Conifers and cones

22 November 2015 | 0 comments

This seems like a seasonal topic, and one I prepared a short talk about last year. Time to dust off those notes and write a quick aide memoir.

The word conifer derives from the latin ‘conus’ cone and ‘ferre’ carry. Perfect.

Cones on a spruce

Cones on a spruce

Fir, pine or spruce? The needles are the key. On true pine trees, the needles are arranged and attached to the branches in clusters of two, three or five needles per cluster. Spruce and fir trees have their needles attached individually to the branches.

To tell spruce and fir trees apart, it helps to know that spruce needles are sharply pointed, square and easy to roll between your fingers. Fir needles, on the other hand, are softer, flat and cannot be rolled between your fingers. Spruce needles are attached to small, stalk-like woody projections.

Larch is the one that sheds it’s needles in the winter. Lots of these in the Alps; for years, I thought they were conifers with some dreadful disease.

Cones on a fir tree

Cones on a fir tree

What about the cones? Does size matter? Apparently, not much in this case. Again, the pine is easier to identify because it’s got a flat bottom and it has woody scales. It makes some of the best Christmas decorations. The overlapping scales of the fir and spruce are softer and thinner.  Douglas fir is really easy, as the cone scales all have three little barbs at the end.

pine cones

Cones on a pine tree

More interesting facts about cones: There are male and female cones, the males are smaller and tend to sit lower on the tree because the wind will ‘waft’ up the pollen grains to the female cones sitting ready with their seeds. Then it can take 18 months to mature in the female cone before being released. Time slows down when you’re a tree….

So which one is the Christmas tree? The ‘most traditional’ and certainly the one I remember from my childhood, is the spruce, but it loses needles quickly and those needles are pretty sharp (both characteristics, not so fondly remembered) but a great smell! These days, pines and firs are just as common. Confession: we have our instant fibre-optic wonder tree, ready in 5 minutes (includes 4 minutes to get it down from the loft).


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