This was a good fall for collecting. Crabapples and cornelian cherries littered the sidewalks. Acorns and beechnuts and hickory nuts abounded. Take a look around some oaks or rock outcroppings in the park and you’ll find the unmistakable traces of rodents snacking. Find a patch of ivy or winterberry or viburnum and you’re likely to see some feathered friends having a meal.
We couldn’t let this bounty go to waste, so we collected as many woody fruits as we could, baked them in the oven to kill off any biotic travelers, and photographed them. The seeds and cones and pods will all end up labeled and mounted, and I’ll share the images on the blog and the Plant Image Library (which is growing every day!)
The horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) above, shown with its spiky pod, is a fairly common sight in many parts of Boston. This beautiful fruit falls from the split pod, a phenomenon called dehiscence. Along with many types of fruit from this genus, horse chestnuts are often kept in one’s pocket to ensure good luck. They are slightly poisonous to humans, and ironically, to horses, but can be eaten safely by some mammals including deer.
The acorn of the red oak (Quercus rubra) is a common sight to a New Englander. Many of the oaks I maintain produced impressive masts this fall. The acorn is a much-loved and well-used symbol in many cultures. Ecologically, the acorn is an important food source for mammals. Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are the most voracious consumers of acorns, and are often seen in groups wandering the roads of Massachusetts in search of choice foraging locations.
This is the fruit of the Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), a species native to the southeastern US. The fruits of this tree are rather beautiful, with four papery wings. They remain on the tree well into winter. The Halesia that I maintain is very old and produced an incredible abundance of fruit this year.
American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) produces a woody structure of capsules sometimes called a “gumball”. Its spiky outer shell can sometimes be transported in the fur of passing animals. Containing a multitude of seeds, the hard fruit of the sweetgum is often considered a nuisance by gardeners and landscapers.
This is my favorite find of the fall, the empty seedpod of the sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). This structure is considered an aggregate, and when ripe, contained a number of small seeds that were likely pillaged by rodents and birds.
On to the cones. The cone of the pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is hard, stout and prickly, and can occur in clusters on the tree. Cones from previous seasons are often retained on trees and can be found in various states of aging. Pitch pines are especially well-adapted to wildfires. In addition to sprouting new growth from old wood, pitch pines produce some cones that shed seeds in response to fire, a phenomenon called serotiny.
I love pitch pine cones for their deep color and precise geometry. Fresh cones are hellishly spiky and one should take great care removing them from trees.
The cone of the Norway spruce (Picea abies) is much longer and narrower, with tight, overlapping scales. Norway spruce is planted widely as an ornamental tree and is tolerant of many different climates.
The oldest vegetatively cloned tree in the world is a Norway spruce named Old Tjikko located in Sweden. While the trunk of the tree is relatively young, it is part of a root system that dates back almost ten thousand years. Conifers like these spread clonally when low-lying branches become covered with snow and come into contact with soil. These branches send out adventitious roots that may later develop their own above-ground anatomy.
The cones of the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are minute at only 2-3 cm long. Their thin scales each contain a pair of tiny seeds with membranous wings, and will be blown out of the cone upon reaching maturity.
This resinous, red-brown cone is from the Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii), a graceful tree that is often planted in botanical gardens worldwide.
And that’s all for now! For those interested in saving cones and other woody plant parts, make sure you properly sterilize them to avoid introducing pests to your home, plants and pets. We bake our specimens at 200 F for about fifteen minutes, which should be sufficient to desiccate most living organisms. Be careful not to burn your new finds.
Thanks for reading,