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Spruce cone colors at peak

by William (Ned) Friedman, Director of the Arnold Arboretum
May 18, 2019

spruce cones

Spruce cone colors at peak

This week in the conifer collection you can catch a fleeting view of spruce (seed) cones emerging from the tightly packed winter buds. Young spruce cones, like most conifer cones when they are flushed from a bud, are dramatic shades of red, purple, pink, and even yellow. If this seems surprising, given how often you have walked by spruces and other conifers in the spring without seeing these colorful young cones, there is a good explanation.

Most conifers produce two types of unisexual cones, pollen cones (male function) and seed cones (female function) on individual trees – the term for this is monoecy. Seed cones tend to inhabit the upper portions of the tree, so that over time, as a spruce, for example, reaches for the sky, you are less and less likely to see any of the amazingly colored seed cones anywhere near eye level. Of course, tons of pollen cones can easily be found at human heights.

For a fantastic opportunity to see magnificent young conifer seed cones at eye level, head to the Yezo spruce, Picea jezoensis (502-77*B) in the Conifer Collection. This small tree has loads of cones right now and I am certain you will find the effect pretty breathtaking. While there, note that the lower branches only have pollen cones, while seed cones are present on the uppermost shoots. Evidence that female function moves up in conifers!

For more young spruce cones, from Picea abies to Picea wilsonii, head here.

spruce cones

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