A closer look reveals bunches of miniature pine cones right near the ends of the branches. What are these mini-cones? Are they baby cones? Well, sort of. They are in fact male cones, the part of the tree that produces and releases pollen. Pollen appears as yellow dust on your car, your sunglasses, or as a yellow water mark around mud puddles.
Unlike later evolving flowering plants which require a living insect like a butterfly or beetle, or even a bird such as a hummingbird to disperse pollen to fertilize the eggs, pines, spruces and firs are more primative and rely on the wind to carry the pollen. As sure as the summer wind will blow, yellow clouds of pollen will waft across our valley for the next couple of weeks, encrusting our landscape in a layer of sperm.
With all of this wind-borne pollen blowing around, surely some pollen will land on the appropriate female cones and fertilize the eggs to produce viable seeds. There is a unique shape to the pollen from each species of conifer, sort of akin to a lock and key system. Only the correct shaped pollen can make the fit to fertilize the egg produced within the female cones. Interestingly, this process of fertilization may take up to a year to complete.
With any luck, pollen from a distant tree will fertilize the egg and create a seed that possesses the strongest characteristics contributed by both the male and female counterparts. All of this genetic coding is locked within a seemingly simple seed which may not germinate for decades.
Seeds from the cones are food for pine squirrels, and for birds such as red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, or Clark’s nutcrackers. Seeds or cones may be cached by these critters and forgotten about. Or eaten seeds may pass through the digestive system and be dropped in an entirely new place. Birds, squirrels, and other animals such as bears play a crucial role in dispersing seeds from many trees, shrubs, and plants in the natural world.
As you take a backcountry hike during this beautiful summer season, and you sense that your vision is being clouded, remember you may have to pull your hanky from your pocket to wipe the sperm off of your glasses.