Every year around the holidays, a large group of plants called the evergreens steals all the attention away from the popular deciduous trees. The beautiful fall colors have all fallen to the ground and are now a distant memory. It is now the look and scent of the evergreens that we desire.
The two largest groups of plants for our gardens today are the angiosperms, or flower-producing plants, and the gymnosperms, the cone-producing plants. The most common members of the gymnosperms are evergreen, but not all: the ginkgo and the larch bear cone or cone-like fruit and are deciduous. When dealing with living, growing plants, it seems there are always those tricky exceptions.
Pollen or seed
The cone-producing evergreens bear two types of cones: the pollen-bearing cones and the seed-bearing cones. The seed-bearing cones are typically larger and can be found singly or in a cluster of two or three, depending on plant variety. They have woody scales that protect the naked seed inside until pollination. The seed-bearing cones are typically found located in the middle to upper part of the tree and are generally slightly toward the center of the plant.
The pollen-bearing cones can be quite small, and some look just like miniature versions of the seed-bearing cones. These cones often go unnoticed, perhaps because in the spring when pollination on evergreens occurs there are so many flower-bearing angiosperms in flower that they gain all our attention.
The small pollen-bearing cones are typically found in a cluster toward the ends of the branches to facilitate wind-blown pollination of the seed-bearing cones above. The best cone production occurs when you have several of the same species planted together, as the wind can do a more effective job of pollination. In an urban environment, we often don’t have enough space to plant more than one large evergreen, so cone production is typically minimal. To see the best display of cones, visit a local park, botanical garden, or cemetery.
The seed-bearing cones are beautiful, and while pine is the largest group of cone-bearing plants, you can still have hemlock cones, spruce cones, larch cones, cypress cones, juniper cones, and more. If you find a good location to harvest cones for decorating, beware—some cones are prickly and some are very sticky.
It can take one to two years for some seeds to mature after pollination and, once pollinated, the seed can remain dormant within the mature cone for many years. Most seeds are shed right after they mature. The sticky resin coating you find on some evergreen cones protects and prevents all the seeds from being released at the same time. As it wears off, the seeds can be released to fall to the ground and begin germination.
Arranging your cones
It is always a good idea to wear gloves when harvesting and decorating with fresh cones. If you are using them in the house, make sure to protect any delicate or valuable surfaces while assembling and placing your arrangement. Resin and sap of evergreens is tricky, if not impossible, to remove. It is just as hard to get it off your hands. I have hosted several holiday parties over the years with pine or spruce sap and resin stuck on my hands from assembling fresh centerpieces and wreaths the day of the party.
Pine cones, as a rule, are the most popular to decorate with. They seem to have the least amount of resin and the most variety of sizes to work with. The one exception is the common white pine, whose cones are very sticky and hard to work with. Our native Virginia pine has nice, small cones in clusters of two or three that are beautiful in decorations or on wreaths. Many of the cones 6 inches long or longer that you see in popular decorations are from pines that are native to the western United States and shipped in for us to enjoy.
Cones can come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. One of the most fragrant and versatile evergreen foliages to decorate with is our native cedar, or juniper. When the evergreen branches are full of tiny juniper cones, which most people call juniper berries, they can make any arrangement look and smell good.
This holiday season, before you begin decorating your home for the holidays, take a walk out in your garden or on the farm first. You may be surprised at what you find to work with, from evergreen foliage and cones to nandina berries or stems from your red maple or red twig dogwoods. It’s good to use a little of the winter beauty that Mother Nature provides, and celebrate the holiday with simplicity, peace, and love.