What is a Pine Cone?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A pine cone is an organ of the pine tree containing its reproductive structures. Pine trees are only one of the conifer, or "cone-bearing," plants; others include cedars, firs, cypresses, and redwoods. Pine cones, like the reproductive organs of other conifers, come in male and female varieties. In most species of pine, male and female cones grow on the same tree. The trees of some species have cones predominantly of only one sex, with a few of the opposite sex.

Pine cones are the reproductive organs of a pine tree.
Pine cones are the reproductive organs of a pine tree.

Pinus is a genus of trees with about 115 species. While all produce cones, their size and appearance differ slightly, and male and female cones also look different from each other. The image that most people associate with the pine cone, a woody, scaled structure, is actually the female structure. Male cones are smaller, more herbaceous, and shorter lived.

Pine cones.
Pine cones.

The male cone is usually no more than 2 inches (5 cm) long and lives for only a few months in the spring or the autumn, depending on the species of pine. It is covered with microsporangia, or pollen sacs. After it releases its pollen, it falls off the tree.

The redwood is a common example of a conifer tree.
The redwood is a common example of a conifer tree.

After the male cones release their pollen, it travels by wind to the female pine cones. After pollination, the female cone takes one and a half to three years to mature. Fertilization, the fusion of the sperm in the pollen with the ovary in the female seed, takes place a year after pollination. There are two seeds on each fertile scale of the female cone; the scales at either end of the cone are too small to support seeds.

Female cones are much hardier than their male counterparts, as they are designed to last until the seeds are dispersed. In some species, fertilized seeds are stored for years. Mature female cones are typically 1 to 24 inches (3 to 60 cm) in length.

In most pine species, mature female cones open to release their seeds when they reach maturity. Usually, the seeds have wings and are dispersed by the air. In some species of pine, however, the seeds have only a vestigial wing and are dispersed by birds. Some pines require the birds to break the cones open in order for the seeds to be released.

Some species, known as fire climax pines, store fertilized seeds inside pine cones that can only be opened by the heat of a forest fire. When a fire destroys living trees, fire climax pines release their seeds to repopulate the forest.

Pine trees are just one of the cone-bearing plants.
Pine trees are just one of the cone-bearing plants.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


A pine cone is a beautiful thing.


I like to make pine cone wreaths around the holidays. Some people prefer the more natural look of leaving them unpainted, but I like to spray paint them silver.

They just look so much more festive that way. They look great on wreaths with either cedar branches or pine needles that have been painted white.

I also like to put a few in a basket with some small red glass ornaments. The red is a really nice contrast to the silver.

Once the season is over, I can store them carefully in a box with tissue paper and use them again the next year. I've been using the ones I have now for six years, and they are still intact. I think the spray paint has preserved them.

@healthy4life – You've probably seen them but just didn't know it at the time. They look like brown striped insect wings, and the first time I saw one, I really thought it came from a dead bug.

If you have pine trees, you'll probably see these on the ground somewhere around the area. You generally can't see them by looking in a pine cone, because once the cones have fallen, they have already opened and released all their seed.

My dad said that each bristle of a pine cone can hold two seeds. I could see the spots where the seed had been, because they were a different color.


I don't think I've ever seen a pine cone seed. When I was little, I used to think that each sharp piece of the pine cone was a seed, but now I know better.

What do the seeds look like? I know the article says they have wings, but do they look wispy like a feather or more rough like the pine cone itself?

It amazes me that there is a pine tree that waits until its seeds are really needed to release them. It must come in really handy to have all those seeds suddenly available after a forest fire!

I have a friend who specializes in pine cone art -- not just wreaths and stuff like that, but glass pine cones, pine cone sculptures, etc.

It's actually really fascinating what she sees in them. I mean, I pass pine cones on the ground every day and don't even think about them, but to my friend, they're art.

I'm just glad that she can create things to show the rest of us what she sees.


How do pine cones differ between trees? For instance, would the pine cone from a spruce pine tree differ significantly from a white pine tree cone?

I have always thought that white pine tree cones were stickier than others, but perhaps that's just the pines in my yard producing a lot of sap.

Is there any real difference like that, or is a pine cone essentially always a pine cone?


There are a lot of pine cone crafts you can make too. Although a lot of people only associate them with Christmas crafts, a nice pine cone wreath as decor can look good all throughout the fall and winter.

Another nice little thing to do with pinecones is to make scented pine cones for the fireplace.

They can add such a nice scent to your fire, and are so easy to make. Definitely a very useful piece of nature.


Colorado Blue spruce and Pondarosa Pines in the mountains this year are heavily laden with pine cones. Does this indicate any changes in the cycle other than and very moist Spring?

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