Over the holidays, I bribed my son into collecting pine cones for me. Not only does this activity keep the future entrepreneur busy, but it helps clean up the landscape, and gives me something to use for winter decorations and crafts.
When he was delivering his $2 dollar allotment of pine cones, he asked me "Mom, do pine cones only come from pine trees?" Now you might quickly answer that question with a hearty "Yes or No!" but remember than I'm a horticulture educator so I went into a much longer explanation. It only took 2 minutes for him to roll his eyes and walk away bored. But this got me thinking about the fascinating world of pine cones and the trees that produce them – sounds exciting, huh? Later when I was reflecting on this missed opportunity to teach my son more about plants, I decided that below is how I envisioned or wished this discussion had happened instead.
Do pine cones only come from pine trees?
I guess the right answer to this question depends on if you consider all evergreens to be "pines"? Several type of evergreens are called pines. Technically, only members of the genus Pinus are true pines. All members of this genus produce cones. But there are several other types of trees that also produce cones.
What types of trees produce cones?
All conifer species produce cones, in fact, the name "conifer" means cone-bearing plants. Conifers such as spruce (Picea), fir (Abies), and hemlock (Tsuga) produce cones just like pines. There are even some deciduous trees (lose their leaves in fall) that are conifers because they too produce cones. Larch (Larix) and Bald Cypress (Taxodium) are two examples of deciduous conifers that grow in Iowa. So, conifers are not just evergreens. Furthermore, not all cones actually look like a pine cone. For example, junipers (Juniperus) are conifers and they produce cones too. But most people call juniper cones "berries" instead because they look more like a berry than a cone.
Why do conifers produce cones?
Cones house or hold the seed of a conifer. The seed is protected in the cone until conditions are right for the seed to grow. As a cone opens up, it releases a tiny seed or two from each opening. These seed hopefully find a nice, sunny place to land, then they germinate and grow into the conifer they were meant to be.
Can you eat pine cones?
While the cone itself is often too woody or hard to eat, sometimes the seeds are eaten. The seeds of certain species of pine are called "pine nuts." Pine nuts are used a lot when making pesto. But you must be careful and not eat the cone, needles or sap of pines or other conifers as they might be harmful.
As I am thinking of other food possibilities from conifers, we start walking back inside to get something to eat. (Because the mere mention of food means the 10-year-old is hungry - again!)
Thanks for having a longer attention span than a 10-year-old!