Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was surrounded by conifers. For me, the smell of home is wet pine needles. Naturally, the Oregon state tree is the Douglas fir. I remember an outdoor school counselor telling us a tale that went something like this:
“One day, a fire was raging through the forest. All the little mice fled in terror, running from tree to tree, begging for their assistance. None were strong enough to withstand the flames of the fire. At last, the mice came to the Douglas fir, who offered them shelter. Climb up my thick trunk and into my branches, said the fir. There, you will find my cones. Hide beneath their scales and you will be safe from the fire. To this day, you can still see the little feet of the mice sticking out from beneath the scales of the Douglas fir.”
Can you see them? Of course, it took moving to a different state to allow me to really appreciate what makes these trees unique. As an undergraduate in Arizona, I learned that female pine cones can take up to three years to mature, and I was first introduced to the Norfolk island pine and Italian stone pine here in San Diego. And it’s not just the form of these plants that deserve marveling over! While most conifers seem to adhere to the standard blue – green color palette, their cones seem to have missed the memo! Gymnosperms may not have been given the evolutionary gift of flowers, but that doesn’t mean their reproductive structures are any less fascinating. Check out the pictures below for startling examples of color variation among conifer cones!