Slow for the Cone Zone

By Sara Malone
Female cones on Picea omorika 'Pendula Bruns'
Female cones on Picea omorika 'Pendula Bruns'

There are lots of reasons to add a few conifers to your landscape, and one of the most compelling is the decorative cones that many bear. Fir, or Abies, have the reputation for having the dressiest cones, but as you'll see, even the under-appreciated pines put on some stylish decoration that lasts all year. So slow down and observe when you pass a conifer and enter the 'cone zone'!

Wine red female cones drip off the branches of Picea orientalis 'Early Gold' in spring.

The following series of three images depicts the cones of Abies koreana 'Horstmanns Silberlocke' through the seasons. This tree wears gorgeous foliage even without its 'jewelry', and together with its cones makes one of the most decorative specimens in the garden, even giving floriferous angiosperms a run for their money.

The cones of Abies koreana (Korean fir) 'Horstmann's Silberlocke' in early spring

The cones start out as small, chartreuse gumdrops and then become lavender and celadon eggs with a texture and design that would make Faberge proud.

Korean fir, Abies koreana 'Horstmann's Silberlocke'

By autumn they have dried out and matured to rich rusty brown, resembling intricately woven baskets.

The autumn cones of 'Horstmann's Silberlocke' Korean fir shatter when touched, leaving their spindles.

The spruces (genus Picea) in the next two photos, taken at Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen, CA, have similarly shaped cones but with dramatically different colors. Well, some of us like emeralds and others prefer rubies - it's the same with cones.

The limey elongated cones of Wison's spruce (Picea wilsonii) complement the turquoise needles on this specimen at Quarryhill Botanical Garden.

Both Picea wilsonii and Picea likiangensis hail from China, and both get too big for most gardens, but we love to seek them out and enjoy their lovely ornaments. Both of these specimens are large and laden with cones.

spruce

As a general rule, firs hold their cones upright and spruces, as in the two examples above, have pendulous cones. The quite, unassuming Poulsen fir (Abies x. arnoldiana 'Poulsen' doesn't put out a huge display of cones every year, but when it does, it's a showstopper.

firs, conifers, cones

They start out in spring a rosy black-raspberry, then deepen to grapey purple.

pine cones

By late summer/autumn they have faded to a soft lilac.

Poulsen's fir with

Even though most of us call the cones of all conifers 'pine cones', the cones borne by pines look very different from those of the firs and spruces. Many of true pine cones look like they are carved out of wood when they are young, as with the new cones of one of the mugo pines (Pinus mugo var. mugho).

Like wooden scrimshaw, a baby cone of a mugo pine looks as if it is carved from one solid piece

With its yellow cone in early summer, this branch of 'Golden Ghost' red pine (Pinus densiflora 'Golden Ghost') resembles a bird with flamboyant plumage. The two-toned needles put on even more of a display than the cones!

Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) 'Golden Ghost' in spring with new needles and cone

In this photo of 'Golden Ghost' we see both this year's cone (the tiny 'carved' one on the left) and last year's mature cone (on the right).

pine cone, pine cones

This Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii 'Thunderhead') is a prolific coner, with lovely green, sculptural cones.

Japanese black pine 'Thunderhead'

Since we're moving through the colors, white pines have great cones, too! They are much more fragile than those of the red or black pines, and often have a sap glacee that makes them glitter in the sunlight.

pine cones

We mentioned emeralds and rubies earlier, but some cones are aquamarines. The cones of this Oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis) don't even look like cones.

pine cones

All of the cones that we've shown you so far are females - they contain the ovaries and ultimately the fertilized seeds. But let's not forget the boys! Unlike much of nature, where the male of the species gets the elegant plumage and fine feathers, in plants the male's display is generally less showy. But we think that this crowd of pollen cones on the 'Golden Ghost' pine are one of the trustiest signs of spring!

pine cones

So whether you're walking in your own garden or a botanical preserve such as Quarryhill, when you see a conifer, stop and take a look. If more people don't start slowing for the Cone Zone, Form and Foliage is going to begin issuing citations!

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