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

The Seed Salting Experiments of Charles Darwin

In the second chapter of his book, The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson describes the massive volcano that sunk a large portion of the island Krakatau in the summer of 1883. Rakata, the remnant that remained, was now “a sterile island” covered in ash. But it didn’t remain sterile for long. This natural disaster offered biologists the opportunity to watch as a fragment of earth, suddenly stripped of life, turned green again.

Life returned pretty quickly, too. In less than 50 years, nearly 300 species of plants had recolonized the charred landscape. Much of this rebirth was thanks to “aeolian plankton” – tiny wind-borne lifeforms that Wilson describes as “a rain of planktonic bacteria, fungus spores, small seeds, insects, spiders, and other small creatures” that fall “continuously on most parts of the earth’s land surface.” The seeds of some plants likely floated or “rafted” over, and still others may have arrived in the stomachs of birds “to be deposited later in their feces.”

Wind, water, and wing. It is well-accepted today that these are natural means by which the seeds of plants make their way to remote islands. However, in Charles Darwin’s day, things were not so settled. Decades before we understood things like plate tectonics and continental drift, there was ongoing debate about how the flora and fauna residing on islands got there. Were there multiple creation events or were there a series of land bridges and continental extensions now sunken in the sea? Unconvinced of one and skeptical of the other, Darwin embarked on a series of experiments to determine the possibility of an alternate hypothesis: long-distance dispersal.

Darwin wasn’t completely opposed to the idea that some species may have reached remote islands by land bridges of some sort; however, as James T. Costa writes in Darwin’s Backyard, his “imagination [ran] wild with scenarios for long-distance transport by floods and currents, whirlwinds and hurricanes, dispersal by birds, rafting quadrupeds carrying seeds in their stomachs or adhering to their fur, floating trees with seeds wedged in root masses, insects with seeds or eggs stuck to their legs, icebergs, and more.” He was convinced, “improbable as it was that, aided by wing or wave, propagules from a mainland could make it to distant islands.” After all, the vastness of geological time allows for chance events despite how improbable they may be. Even more, such events are “testable.”

So test them, he did. Among a series of experiments regarding long-distance dispersal were Darwin’s extensive seed salting trials. He began by using common vegetable seeds: broccoli, cabbage, oats, radish, lettuce, flax, and many others. He placed seeds in small bottles containing 2-3 ounces of salt water. Some bottles were placed outside in the shade where the air temperature varied throughout the day; other bottles were kept in his cellar where the temperature was more stable. He also placed seeds in a tank of salt water made with melted snow. The water in some of the jars, particularly those with brassica and onion seeds, turned foul, and as Darwin writes, “smelt offensive to a quite surprising degree;” however, “neither the putridity of the water nor the changing temperature had any marked effect on their vitality.”

In fact, while a few did quite poorly, the majority of the seeds that Darwin tested germinated just fine after soaking in salt water. At least for a short period anyway. Germination rates tended to decrease dramatically the longer seeds were soaked. For example, “fresh seed of the wild cabbage from Tenby germinated excellently after 50 days, very well after 110 days, and two seeds out of some hundreds germinated after 133 days immersion.” Darwin found that capsicum (i.e. peppers) “endured the trial best, for 30 out of 56 seeds germinated well after 137 days immersion.”

The seeds and dried fruit of Capsicum annuum (via wikimidia commons)

Darwin’s seed salting experiments seemed to be going well until his friend and colleague, Joseph Hooker, pointed out that seeds often sink when placed in water. Darwin wondered if he had been “taking all this trouble in salting the ungrateful rascals for nothing.” Despite the setback, he began another series of tests to determine which seeds sink, which float, and how long they float before they ultimately sink. The results weren’t as bad as expected. A number of species floated for several days, including the seeds of asparagus which were found to float for about 23 days if the seeds were fresh and up to 86 days if they were dried. By his calculations then, ocean currents could carry asparagus seeds over 2800 miles.

While soaking seeds in salt water, Darwin was engaged in a number of other seed dispersal studies, some quite bizarre. In one, he attempted to get goldfish to take mouthfuls of seeds, the idea being that if a fish having recently swallowed seeds was eaten by a seabird which then deposited the undigested seeds on a distant island, those seeds could germinate and establish themselves in a new environment. Unfortunately, Darwin’s subjects wouldn’t oblige: “the fish ejected vehemently, and with disgust equal to my own, all the seeds from their mouths.”

Despite a few botched experiments, Darwin turned out to be correct – long-distance dispersal explains much of the geographical distribution of species. Those who favored ideas of sunken land-bridges and continental extensions weren’t altogether wrong either. Costa writes: “Ironically, there is a kernel of truth behind the old idea of continental extensionism: rearranged and sometime contiguous continents…explain the distribution of some groups. But chance long-distance dispersal has never gone away. Improbable and rare as such events are, they are far from mysterious, and certainly not miraculous.”

Want to carry out your own seed salting experiments?

Darwin’s Backyard by James T. Costa includes detailed instructions, along with instructions for Darwin’s duck feet experiment [Do ducks transport snails, seeds, or other things that get attached to their feet?] and many others. Darwin Correspondence Project is a great resource as well.