Loblolly Pine, Pinus taeda, cone and seedsIn your backyard, if you have a pine, spruce, fir, Douglas-fir, hemlock, cedar, yew, larch, Monkey-puzzle Tree, Norfolk Island Pine, or Bald Cypress, -- all trees or bushes -- you're living next to a conifer. Conifers are not defined as being evergreen or having needles instead of regular leaves, though that's usually the case. Conifers, as their name hints, bear cones -- like the cone of the Loblolly Pine, Pinus taeda, shown at the right -- instead of real fruits. Remember, only flowering plants have real fruits, and conifers are gymnosperms, which are not considered flowering plants...


It's a pretty sight when a large pine showers clouds of yellow pollen through bright rays of sunlight. If you park your car beneath a pine when it's shedding pollen, you'll earn a yellow-tinged car. On the day your car gets pollinated, try to track down exactly where on the pine the pollen is being produced. You'll find it issuing from clusters of small, bright yellow, wormlike items snuggled among the needles. Shake the limb they're on and you'll fog the whole area with pollen.

Catkins of male flowers on the Loblolly PineIn the picture at the left you can see those "small, bright yellow, wormlike items," each "worm" consisting of hundreds of pollen-filled stamens arising from a stringlike axis. This picture is from a Loblolly Pine next to my home. The silvery spikes above the wormlike items are sheathes around immature groups of pine needles. The picture was made in March just before the young needles erupted from their silvery sheathes to form long, green needles, like those seen in the picture radiating outward from the twig behind the flowers and sheathes.

Conifer pollen, such as the pollen produced by the "worms" in the picture, is transferred from male to female parts by wind, not by insects, birds, or other pollinators. This primitive, shotgun approach to pollination accounts for the huge quantity of pollen each tree produces. Nature just accepts that the wind will blow nearly all the pollen to the wrong places, and that almost all of it will be wasted. On the other hand, it takes only one little pollen grain among the millions and millions in any pollen cloud to do the trick.

Conifer pollen grains are equipped with two tiny, ear-like flaps that improve the grains' ability to ride on the wind. The "ears" behave like tiny parachutes. If you have a microscope, this is something to look for.


Conifer seeds are produced in tiny scale-like things called seed cones or ovulate cones. These are completely different from the yellow, wormlike, pollen-producing cones you shook next to your car. At pollination time, seed cones are so small and inconspicuous that most people never notice them. Clustered among green conifer needles, they often look like little brown buds bristling with scales. Once seed cones are pollinated and the pollen grains' male sex germs have united with the female sex germ in the ovules, the seed cone begins growing and ultimately becomes the kind of pine cone we're all familiar with.

Not all conifers produce seed cones. The female parts of junipers and yews are so highly modified that one can be forgiven for believing they are real fruits. Junipers produce berry-like structures while yews produce bright, fleshy, syrupy items looking much more like cherries than any kind of cone. To be convinced that such creations are not regular fruits, you must study how they develop.

Therefore, it's true that conifers have flower-like pollen, and even real seeds, but it's also true that conifers don't have real flowers. This state of affairs makes sense if you think of conifers as a kind of in-between invention nature came up with as it evolved from a time when spore producing plants such as mosses and tree ferns dominated the earth, to now, when flower-producing plants are dominant. Nature went step by step. After the spore producers there came gymnosperms, which eventually perfected the pollen and seed strategies. Later, the flowering plants arose, bringing with them the new idea of placing ovules inside pistils, which we know mature into fruits containing seeds. In other words, pollen was invented before fruits were.

In a way, then, conifers are like typewriters. Typewriters represent an in-between stage in mankind's technological evolution from writing with the hand, to using today's computer-based word processors, just as gymnosperms stand between spore-producers and flowering plants...

That was a naturalist joke.

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