or portions of two days, I watched a red squirrel clipping and caching cones
from the crown of a towering white spruce. It was a bumper crop that season,
and thousands of cones hung in bunches throughout the tree. The squirrel
seemed intent on visiting every bunch in the upper branches as it feverishly
clipped and cast cones down to the forest floor. I was curious and counted
all the cones I could find lying beneath the tree. I came up with 235 before I
Conifers produce cone crops erratically; there will be years of complete cone
failure, years of poor to moderate cone production, and, periodically, years in which
a staggering number of cones burden the trees. In such a year, our squirrel’s single
white spruce may produce 10,000 or more. Bumper mast years produce such an
excess of cones that predators can’t possibly consume them all – guaranteeing the
tree opportunities for successful seed dispersal, germination, and recruitment. The
relationship between mast crops and the animals that feed upon their seeds is a
remarkable, though not fully understood, phenomenon. For example, ecologists have
noticed that prior to a bumper cone crop, squirrels may produce an additional litter of
young, presumably to benefit from the surfeit of food later on. What tips the squirrels
off? One theory suggests that the over-abundance of male pollen cones in the spring
cues the squirrels, causing them to increase their reproductive output and hence
benefit from the bonanza of cones that will follow by summer’s end.
Vertebrate cone seed predators in our region include red squirrels, red-backed
voles, cedar waxwings, black-capped and boreal chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches,
common redpolls, white-throated sparrows, pine grosbeaks, and pine siskins. Of
course, others occasionally take part, too. During a period of severe food shortage
on Baccalieu Island in Newfoundland, red foxes were seen climbing balsam fir trees
and eating the cones. In the West, scrub, stellar, and pinyon jays, along with Clark’s
nutcrackers and pine squirrels, collect and cache millions of pine seeds, and grizzly
and black bears dig up and consume many of these nutritious, oil-rich food stores.
Native peoples throughout North America have used conifer cones in many ways.
Seeds were ground up and made into a powder that served as a delicacy when mixed
with deer fat. Dried juniper berries were mixed with fish oil or animal fat, as well as
with other fruits, such as mountain cranberries, and made into the original PowerBar.
Juniper berries were also brewed as a hot beverage. When all else failed, green twigs
and cones of spruce were boiled in maple syrup to produce a potent beer. Medicinally,
spruce cones were relied upon to cure toothaches, indigestion, diabetes, hyperactivity,
fever, pneumonia, arthritis, colds, snake bites, tapeworms, and urinary problems. An
all-purpose apothecary for breeding was helpful for contraception, inducing labor,
assisting women after childbirth, and curing venereal diseases.
Cones come in a variety of shapes, from globose to ovoid to cylindrical; they may
have blunt or pointed ends, and they may point up, like the firs, or down, like the
spruces, hemlocks, and white pine.
Not all cones are seed cones. Seed cones are the female fruits of conifer species, and
a typical seed cone’s woody scales cover and protect the ripened ovules underneath
them. Seeds are impressed against the inner wall of each scale. In the case of our
squirrel’s white spruce, there are two seeds per scale for a total of approximately 130
seeds per cone. Though they don’t look the same, the male reproductive organs that
provide pollen are also considered to be cones. They are found on the lower branches of
most conifers or on the tips of juniper branches. (Most species of juniper are dioecious,
meaning that a particular plant has male or female cone flowers on it, but not both).
Male flowers are exquisitely intricate and colorful.
What follows is a look at some of our region’s cones.
Story and Photos By Susan C. Morse