An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Rolling White Pine Cone

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Leave it to NC readers to recognize yesterday’s Mystery Photo! I was impressed with the fat tire track guesses – something I would never ever recognize! With the help of the wind and a gentle slope, a White Pine cone rolled down a hill, leaving the imprint of its spirally-arranged scales in a repetitive pattern. The fall cone crop of many conifers this year was extreme, so your chances of coming across this track are great this winter.

All species of pines produce cones with scales that overlap each other like fish scales. During cold, damp weather, these scales close tight to protect the seeds within them from bad weather and hungry animals. When the weather is conducive to germination (warm and dry) the scales open, allowing seeds to escape. Even after cones fall from the tree, their scales can still open and close.

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Bumper Cone Crop Year

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There is no denying that this year’s cone crop is a bumper crop. Just look up at the tops of conifers or down on the ground beneath them and you will see a plethora of cones. This may be the best overall cone crop in five years, and the best spruce cone crop in more than a decade in the Northeast.

Conifers produce cone crops erratically; some years are bountiful, and others are minimal. Part of the reason for this may be that in a year with a bumper crop (mast), predators can’t possibly consume all of the seeds produced, and thus the opportunity for conifers to have their seeds dispersed and germinate is markedly improved. In addition, erratic production may have partially evolved as a strategy to combat insect damage. An unpredictable cycle makes it much more difficult for insects to become a pest.

As to why some years are so productive, weather conditions are certainly influential. Often times people look at the most recent summer’s weather as a forecaster of the coming fall’s hard mast crop (nuts, cones). Although most conifer cones develop in six to eight months, not all do. Most conifers in the family Pinaceae take this amount of time, but cedar cones take a year to mature, and most spruce and pine cones mature in two to three years. Thus, the cone crop we are having this year may in part be a reflection on this year’s weather, but, depending on the species, it could have been influenced by last summer’s weather conditions or even the summer before last.

Regardless of why some years are lean and some plentiful, when we have a bumper cone crop such as this fall’s, the impact is felt far and wide by wildlife. Red squirrels, voles, waxwings, chickadees, nuthatches, grosbeaks, crossbills and siskins reap the benefits. Their resulting reproduction rates soar, and the ripple effect continues to be felt throughout the food chain.

In some circumstances, the ramifications of a bumper crop are evident before the crop even matures. It appears that red squirrels can predict when there is going to be a huge spruce cone year and produce a second litter to take advantage of the large food supply when it matures. It may be that when the squirrels eat the buds of a spruce tree the summer before cones develop (spruce cones take two years to mature — cone buds are produced in the first year and cones develop and mature in the second year) they can discern which buds are going to produce cones and which are destined to produce branches. An abundance of cone buds may be the clue that triggers their extended reproductive activity. (Photo: Red Spruce cones)


Speckled Alder “Cones”


Obviously there’s no fooling Naturally Curious readers! The trick part of yesterday’s Mystery Photo question was that the pictured fruit were not, botanically speaking, “cones” — true cones are found only on conifers, which Speckled Alder (Alnus incana) is not. The resemblance of Speckled Alder fruit to cones is marked (which is why they are referred to as “cones”) and there are many similarities between the two. They are both woody, contain seeds and develop from catkins (flowering spikes). However, the nature of their respective seeds is quite different. Angiosperms, or flowering plants such as Speckled Alder, produce seeds that are enclosed within a covering (the ovary), whereas gymnosperms (conifers) have un-enclosed or “naked” seeds. Alder “cones” open to release seeds in a manner similar to many conifer cones and, like most cones, do not disintegrate immediately after maturity. (Photo: female flowers/catkins of Speckled Alder which, if fertilized, will develop into “cones.”)

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Red Squirrels Making Middens

10-15 red squirrel midden 209Red squirrels bury food for winter consumption both individually as well as in caches or “middens.” These food supply piles may be in a hollow tree, in an underground den or in a hollow at the base of a tree. Middens consist of intact cones, cut when they are green with their seeds still enclosed, as well as debris (woody bracts, or scales, etc.) from the cones that accumulates from the squirrel’s eating the seeds. If a midden is located underneath a favorite feeding site, not only is the midden large (up to four feet tall), the moist, decomposing pile of scales provides an ideal place for stored cones to be kept fresh and viable, as the moisture keeps them from drying and opening. Other foods, including nuts, hawthorn and sumac fruit, are also stored in this way. (Note entrance hole at base of midden.)

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Pine Pollen: Nature’s Testosterone

6-12-14 pine pollen  100If you’ve noticed yellow clouds near pine trees recently, or a layer of yellow “dust” on your car or pond, you’ve witnessed the annual dispersal of pollen by male pine cones. Light and fluffy so as to be easily distributed by the wind (rather than insects), these minute pollen grains containing sperm cells can be found just about anywhere this time of year, including the nostrils of humans. All pines have separate male and female (seed) cones on the same tree. Male pine cones, which produce pollen, are much smaller, occur in clusters, are more papery, and remain on the tree for a much shorter period of time than most female pine cones. (By July they will litter the ground beneath pines before they quickly disintegrate.) Although it may mean a brief period of sneezing has to be endured by those allergic to it, this “golden smoke” not only creates beautifully intricate patterns for us to enjoy and makes it possible for pine trees to make the next generation of seeds, but it is also touted as an agent of increased testosterone and strong sexual libido, anti-aging, skin rejuvenation and improved immune systems for humans. Haste ye to a natural food store (or the closest pond!). (photo – Red Pine pollen & male cones)

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American Yew Female Cones

12-20-13  American Yew female cones IMG_6118Being a gymnosperm (its seeds are not enclosed in an ovary), American Yew, Taxus canadensis, lacks true flowers or fruits and possesses separate male and female (seed) cones. Each male cone produces up to 100 pollen sacs or more. The modified female cones do not resemble the typical woody cones of evergreens. Yews are the only conifers that produce seed cones that consist of a fleshy (and mucilaginous), scarlet, cup-shaped structure called an aril, each of which holds one seed. The seeds (not the aril) are poisonous to humans, but thrushes, waxwings and other birds consume them and aid in their dispersal.

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White Pine Cone Growth

11-25-13 white poine final seed cones 007The female, or seed, cones of most pines take two seasons to mature, and the cones of White Pines are no exception. While their tiny male cones live only a few months in the spring, until their pollen has been dispersed and they drop to the ground, White Pine seed cones develop over two summers. This means that both last year’s cones as well as this year’s can be seen on a White Pine right now. After the seeds in last year’s cones have been dispersed (some time this fall or winter), the cones fall off the tree. In late winter, you will find mostly year-old cones on White Pines; new cones will develop next summer to replace the cones that fall off the tree this winter.

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