How to Identify Tree Cones

Updated February 21, 2017

Cones are the reproductive structure of evergreen trees. The tree cone is comprised of scales that hold the seeds and pollen. The cones need the right environmental conditions for the scales open and release the seed. Female cones are usually larger and produced in summer. They contain the seed, which is fertilised in the following spring. Male cones are smaller and contain the pollen that will fertilise the females and start the reproduction cycle in motion. The scales are woody and sometimes have barbs on the end. There are many variations in size, texture, shape and colour.

Put on the gloves and lay the cones out to consider their shapes. Sizes can vary, especially on pine cones, but the shapes are fairly consistent. Fir cones are elongated and slender. They will lose their scales in autumn so all that will be left is the centre of the cone. Pines are chubbier and have a more pyramidal shape. Spruce female cones are smaller and more rounded than either pine or fir cones.

Observe the cones' textures. Pines often have a small barb at the tip of the scale. Their cones are woody and quite hard. Spruce cones are thinner and the scales are more delicate than pine scales. Fir cones are papery in texture and the scales overlap. There are three forked bracts that dangle from the bottom of each fir cone scale.

Using the magnifying glass and tweezers, extract a seed from each type of cone. The pine seed is notable in that it is winged but the papery covering hides a pine nut. Fir seeds are winged on the end of the seed and the tiny spruce seeds have no wings. Certain conifers form an aril or small, berry-looking seed dispersant fruit. Birds eat this and then the seed is planted in a new area.

Things You'll Need

  • Selection of cones
  • Gloves
  • Magnifying glass
  • Tweezers
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About the Author

Bonnie Grant began writing professionally in 1990. She has been published on various websites, specializing in garden-related instructional articles. Grant recently earned a Bachelor of Arts in business management with a hospitality focus from South Seattle Community College.