“Pinecones,” Friend, Dec. 1987, 10



By the time most people notice them, pinecones are old, dry, and empty. Animals have already scurried off with the nuts, or seeds, that were inside, leaving only the wrapper behind. But at one time, each cone was green and alive, a safe, snug home for pine seeds.

Because there are about thirty-four different kinds of pine trees, pinecones come in many shapes and sizes. Some are long and thin and some are short and squat. Some pinecones even have seeds called pine (piñon) nuts, which people like to eat.

A pinecone begins as a woody stem growing from a branch of its parent tree. Radiating from this stem are scales made of thin, flexible fibers formed into odd shapes and covered with a tough skin. Some scales look like small paddles; others grow large, forming fierce claws at their tips. Whether large or small, the scales are platforms especially designed to provide a home for growing pine seeds. Each scale usually supports two seeds.

Most young cones, green like the surrounding needles, are rarely noticed. For two or three years they grow, scales tightly closed, until the seeds mature. In time they lose their greenish hue, gradually changing to brown and russet as they dry out. Then one day, like a bird fluffing its feathers, the cone begins to open its scales.

The cone’s fibrous skeleton allows it to flex more and more each day. As the scales separate from one another, they reveal the mature seeds comfortably resting in their rugged, made-to-fit seats. Some seeds have papery wings that allow the breeze to blow them to new locations. Although many fall to the ground, some remain in the cone for two or three more years.

A fallen cone frequently still has many seeds inside—at least until a blue jay or a squirrel finds it and digs out the food, leaving the wrapper for you.

Illustrated by Doug Roy