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Rich in cones: North state has diversity of conifers

Whitebark pine cone

Whitebark pine cone

Whitebark pine is one of the interesting conifers in the north state. The trees grow on the highest peaks. Clark’s nutcrackers spread their seeds.

Redding Record Searchlight – December 23, 2011 –

The simple beauty of pine cones makes them a natural for seasonal decorations, but trees do not produce their cones to beautify our tabletops, mantels and wreaths. The purpose of a cone is perpetuity. Cones are part of the reproductive process that keeps tree species going.

That’s not to say that the conical components can’t be appreciated for their fine looks.

“I think they are beautiful,” said Julie Kierstead Nelson, botanist with Shasta-Trinity National Forest. “They have a sculptural quality. There’s something that resonates with people After all these years of being in the woods, I can’t pass a crop of Jeffrey pine cones without stopping and picking some up and admiring them.”

If you like cones, the north state is a good place to be.

“We’ve got a huge diversity up here,” said Jay Thesken of the Shasta chapter of the California Native Plant Society in Redding, who has a labeled cone collection. “This is like a cone collector’s paradise.”

Port Orford Cedar cone

Port Orford-cedar grows only in northwest California and southwest Oregon. Its wood is some of the most valuable in the world.

“This is one of the most diverse conifer forests,” said Michael Kauffmann, a conifer expert in Kneeland near Eureka. There are as many as 38 species of conifers in northwest California, including the rare Brewer Spruce and Port Orford-cedar, which grow only in the forests of northwest California and southwest Oregon.

“The two conifers are nowhere else on the planet,” he said.

Kauffmann is author of “Conifer Country,” scheduled to be published this spring. A science teacher at Humboldt State University, he got interested in conifers after taking notice of the region’s many different trees while hiking and backpacking.

Redwoods, pines, junipers, cedars and spruces are all conifers. They don’t look the same but they all make cones. People are most familiar with the woody female cones — the seed-bearing cones. But conifers have male, pollen-producing, cones too.

“Male cones are really small,” Kauffmann said. “They hang on the underside of the branch and are less than an inch long, as a general rule.”

Trees usually have both male and female cones. Wind moves pollen from the male cones to the female cones. Conifers have “naked seeds” not encased in an ovary, making them gymnosperms, a group that evolved some 300 million years ago, Kauffmann said. Gymnosperms are more primitive than the more successful angiosperms — flowering plants that enlist the help of insects and other creatures for pollination, he said.

Conifers make lots of seeds, and many get gobbled by wildlife. Birds snatch seeds while cones are still high on trees. Douglas squirrels climb into trees and snip off cones, letting them crash to the ground for seed collection.

Western Juniper cone

Juniper berries are actually cones. They are eaten by birds and turned into gin by people. Western junipers grow east of Scott Valley.

Cones remain closed until seeds mature, then they open so the seeds can be released to the wind. “There are little wings on the seed and the wind will catch the seed and blow it far enough away that it has its own little property to grow on,” Kauffmann said.

Not all trees use that strategy, however. “One of our rarest conifers doesn’t have wings on the seed. It depends on Clark’s nutcracker to move its seeds,” Kauffmann said.

Whitebark pines grow at high elevations and can be found near Mt. Shasta, on Mount Eddy and in the Trinity Alps, Kierstead Nelson said. Clark’s nutcrackers give the trees a way to defy gravity and move their seeds uphill, she said. A nutcracker might cache 20,000 or so seeds for the winter in groups of about 100 seeds, Kauffmann said. “They are spread all over the landscape.”

The birds forget about 20 percent of their hiding places, he said. Those forgotten seeds have the potential to become seedlings. “It’s mutualism, where they depend on each other,” Kauffmann said of the tree and bird.

Another interesting conifer in the north state is the knobcone pine. Fire triggers its cones to open. “They mature but stay closed and stay on the tree until something comes along to make them open, and that would be a wildfire,” Kierstead Nelson said.

Brewer spruce and Port Orford-cedar are endemic to the Klamath Mountain region. Brewer spruce prefers the higher elevations of the Klamath Mountain region. There are populations near Castle Crags as well as the Trinity Alps. Port Orford-cedars grow in coastal mountains from Arcata to Coos Bay, Ore., but a pocket survives near Castle Crags, Kauffmann noted.

Northern California’s assortment of interesting conifers includes Englemann spruce, which grows in the Russian Wilderness near Etna, one of only two California locations for the tree, Kauffmann said.

The cones of conifers come in a range of sizes and forms.

“Junipers have a berry. It’s a cone that never grew up The cone remains fleshy, but the seeds are in there,” Kauffmann said.

Sugar pines have the longest cones. “They get close to 3 feet long in the Sierra Nevada, but are not quite as big around here,” Kauffmann said.

Brewer Spruce cone

Brewer spruce is endemic to the Klamath Mountain region. Like other spruces, it has cones that hang down.

Gray pines, common in Redding foothills, produce very heavy, spiked cones that “are dangerous to car tires,” Kauffmann noted. They also are loaded with sap. Pitch protects seeds from insects.

“A lot of pine cones have pitch, but those have an inordinate amount,” Kierstead Nelson said.

Coulter pine, which doesn’t grow in the north state, has claim to the heaviest cones. A cone can weigh 10 pounds. Thesken’s collection includes a Coulter cone he found in Southern California.

Piñons are unusual because their cones have nuts that people like. “There is only one conifer that people use as a food source, to my knowledge, and that’s the piñon pine,” Kauffmann said. “There are three or four species in the Desert Southwest and species in China.”

The way a cone grows on a tree is an indication of the type of tree.

“Fir cones always sit upright and they are almost always at the very tops of the trees,” Kauffmann said. “Spruce cones hang down and generally are at the top of the tree. Pine cones can kind of go either way, but mostly they are hanging down.”

It’s OK to take a few cones home with you from Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Kierstead Nelson said. If you want 12 or so, there’s no need to bother with a permit, she said.

“If you are going to collect a larger amount — a fair amount for personal use — go to a local district office for a free use permit,” she said.

If cones are collected to sell, a commercial permit must be purchased. Price depends on how many cones will be harvested. Cones cannot be collected from Lassen Volcanic National Park or any other national park.

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