Those plants that do not produce flowers but instead produce seeds protected within some sort of cone are gymnosperms. Among the most recognizable gymnosperms are the pines and firs found throughout many parts of the United States. The cones of these trees differ in shape and size from species to species but all have the same function. They contain the naked seeds of the plant and protect them from the environment before eventually opening and dropping the seeds before falling from the tree.
The pine tree family includes as many as 35 kinds in North America. The cones of pine vary widely in size and shape. Those of the eastern white pine for example are long, with some up to 8 inches in length. They lack spines and have a slightly curved appearance but are not stiff. On the other hand, the cones of the knobcone pine are harder, have prickles and are quite compact. The sugar pine of the Pacific Coast region, which can grow to be 200 feet high, has the longest cones in the world, with some over 2 feet long.
Most cone-bearing trees are evergreen, but this is not true of the larches. These species have needles, but they will fall off as new ones replace them. The cones of the western larch are as long as an inch and a half. Those of the tamarack, a common tree in the Great Lakes region and across Canada, have 2-inch long cones. The cones of these species grow in an upright position rather than hanging down and can remain for years on the tree.
The spruces are cold climate trees that have an assortment of cones. The red spruce of the Northeast has 2-inch long cones that quickly fall from the branches after releasing their seeds. The Brewer spruce of the Pacific Northwest has 2 to 5 inch long cones that have a purplish shade to them. Sitka spruces, a tree that attains heights of 200 feet, has light brown cones that rarely exceed 2.5 inches in length.
Hemlocks and Firs
The cones of hemlock trees grow on and hang from the ends of the branches. Some are oval, such as those on an eastern hemlock, while others have an oblong shape, like the mountain hemlock and the Carolina hemlock. Mountain hemlock cones reach 3 inches long; the eastern hemlocks are not even an inch long. The fir trees of North America have perhaps the widest selection when it comes to their cones. Some have a barrel shape, such as those of the California red fir. Others are green, compact and 4 inches long, with the balsam fir a prime example.
Other trees that produce cones include the largest in the world in terms of height, the redwoods, and the massive giant sequoias. Oddly enough, the redwood cones are no longer than an inch. Bald cypress has cones that resemble miniature hornet hives. The cedars of the continent have cones; some more open than most and others look like someone glued their pieces together to a central point. The junipers have cones that closely mimic berries, and many people will mistake them for such as they are fleshy, bluish or red and just a fifth of an inch wide.