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Cones are time-tested packaging

Pick up a pine cone (or a spruce cone or a fir cone). What is this dry, brown thing in your hand? Think of  it as an egg carton.

Pinecone
When the cone was green in the spring, each of the layered scales created a sealed compartment for one or two seeds. Toward the end of summer, the tree allowed the cone to dry out. As the scales dried and shrank, the compartments popped open and the seeds were scattered to the wind.

You can find many sizes and shapes of cones among the more than 100 kinds of trees in the Conifer Collection at The Morton Arboretum. Their ancestry is ancient: Conifer fossils go back 300 million years.

Conifers thrive today around the world, often in northern forests where a tree has to be tough to survive. But farther south, where the living is easier, it’s harder for them to compete with trees that have more modern reproductive technology: flowers and fruit.

Flowers entice insects to provide precise pollen delivery as they flit from bloom to bloom. Conifers, however, must depend on the wind to waft pollen to fertilize seed-producing cones. It’s a much more chancy procedure.

Yew
Plants offer fruits and nuts to animals so their seeds can be carried far away. Conifers depend mainly on gravity and wind to distribute their seeds. With animals’ help, the seeds and genes of fruit-bearing trees can cover a lot more territory.


Some conifers try this strategy too. On a yew, a single seed pokes out of a bright red oval (don’t taste it; it’s toxic). On a juniper, you can find clusters of small dusty blue balls. These are not fruits; both are actually cones, modified over millions of years to lure animals like a cherry or a blueberry does.

You’ll find a wide variety of cones as you wander among the conifers: white pine cones as long as your hand, eastern hemlock cones that never get much bigger than an olive, arborvitae cones that look like little brown tulips tucked along the branches. It may not be as flashy as a flower, but the cone has kept trees like these green and growing since before dinosaurs walked the earth.