Sex among the Pines

I didn’t learn about Conifer sex till it smacked me in the face.  Our land has 22 acres of teenage pines and spruces as part of a certified tree farm, so how did I fail to  notice what was going on sooner?  I have been walking among them, cutting out double trunks and trying to keep the vicious Wild Parsnip at bay for years.  The things I noticed were that

  1. They were zooming up and out almost two feet  every year.
  2. They did it by shooting out fresh, soft green growth in spring as cute as a kitten.
  3. Some of them had a lot of cones that were rosy red in spring.
A male pine cone ready to party

A male pine cone ready to party

Now that their branches require pushing through to cross the rows,  I found out that those cute little red cones can envelope you in a cloud of vivid yellow powder if you tap them this time of year.  I suspected  my yellow coating was pollen.  Next day, back to town, I biked off to the Biology Library at UW-Madison to find out how Conifers grow, and I realized that I had interrupted a very slow and quiet orgy when I knocked into their branches.

As plant sex goes, it’s sort of  kinky.  Conifers are  gymnosperms, which means naked seed, an ancient plant form.  (Seeds didn’t put their clothes on and start to say it with flowers till 150 million years ago.) while gymnosperms were making merry 245 million years ago, in an era we know as the Age of Dinosaurs.

Passing up palm trees in search of tasty pines.  (photo by Catchpenny on Flicker)

Passing up palm trees in search of tasty pines. (photo by Catchpenny on Flickr)

You may picture those  Megalosaurus munching giant ferns, but they were no doubt packing away primeval conifers too

Though the Iguanadons are long gone, their preferred greenery is still going at it.

They do it with cones, which come in both boy and girl models – usually on the same tree.  The young male cones produce yellow pollen that I was knocking loose in colorful clouds.  When that pollen lands on ovules, which are waiting open to the air on the female cones, the pollen grains make their way into the ovule and tenderly fuse their nuclei.

After being pollinated, the female cones take their time to ripen and become woody.   Then they open and release the next generation.  Some pines hold onto their cones for up to 20 years, which will only open after a forest fire.  They cleverly let their seeds fly when all the competition has been reduced to ashes.  (This is probably the kind of trick they used to outlive the dinosaurs.)

Photo of female cone  from foxypar4’s photostream on flicker

Photo of female cone from foxypar4’s photostream on Flickr

We won’t see Pine sex by staring at a tree.  All the magic is happening at the microscopic level.  But you can still  see for yourself!  I came across the most amazing animated video that plays out the Conifer courtship dance  in breath-taking detail.   It’s a series of six short You Tubes. I skipped the first, it’s not as neat.  You have GOT to check them out, and I guarantee that you will never look at a Pine or Spruce the same way again.

My next post on Monday will look at the best time to transplant Conifers.

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