impact on the flavor. The age of the needles likely determines, in part, its amount of vitamin C as well. Pine needle tea is said to be high in Vitamin C, which is another reason to give it a try.

the needles of eastern white pine (Pinus strobus)

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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.

Cedar Confusion

This is a guest post by Jeremiah Sandler. Words by Jeremiah. Photos by Daniel Murphy (except where noted).

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What makes a cedar a cedar?

I recently asked this question to a professor of mine because I kept hearing individuals in the field refer to many different species as “cedars”. It was puzzling to me because, being the taxonomy-nerd that I am, most of these plants are in entirely different plant families but still called the same thing. Yes, sometimes common names overlap with one another regionally; avoiding that mix up is the purpose of binomial nomenclature in the first place! So, what gives?! Why are 50+ different species all called cedars?

This professor is a forester, not a botanist. He told me the word “cedar” describes the wood. Turns out, after some research and conversation, that’s all there was to it. As defined by Google, a cedar is:

Any of a number of conifers that typically yield fragrant, durable timber, in particular.

Cedar wood is a natural repellent of moths, is resistant to termites, and is rot resistant. A good choice of outdoor lumber.

I was hoping to find either a phylogenetic or taxonomic answer to what makes a cedar a cedar. I didn’t. Taxonomic relationships between organisms are one of the most exciting parts of biology. Thankfully, some solace was found in the research:

There are true cedars and false cedars.

True cedars are in the family Pinaceae and in the genus Cedrus. Their leaves are short, evergreen needles in clusters. The female cones are upright and fat, between 3 – 4 inches long. Their wood possesses cedar quality, and they are native to the Mediterranean region and the Himalayas.

False cedars are in the family Cupressaceae, mostly in the following genera: Calocedrus, Chamaecyparis, Juniperus, and Thuja. Their leaves are scale-y, fan-like sprays. Female cones are very small, about half an inch long, and remain on the tree long after seed dispersal. The bark is often both reddish and stringy or peely. Their wood possesses cedar quality. It is easy to separate them from true cedars, but less obvious to tell them from one another. These false cedars are native to East Asia and northern North America.

I couldn’t do away with the umbrella term “cedar.” Every naturalist can agree that one of the most pleasurable things while outdoors looking at plants is identifying them. I have set a new objective to correctly identify and differentiate between all of the cedars and false cedars, rather than simply calling them cedars. I guess I’m just fussy like that.