‘Making’ Christmas is a big theme these last few years in the economic doldrums and there are lots of ways to create some Christmas cheer with the simplest of natural decorations, less tinsel, slightly more effort involved but certainly fun using available free resources. I am of course thinking ‘tree’ products such as fallen twigs and amazing conifer cones.
The conifer cone is a wondrous object and never fails to entice us to pick it up and enjoy its beautiful rhythm and pattern that nature has bestowed upon it. It is armoured to protect the precious seed tucked in close to its centre core beneath each of its woody petals called scales. Held close in damp weather, the scales open when hot and dry (some only open when a forest fire occurs) and only then can the winged seed float on the wind to the forest floor. Usually the cone and its short stem will dry out and eventually snap off of the tree like an autumnal leaf and more seeds are released if its scales are open as it bounces. These are the female ‘pistallate’ cones; the male ‘staminate’ cones are usually much less conspicuous and diminutive in scale and some grow like catkins. Some cones have evolved differently and are more like singular seeds and rely on birds to disperse them such as those of the juniper (berry).
Cone producing trees include pines, spruces, cedars, fir, larch and cypress trees and more, known collectively as Confers from the Latin meaning ‘to bear cones’. Most conifers bear both the staminate pollen producing and pistallate seed bearing cones and are therefore described as monoecious. There are a few such as the junipers and yews, which grow the staminates on a separate tree to the pistallate tree — the terminology to describe these plants is dioecious. All conifers rely on the wind to pollinate by carrying the pollen from the staminate cones into the pistallate cones which is when fertilisation takes place, the seeds then can take a season to mature or several years.
Most plants produce seeds and are grouped into two parts — the angiosperms and the gymnosperms. Angiosperms are the largest group and incorporates those plants which bear ‘covered’ seeds such as apples, melons etc where the seeds are embedded in the fruit. The smaller group of less than 1000 species are the gymnosperms, which produce ‘naked’ seeds (‘gym’ from the Greek: the gym was once a place to use whilst naked), these gymnosperms evolved before flowering plants and conifers are in this group.
One of these historical offspring The Monterey pine, although a native of California, produces a stunning cone found here in West Cork. The Monterey cone is large, dense and variegated in tone, its lip like feature on the end of each scale is a darker hue on the inside of the scale accentuating the pattern and there are plenty of these heavy handfuls to be collected although this tree can hold on to its tough cones for 50 years being a species that requires extreme heat conditions to release its seeds. The equally mathematical construction of the papery smaller cones of the much maligned Sitka spruce are no less decorative, these are lightweight and delicate reminding me of tiny wasp nests. They have a more elongated growth pattern than the Monterey cone and perhaps being commonly grown will be easier to find. The distinguished Scots pine produces a medium size cone and has fewer scales, which create a very open shape when dry. Occasionally you may come across a Bhutan or Himalayan blue pine here and these have a large banana sized and elegantly shaped cones to add an exotic to the mix. Sometimes the cone is the only way to identify a conifer species, see how many you can find.
Treat yourself to a country walk under some conifer woodland, have a sortie with the kids for cones and twigs littering the pathways, bring them home and lay them in front of the fire for a few days to ensure they are dry and fully open, so they are looking their decorative best. Give them a shake and the remaining seeds will fall out – (perhaps you might plant them in Spring) and have fun gluing and wiring your arrangements together, daubing with paint to accent the edges if you want to; tie a little garden string or decorative ribbon to create a very ornamental delight and add to the festive spirit in the home. Your local garden centre will have string and a couple of options on different gauged wires really cheap (as in less than €2 for a spool yards long)!
A slightly more unusual decoration/toy is a ‘Cone Cow’ this is a popular children’s activity in Finland and Sweden whereby youngsters forage, usually on summer walks, for their cones and find four suitable sticks to push between the scales of a cone to support the cone as its legs and the animal is complete. They have little competitions for the best looking most stable one – a lovely simple game to be encouraged here. Perhaps your Cone Cows could extend your nativity scenes or simply made to march along window sills this Christmas; remember any damp air will alter these animals’ appearances and stability, as cones will close again if not warm and dry, so last one standing could be a winner too.
After the season, the cones make great kindling to start a few January fires being full of the pine resins which inflame so easily, or keep them for years, a few might get damaged but they are really tough objects and can last longer than a childhood and will evoke happy family memories in years to come.
Leave the precious Holly and Mistletoe to grow on and thrive, pick up some cones, make stars with the twigs and don’t forget to look up and admire the rich green and blue tough little leaves called needles and see next year’s cones decorating the living Christmas tree wonderland. Merry Christmas everyone!
Grant Jenkins – The Tree Company. If you need any further information regarding this article or indeed any other tree matters please get in touch with us at The Tree Company, Ballydehob, Co Cork or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our office on 028 37630.