Peeking at Pines

Springtime is a great time to see many beautiful flowers. But, there are some plants that never flower. These plants still do some interesting things in the spring. So let's take a look at one group of these plants with no flowers. Let's pay attention to some cone bearing plants.

Look at the pines, spruces, firs and other cone bearing trees and shrubs near your school or home. Can you find some of last year’s cones still on them or on the ground near them? If you look under the scales that make up a cone, can you find two little hollows under each scale where two seeds used to be? The seeds have probably blown away on the wind by now. Pines and their relatives don’t have flowers or fruits but they do make lots of seeds.

Next fall’s cones might be already growing on the tree. Look closely at the tree or shrub. Can you see light green growth at the end of each branchlet? This is where new needles are beginning to grow. Can you find little green cones? If you do, these started last spring and they will keep growing until they have ripe seeds. They will probably be full of seeds next fall.

Keep looking and you might find another set of even smaller cones, or maybe two sets of smaller cones. Sometime this spring, there will be lots of tiny male cones that make pollen and little female cones that will make seeds. The female cones will be a different shape from the pollen cones and there will not be as many of them. They usually are a reddish purple color at first.

When the pollen cones are ripe, they will let clouds of pollen into the air. You might get to see this on a breezy day. You might even be able to shake a branch and get to see pollen shake into the air. If there are puddles around when the pollen is being let go, you may see it floating as a yellow powder on the water. Lots of pollen is needed because these plants depend on wind and luck to get the pollen to the female cones so that seeds form. Once they have shed their pollen, the pollen cones dry up and fall off. Their job is done.

The female cones need to catch some pollen so that seeds can form. They can’t use the pollen from the pollen cones growing on their tree. They need pollen from another tree of the same kind. Female cones will need one pollen grain for each seed they will grow. Remember all those scales on the old cones you saw? Remember every scale had a place for two seeds? That means every female cone needs a lot of pollen!

So, keep your eyes open this spring. If you look closely, you just may see some very interesting things happening on the cone bearing plants that most people never notice.

To learn more about cones, visit the ESP Cones page. Visit the ESP Evergreens page to learn more about evergreen adaptations.
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