Indeed, the photograph in Monday’s “mystery” post was a cone, or “conifer flower” as one respondent said. Coniferous trees do not have flowers, per se, but their eponymous cones serve the same reproductive purpose. Not all cones are the same, though – each species has both female cones, which contain the seeds of the plant, and male cones, which serve to pollinate those seeds-to-be. They also serve to make you sneeze – and in fact, it almost seems like they are designed that way! Plants that have both male and female reproductive parts on one plant are known as “monoeicious” (literally, “housed in one”). On most monoeicious conifers, the female cones are near the top of the tree, while the male cones are more prevalent in the bottom half. This prevents the tree from self-pollinating, but it means that for the pollen of the male cones to reach the female cones of the neighboring trees, it has to be not only blown, but even lifted by the wind! And hence, it makes us sneeze.
The cone in Monday’s post is actually a male cone from a White Spruce (Picea glauca) in northern Wisconsin. But why are they red?? That is a question that, though I’ve tried all week to find out, I still can’t answer. Most of the other white (and black) spruce that I’ve seen have normal yellow-ish-brown cones. When I saw these lying on the ground, I thought at first that they were strawberries! In discussions with other people, they report seeing bright red or pink cones on other species as well, though they’re still in the early stages of development this spring. In my internet searches, I have found that different states and provinces list white spruce cones as alternately brown, yellowish, purple, red, pink, and green. It seems like there is quite a bit of variation possible! I saw one (and only one) comment that conifer cones at high altitudes or northern latitudes are likely to be pink or red – but the commenter specified that it was really high altitudes/latitudes – near the treeline. This tree was in pretty much the same place as all the other trees… but maybe it was just an anomaly.
I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled this spring! And, hey, you do, too – have you seen red cones where you live? Do you know what they’re attributed to? This is one mystery that has not yet been completely solved!