These are the cones of (left to right): ponderosa pine, spruce, Douglas fir and Coulter or big cone pine.
The pine cone was so huge that as I passed a garage sale near home, I could see it from the road. And I knew I had to have it. Best of all, this wasn’t really a sale, rather a large pile of items no longer needed or wanted by a rental cabin management company and the accompanying sign said, FREE. I jumped out of the car and snatched up the cone, fully ten inches tall and six and a half inches wide and weighing almost two pounds, and immediately went home to research its origin and give it a prominent place in my collection.
I had assumed that such a large cone must surely originate in some exotic place far from here. Turns out, however, that this is the cone of the Coulter Pine or Big Cone Pine, a species that grows in the coastal mountains of Southern California. It is also considered the largest cone in the world, sometimes weighing eleven pounds and up to sixteen inches tall when ripe.
Cones are often collectively called pinecones but more species than those of the pine genus bear cones. Firs, spruces, cypresses, redwoods, larches, redcedars and junipers all bear cones although they may vary markedly in appearance. For instance, a juniper cone looks like a blue berry but is really a cone.
All of these trees and shrubs are collectively known as conifers, or, “cone bearing”. They are also known as gymnosperms as opposed to angiosperms. “Sperm” means seed, “gymno” means naked and “angio” means covered. Conifer seeds are naked within the cone, not covered by a hard coat (ovary) or a fruit.
Conifers have both male and female cones, sometimes on the same tree. Male cones are quite similar across all species. They are small, herbaceous (non-woody) and last only a few weeks. They produce the pollen that fertilizes the ovules in the female cone. In Island Park, residents refer to pollen time as the Yellow Season. For about a month, conifer pollen can be seen blowing from trees and covering everything in fine layers of yellow pollen. Clean it up and it is back in a few hours.
Once the female cone is pollinated, it begins to develop with two seeds on individual plates called scales. Unlike male cones, female cones are highly distinctive between species and are often important in identifying them.
Cones vary widely in size, shape. Some, like my Coulter Pine cone, have heavy thick scales with sharp hooked ends while others are soft and paper-like. Those of the genus Pinus are the archetypal cones with woody scales and the classic egg-like shape. Pine cones also take the longest to develop—between 18 and 24 months with some species requiring 36 months to full maturity.
Pine cones, with their hard-shelled woody exterior, may persist on the tree for up to eight years. Fir cones, on the other hand, often disintegrate on the tree shortly after shedding their seed and may never hit the ground intact. Spruce cones, typically produced in the upper third of the tree, are papery, but drop to the ground at maturity and may be found in abundance there until they decay. Those of the giant, Western redcedar, are only half an inch long.
Cones of most other species ripen within six to eight months, completing their cycle in one season. However, many conifers, including spruces, firs and Douglas-fir, produce cones in a two-year cycle. Cone buds are produced in the first year and then cones develop and mature in the second year.
Pine cones, in particular, have one other use. They open and close depending on moisture levels. Dry conditions favor seed dispersal so cones, on the tree or on the ground, are more open during drier conditions and closed when moisture levels are high. That gives a crude indication of the moisture level of the forest floor and the current wildfire risk.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho