People walking through the woods can kick pine cones — unless you make wreaths, what else would you do with them?
Especially in a mast year when the evergreens go into reproductive overdrive, their cones — brown-scaled, white-tipped with dried resin — can all but cover a pathway.
That may be happening this year.
“Actually, white pines,” said Jeff Ward, chief scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. “They are thick.”
Because they are something that we can kick around, it’s easy to overlook the complex duty pine cones have — to armor and protect conifer seeds through the long months it takes them to mature.
“I don’t think people think about that,” said Ann Taylor, executive director of New Pond Farm, the nature center in Redding.
“People notice acorns because they fall on people’s heads and on their cars,” said Paul Elconin, land conservation director of the Northwest Connecticut Land Conservancy based in Kent. “I don’t think they notice pine cones.”
Tom Philbrick, professor of biology and environmental studies at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, said mast years may be the result of environmental conditions — rain or drought — that may have occurred two years before.
They may also be a tree’s attempt to overwhelm seed-eaters by producing so big a crop in one season that some seeds escape predatory pecks and nibbles to take root as seedlings, guaranteeing the species’ survival.
And often pine tree mast years — when the cones land in dry-bone rattles — can occur across the landscape.
“We can have a pine cone mast year here in Newtown,” Philbrick said, “Then I can go up to western Massachusetts, and there’s one going on there.”
Evergreens start the cone-making process in the spring.
Female flowers blossom at the top of the tree. Pollen-producing male cones (which are insignificant little things) form in the middle of the tree. They release their pollen and the wind carries it up to the flowers. That mating makes a pine seed.
These seeds are small and come into this world naked, without any protective layer — no shell, no covering. They also need several months to mature.
So the tree grows cones in its top branches. The seeds take up residence on the underside of the cone’s scale — two to a scale. The cone is green, sticky with resin and tightly-bound at the beginning, then tougher and drier as it ages. It can open in dry periods, and close when it’s wet.
Cones come in all shapes and sizes. Cones from white pines are long and thin, red pine cones short and round. Hemlock cones are marble-sized. Red cedars and junipers grow cones that look like berries.
Ward said the cone protects the seed from predators as it matures — insects get stuck on its resin, birds can’t easily peck through the scales.
“Although red squirrels can do a pretty good job with them,” Ward said. “They like pine nuts just as much as we do.” (Pine nuts are, in fact, just big pine seeds. Only about 20 pine species in the world produce them. The ones we eat in New England come from pinyon pines growing in the Southwest and in Mexico.)
In time, conifer seeds mature. The cones open fully, and the wind blows them out into the world in the fall. Ward said they chill out in leaf litter over the winter and are ready to germinate in the spring.
The cones, their duties done, dry up and fall. (Dry and resin-soaked, they make great kindling.)
The seeds are a major source of food for over-wintering birds and beasts.
“Nuthatches, jays, chickadees, cedar waxwings, goldfinches,” said Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society. Ditto for winter finches showing up in their winter excursions from Canada — pine siskins, redpolls, purple finches and evening grosbeaks.
Comins said squirrels and chipmunks also depend on pine seeds for winter fare. In turn, bigger predators — hawks and owls, bobcats and coyotes — eat those pine seed-fattened scurriers.
Add the protection evergreens lend to birds and beasts during winter storms, and their value to the state’s ecosystems is very important.
They are also under stress, attacked by invasive insects such as hemlock woolly adelgids and Southern pine beetles.
Comins also said warming temperatures may eventually force speciessuch as black spruce to vacate the premises and shift north.
“We’re at the southern end of their range now,” he said. “Climate change, wouldn’t be favorable to them.”