The conehead’s big adventure

The rain had stopped. I opened the door out to the back patio so that I could hear the birds sing their joyful morning songs. The sun (yes, the sun!) was just beginning to move past the grove of large Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) delivering its warming rays of life to my garden. It was a beautiful morning.

Then I saw the weeds.

Back in February, we had a dry stretch and I was able to weed the entire garden. It looked great. The rains returned and like guests overstaying their welcome, it settled in for weeks and weeks. Weeds love a constant supply of moisture and mild temperatures so new seeds germinated and now I have quite a job ahead of me.

I sat, drinking my morning tea, admiring my wife’s ability to make a delightful bran muffin, trying to come up with a way to enjoy this very positive change in the weather without crawling around on the ground pulling weeds. I thought about hiring a young helper, but the budget is still a little tight and youngsters seem to have much more expensive goals these days than they did when I was a kid. Stalling as long as I could, I finally got out of the chair, put on my boots, my vest and my hat when my phone rang.

“Ed here”

“Ed, I’m heading out to the fields today to see if I can get some new shots – wanna ride along?”

It was my photographer friend at Iseli Nursery – and he was asking me to join him on a photo shoot? Sounds better than weeding!

“I’ll be there in 30 minutes.” I said while calculating in my head that I was sure I could get there in at least 20. I kissed my wife and was off.

Mr. Smith met me at the door of the office and out we went.

“I’m looking for cones today, Ed. With all this rain, it’s been a couple weeks since I’ve been out there. I’m sure we’ll find some new developments.” He said with a big grin.

Pinus leucodermis 'Indigo Eyes'
A cluster of three tiny, indigo colored cones begin to develop surrounding an apical bud of this years new growth. These cones could be found on nearly every new shoot of Pinus leucodermis ‘Indigo Eyes’.

Over the next three or four hours we found dozens of treasures. We both got excited every time we spotted something we hadn’t seen before. 2010 appears to be a fantastic year for cones in the Pacific Northwest. We found cones so tiny that their details could only be seen with a magnifying lens (or my friend’s macro lens on his camera). Some cones were large and fat and were easy to spot from some distance. Others were camouflaged with nearly the same colors as their surrounding foliage. Some were green or pink or purple or combinations of all three. Some appeared like fat swollen nodules stacked one upon the other. Others had many long wings protruding from their textured outer skin. Some had openings as if to allow the pollen to enter, others were tight and solid looking making me wonder how the pollen entered at all.

Pinus leucodermis 'Indigo Eyes'
The larger purplish blue cones were last years tiny new cones. They will open to drop their seeds later this year. Next year at this time, they will be brown and wide open – some will have fallen from the tree.

It was an exhilarating experience and I was almost giddy. Near the end of our journey, we came across a small crop of Pinus leucodermis ‘Indigo Eyes’. These wonderful small trees were covered with cones. Old, dry, brown cones were the lowest on these three to four foot trees. Large, dark purplish blue cones adorned the whorls where this year’s new growth had emerged and tiny, indigo colored cones sat in clusters of two or three or even as many as seven surrounding the developing apical buds. This was a cone lover’s tree if I had ever seen one.

Pinus leucodermis 'Indigo Eyes'
Looking carefully, you should be able to see three generations of cones, from the tiny cones at the tips of each apical shoot, the maturing larger purple cones and a faded light brown older cone or two hidden in the foliage.

I told my host that I thought I was about to have cone-gasm. My friend glanced over at me with a combination of question and surprise on his face and then we both burst out laughing. It was one of those rare laughs that seems uncontrollable and goes on and on. I haven’t had an experience like that in quite a number of years. Finally the laughter subsided; we wiped the tears from our eyes and swapped Jean Iseli stories as we drove back to my car.

I didn’t get any weeding done in my garden, but I’ve got memories of a great cone hunting adventure in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Conifer Lover

Ps, I’ll ask Mr. Smith to post some of the other cone shots at our Facebook group – join us there to see more pictures from our great cone-hunting adventure (click the link in the right side menu).


Facebook alert!

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog entry for this important announcement:

The Amazing World of Conifers is now on Facebook!

With quite a lot of encouragement (and help from my friends) I’ve started a conifer page on Facebook. I hope it will become a place for coneheads to come together and share their own conifer gardening experiences. Post photos of your garden or favorite conifers and share gardening tips and tricks.

I hope you’ll join the group!

Conifer Lover

Are you a Conehead?

Abies koreana Aurea
Abies koreana ‘Aurea’

I have considered myself a Conehead for many years now, and yet, I don’t claim to come from France. I remember the first time I saw the Conehead sketch on Saturday Night Live back in the late 1970s. I told my friends back then that I was a true Conehead, unlike those on the TV. One of my friends mentioned that he had always thought that I was from another planet referring, I presume,  to my non-conformist wardrobe choices and lack of interest in the disco scene of the day.

Yes, even back in the late ’70s’ I was a Conehead – a conifer lover.  I love the year-round color that conifers can provide with their fantastic and sometimes seasonally changing foliage color, but quite often, it is the cones themselves that provide the color and seasonal interest.

Picea orientalis Aureospicata
Picea orientalis ‘Aureospicata’

My favorites begin as very colorful red or purple “buds” that grow  into symmetrically balanced spirals of winged pockets designed to  protect the seed as it develops and then allows the seed to launch into the wind or be relocated by birds or other wildlife at maturity.

Very colorful cones may be discovered growing on some cultivars of Abies koreana (Korean Fir), Picea abies (Norway Spruce), Picea orientalis (Oriental Spruce), Pinus parviflora (Japanese White Pine) or Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas Fir). These colorful cones can add excitement and interest to the spring and early summer garden. The detail in these young cones can be stunning, often only visible with a magnifying glass or a good macro lens on the  camera.

Pseudotsuga menziesii Blue
Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Blue’

As the cones continue to grow and mature through the summer months, their color may change and become darker or even tinged with a different hue. Most will begin to ooze resin which can actually sparkle in the early morning or late afternoon sunlight. At maturity, many cones will have turned brown and the seed-holding pockets will have spread and opened allowing the seeds to escape. The larger dried cones are what we often see used decoratively in flower arrangements or in wreathes and swags during the winter holidays.

Cones add to the multi-seasonal appeal of conifers and are one of the reasons many gardeners consider themselves Coneheads all over the world.

Conifer Lover

As always, thanks to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the photo links.