Let them eat pine nuts

Aside

Ponderosa pine cone with spines to protect seeds.

Ponderosa pine cone with spines to protect seeds.

Pinyon pine cone has no spines. Animals are free to take the nuts, some of which you can see on the pine cone scales on the right center of the cone.

Pine trees use two strategies when it comes to seeds. Ponderosas and many other pines produce cones with a spine or bristle at the end of each pine cone’s scales to keep animals from pilfering the seeds. Their seeds often have paper “wings” to help them float at least a little distance from the parent tree.
Other pines have a different strategy for producing their next generation. These trees scatter their seeds far from the parent. To do this, the trees enlist animals to spread and bury the pine seeds. First, the cone scales have no spines, which makes it easy for animals to get to the seeds.  Second, pine seeds are very nutritious, high in amino acids and fats. This makes them very important food sources for turkeys; squirrels; bears; deer; pinyon, Stellars and scrub jays; and other wildlife. Third, in good years, there are lots of seeds.
People enjoy pine nuts as well. From ancient times to today, they have harvested pine nuts, roasted them and savored their wonderful flavor. Piñon seeds can now be gathered in many grocery stores.
In Colorado, piñon and limber pine use the “let-them-eat-pine-seeds” philosophy. In fact, piñon means “seed” or “nut” in Spanish. These pines produce huge amounts of seeds every few years, so that in good years the animal populations have plenty to cache, or bury, for later use. The animals forget many of these caches, and then the seeds are free to sprout new trees in new territory.
But if limber and piñon pines dropped the same number of seeds every year, the animal populations would grow to match them. This would let the critters eat too many of the seeds, rather than caching them. Instead, these pines only drop a good seed crop every four to seven years, so that the animal populations are overwhelmed with nuts.

Ponderosa pine cones

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Green ponderosa pine cone.

    I am always amazed at how much there is to see when hiking the same trail over and over again. I was up at my Project Budburst site yesterday, checking on the progress of my plants. The ponderosa pine that I watch is in the process of opening its cones. I’d seen small cones developing on the tree, and I’d of course seen mature cones at the base of the trees. But I had never noticed this just-about-to-open stage of growth before.
    The large woody ponderosa pine cones often remind people of a pineapple, although the two plants are about as distantly related as it is possible to get and still photosynthesize. Even at this early stage, you can see the small bristle on the end of the big scales.

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Open ponderosa pine cone.

    Ponderosas produce relatively few cones every year. Because they produce only a few cones and therefore only a few seeds, ponderosas are determined to keep animals from getting the seeds. To protect their seeds, each pine cone scale has a small bristle at the end of it.
    Just a few days older, this cone has opened, and is drying out. Soon, it will fall to the ground. Eventually, the seeds will work their way out of the cone, hopefully to be one of the lucky few to slide into a protected crack in the rocks before they are gobbled up by a squirrel or jay.

Project BudBurst Begins in Jeffco

Several months ago, I responded to an add in the local papers for volunteers for Jeffco Open Space. At their open house, they had many different options — desk

Chokecherry ready to bloom. Notice that the tiny flowers are still folded up on most of the blossoms.

Chokecherry ready to bloom. Notice that the tiny flowers are still folded up on most of the blossoms.

worker, naturalist, trail maintenance. All these were possibilities, but the option I signed up for in the in was that of plant monitor for Project Budburst.
At the training session for Project Budburst, they asked us why we had chosen that particular program to volunteer with. People gave variations on the idea that they wanted to be out in nature, to enjoy the plants. When it was my turn, I told them that I signed up because I like to fill out data forms. That got a laugh, as I knew it would. But I wasn’t joking. If I want to be in nature, I grab my stuff and go for a hike. What I had been craving, the need Project BudBurst will fill was Doing Science.
The data forms are not the point, of course. It’s collecting the measurements and comparing them to other locations and other years. What could be more fun than to see how ecosystems change through time and space?

Chokecherry past flower. It took just four days for all the flowers to blossom and drop their petals.

Chokecherry past flower. It took just four days for all the flowers to blossom and drop their petals.

I’m monitoring three plants: chokecherries, ponderosa pine, and a grass called big bluestem. I visit Apex Open Space two to three times a week to see what growth stage the plants are at. This information will be used for everything from pollen alerts to trail closures as bears search for berries. And of course, through the years, it will give ground data on Global Climate Change.

This spring started off slow — too snowy for the plants to be doing anything. But a month ago — just a month! — and the snow storms tapered off. The plants exploded in growth, trying to make up for lost time. Chokecherries went from first blossom to last in just four days,  and are now working on producing fruit.

Ponderosa pine producing pollen. Notice the yellow pollen flying out after I flicked the tiny male cone with my finger.

Ponderosa pine producing pollen. You can see the yellow pollen grains flying out after I flicked the tiny male cone with my finger.

The ponderosa pine have just put out their first needles, and at about the same time, begun to produce pollen. I can tell; people around me are sneezing and sniffling with pine allergies.