Now that Thanksgiving is over, it is finally time to shamelessly dive into all things Christmas. At least for me it is. All over America for those who celebrate Christmas, this month of December is synonymous with green and red, holiday movies, peppermint everything, and of course, the all important tree. Pine trees have become a symbol of this holiday, be it the Christmas tree itself, the scent of pinesap in Christmas candles, or wreaths made from branches and pinecones. No doubt we are all very familiar with pine trees, but do we really know how complex they are? From different gender pine cones to seeds that only fall in the event of forest fires to their ability to survive and flourish in extremely dry and cold climates without water for as long as 6 months strait, pine trees are some of the most interesting and durable trees in existence today.
One of the most fascinating things i found out about pine trees is their reproductive methods. Unlike most trees which flower in order to reproduce, actually have two different kinds of cones, males and females. The male cones, which are much smaller than female cones, are responsible for spreading
One of the most fascinating things i found out about pine trees is their reproductive methods. Unlike most trees which flower in order to reproduce, conifer trees (all trees that produce cones for reproduction) actually have two different kinds of cones, males and females. The male cones, which are much smaller than female cones, are responsible for spreading
mass amounts of pollen to the wind. If you are a Pennsylvania native, you have no doubt walked outside in the spring only to find everything covered in a thin layer of yellow dust.
This is pollen released from the male cones looking for unfertilized female cones. As for the females, they begin as hard, tightly compacted cones with unfertilized seeds safe between closed scales. When the female cones begin growing, the scales open up slightly to allow the males pollen to reach the seed and begin the fertilization process. The scales close back up, and for the next three years they remain closed as the seeds inside grow and reach maturity. After three years, the fully grown female pinecones re-open and allow the fully grown seeds to be taken by the wind or animal in order to find soil in which it can germinate and grow into a pine tree sprout.
There is one type of pine tree in particular though that raised my eyebrows. The Bishop Pine tree is found primarily in the south west united states, an area well known for its dryness and frequent wild fires. Once the female cone receives the pollen, it closes and reaches maturity like most pine trees, but once matured, Bishop Pinecones don’t open. Instead of immediately releasing the matured seeds, the cones will wait for intense heat, more specifically that of a wildfire, until they open up and release their seeds. This is an extremely advantageous trait specific to its region, because a forest after a wildfire is the ideal breeding place for new foliage. there is a plethora of sunlight for new saplings to feed on along with extremely nutrient rich soil left from the fire. Bishop Pinecones have been known to sit in full maturity for over 10 years until they receive enough heat to open their pinecones. Talk about adapting to a specific environment.
The other thing that struck me about conifer trees is their incredible ability to survive and maintain. In a way, they are like the sharks and crocodiles of the plant world, unchanged for millions and millions of years for one simple reason, what they have works and it works well. There is a reason that conifer trees have survived virtually unchanged for 300 million years, and that is that they are designed to survive. While most plants have evolved to use flat leaves in
order to capture maximum sunlight and water, conifer trees all have thin needles. Though these do capture significantly less sunlight, they are much more effective at water retention during droughts and hot spells, allowing conifer trees to go weeks if not months without water. They also don’t fall off during winter, as opposed to flat leaved trees. This means that during the winter months, conifer trees can still photosynthesis with the limited sunlight and moisture, allowing them to be efficient all year long. These needles also tend to form in uniform clusters, allowing for maximum water retention while avoiding snow build up in the winter. These needles are also very difficult for any animal to eat, with little nutritious value and a chemical called terpene, which tastes bad and deters consumption. All of this allows conifer trees to be abundant in areas where little can live, primarily high longitudinal and latitudinal locations where temperatures are harsh and resources scarce. There is a reason that the oldest, tallest and thickest living things in the world are all conifer trees.
This is a lot of information about something that most people don’t give a second thought to, but sometimes knowing how something works can give you a new appreciation for that thing, so the next time you look at a Christmas tree remember that you are looking at a dinosaur, unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, the perfect survivalist. Feliz Navidad.