Pine cones are loved so much that they are brought into our homes as decorations in floral displays, wreaths, crafts, even as scented holiday décor. We even fashion bird feeders by smearing peanut butter and seeds on them and hanging them from trees. And, even though pine cones are cones specifically from pine trees, we tend to refer to any tree cone as a pine cone (conifer cone).
The pine cone comes in two types, male and female. Most of the time both types can be found on the same tree. The female pine cone (seed cone) is dark and has a woody stalk with overlapping scales. It produces pine seeds when it becomes fertilized. These are the larger cones seen and recognized on trees and on the ground around pine trees. The other type, the male pine cone (pollen cone) is much smaller than the female and it carries pollen sacs under its modified leaves. The male cones are usually found on the tree's lower branches. After their pollen is released, in the spring, they wither and die. Real pine cones take two years to reach maturity. Other conifer cones mature in the same year of fertilization.
The different species of pine trees dispense their seeds in different ways. With the white pine, the seeds are dropped from the cone in the late summer of the second year after fertilization. The cone drops to the ground shortly after. The Jack pine has some cones that open naturally while others may remain on the tree for ten or more years until it is exposed to intense heat that only a fire can bring. The black spruce (not a pine) matures in one year yet may only release a few seeds at a time with the cone staying on the tree several years.
Most pine seeds have "wings" which is natures way of distributing the seeds out and away from the original tree. These wing-like features carry pine seeds much further than many other tree seeds. The wings in a stone pine are just a narrow ridge. White pine seeds have larger wings and they are attached firmly, where yellow pine seed wings are loosely attached. Yet pinion seeds have no wings at all. The wings cause the seed to whirl as it falls, making a slow decent and giving the wind more of a chance to catch it and even land several miles away.
Although all pine trees produce cones with seeds, only 20 species make seeds large enough to be considered edible pine nuts. The tree in Europe most often harvested for pine nuts is the stone pine. The Korean pine and the chilgozo pine are used in Asia and in North America there are three particular pinion pine cones (Colorado pinion, single-leaf pinion and Mexican pinion) harvested for their nuts. Other pine trees that are harvested, but not as often, are the grey pine, torrey pine and sugar pine.
Although pine nuts have been eaten for centuries and used in vegetable, meat and fish recipes, they are most associated as a main ingredient in Italian pesto sauce. Coffee made from the pine nut, called pinion, is used in Mexico and southwestern United States. It's a dark roasted coffee with a nutty flavor. Pressed pine nuts are made into a light oil and is favored for it's antioxidant and appetite suppressant properties.
Pine cones seem like a natural choice for country or cabin décor as well as for holiday decorations. There are a few tips to follow, however, to make your experience better. After collecting the cones, lay them out on foil over a cookie sheet and bake for about 45 minutes in a low temperature oven (about 200 degrees). This allows the sap to dry, the seeds to fall out and it will kill any insects living inside the pine cone. After they have cooled you are ready to use them in a special decoration or craft.
An outdoor bird feeder can be fashioned from a large pine cone. Start by wrapping a wire or string around the top layer of woody scales, leaving the end long enough to be attached to a tree. Next, smear peanut butter over the cone and then roll it in bird seed or sunflower seeds until it is thickly covered. Chill the pine cone bird feeder in the freezer for approximately one hour. Tie the cone to a tree branch and enjoy the birds as they eat.