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