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About Conifers and Cones

by Joan Bergsund, Master Gardener

Following the delightful February “false spring” we experienced winter again, with snow blanketing the deep green of our local evergreens at even the lowest elevations.

Let´s not leave the high country this season without identifying a few of the conifers and their cones.

Conifers can include pines, cedars, cypress, firs, hemlock, junipers, larch, spruce and yews. We will cover just a few of the cone-bearing pines in this article.

Almost everyone recognizes the sugar pine cone because of its impressive size. According to Scott Brush, Forestry Technician and Biologist, writing for the Summer/Fall 2005 issue of Sierra Seasons, in Tuolumne County the largest Pinus lambertiana grows in Yosemite, and stands 270 feet tall and is nine feet in diameter. The cones range in size from 12 inches to 24 inches in length. Drive up Highway 108 toward Pinecrest and beyond. You can spot the sugar pines with their cones hanging from the tips of the branches in late summer and fall, long before the cones drop to the forest floor. When we acquired our cabin at Pinecrest, some 20 years ago, we were amused to see that some previous owner had hung sugar pine cones from the porch overhang. We maintain this treatment and consider it part of the cabin´s persona. We have replaced the cones, a few at a time, as they do deteriorate from exposure to year round weather.

Next in order of pinecone size is the Pinus sabiniana, also called the Bull Pine, Grey Pine, Ghost Pine or Foothill Pine. This cone is almost round and can be six inches to eight inches in length as well as width. The cone is very heavy, weighing between three-quarters of a pound up to two pounds, and the spines are very sharp; if one were to fall on you or your car the damage would be severe.

The Pinus ponderosa and the Pinus jeffreyi have similarities. The bark of both, when exposed to the sun, smells like vanilla. You may see hikers standing with their noses pressed to the trunks—they´re just identifying the tree and inhaling the scent. The ponderosa pinecone is small, three to six inches in length, while the jeffrey is slightly larger, from six to nine inches long. The ponderosa cone has scales with sharp points that turn out, inflicting painful damage on your hands when you try to pick them up. The jeffrey´s scale tips turn under, leaving your hands damage-free when you handle the cones—thus, the jeffrey´s other name as the “gentle Jeffrey.” The cones of both these trees seem dinky when contrasted to the size of the trees.

Do you have pines growing on your property? They are not fussy about soil, but do require good drainage. Once established they need very little water. To manage the growth of your pines, Sunset Western Garden Book recommends cutting back the candles of new growth by half in the spring. Sunset lists 45 different species, so if you want to add a pine or two to your garden, do your homework. Check local nurseries which will carry a few of the varieties. Pines have varying heights and growth patterns; the wrong choice could quickly overwhelm a garden. Your selection will grow for many years. Think of it as a heritage tree of the future.

Many years ago I shipped one of the small unidentified spruce trees offered by a familiar holiday catalog to my Grandmother living on Cape Cod. The property has changed hands, of course, but I “visit” the tree whenever I visit the area. That little 10-inch tree now stands at least 10 feet tall. I love seeing it and remembering earlier times.

If you have collected a variety of cones you´ll notice they are often covered with sticky sap. Place the cones on a cookie sheet protected with several layers of newspaper in a low oven for an hour. Turn off the oven and let the cones remain in the oven as they cool. The pitch will melt off and leave the cones easy to handle. Be sure to use your lowest setting on the oven. This technique will also kill any critters lodged within the cone; important if you plan to use the cones indoors.

If you search the internet for “pinecone,” you´ll reach many sites which sell pinecones as a craft item. If you use a search engine to look for “conifer,” you´ll find more information of interest to the gardener. At any rate, take a good look at the conifers around us; memorize the silhouette and the cone.

A Master Gardener since l994, Joan Bergsund enjoys the mature Ponderosa pines and more- recently planted deodar cedars on her property.