garden pine cones

Pine cones are everywhere at this time of the year. They are prominent on wreaths, swags and baskets.

I am particularly fascinated by the pine cones strewn about under their mother trees. A pine cone on the forest floor is an indication of moisture and wildlife risk. In autumn, pine trees produce more of the larger sized cones before a severe winter to make sure seeds will make it through squirrel and bird feeding frenzies.

All members of the pine family (spruce, fir, larches, hemlocks, cedars etc.) have cones, but “pine cones” come only from pine trees. The largest pine cones are from the Coulter Pines of California. I visited Baja California (one area where they grow) and learned they are known as “widow makers”. These cones can weigh up to 11 pounds and have dagger-like scales. If one dropped on your head you would be a goner — thus the name “widow maker.” These cones are often displayed in holiday arrangements and are unsurpassed in their size and symmetry.      

The Sugar Pine is the tallest of the pine trees and has the longest cone. The cones can be up to 24 inches long. Indians used the sap as glue, as well as chewing it like gum. The nuts are also edible.

Seasonal decorating with pine cones is almost synonymous with lefse baking at my house. The traditional basket of scented pine cones is present. Pine cones can be sprayed and attached to ribbons to make a flounce for wreaths, gift decorations, or individual place cards for dinner parties.

Seed-bearing cones are female, while pollen-filled cones are male. Both sexes of cones grow on the same tree, but male cones grow on lower branches so that the wind can blow pollen up to the female cones. Likely all the cones you will collect for decorating are lady cones, since male cones are significantly less conspicuous.

There are two seeds at the base of each flake (sporophylls) of the cone. From the time young cones appear on the tree, it takes nearly three years for them to mature.

The pineal gland in the center of the brain is so named because it is shaped like a pine cone. The pineal gland is considered our “third eye” and a center for enlightenment. Throughout history, pine cones have symbolized immortality and human enlightenment. The pine cone and the “third eye” are sources of inspiration for poets and artists.

Looking closely at a common pine cone can prove to be an uncommon experience when the perfectly sequenced pattern of Fibonacci spirals is recognized. It is remarkable that cones from pines were eaten by dinosaurs so long ago and today are still a favored food source for many wild animals and birds.

Sharon Quale is a master gardener from central Minnesota. She may be reached at (218) 738-6060 or