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You are here: Home : Articles : Pine Trees Last Updated on 03/03/2003    
Grow a Pine Tree from Seed

Article added by TractorUp on 03/03/2003
Full Article Title: Grow a Pine Tree from Seed
Coulter Pine Trees for Sale!
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Background Info:
Pine trees have two types of cones, male and female. The female cones are the standard recognizable pine cones - these cones contain pine tree seed (possibly over 200 seeds per cone, depending on species). Female pine cones are NOT seeds. The male cones (catkins) are much smaller and more fragile. They are generally an orangish color and they release pollen during the spring. Pollen is a fine yellow powder and can be seen coming out of the catkins when the wind is blowing. Catkins appear and then fall off the tree each year. The only part they play in allowing you to grow pine trees is that they fertilize the female cone when it opens to receive the pollen. The female cones take about 2-3 years to mature and produce viable seed. Female cones start out as green, and as they mature, they generally turn to a shade of brown or tan & have a more wood-like appearance. The shape of a female cone is fairly general. There is a central stalk to which many cone scales are attached. The cone scales form the classic cone appearance. Pine tree seeds are found inside of the cones. A cone has the ability to produce two seeds under each of its cone scales. However, the cone scales near the top and bottom of the cone are too small to allow proper seed development, so the bulk of viable seed is found in the central region of a cone - excluding a few rows of cone scales on the top and bottom of the cone. Another way to put this is that generally, the larger a cone scale is relative to other cone scales on the same cone, the more likely there will be (or once were) viable seeds under this cone scale. The cones will remain closed (cone scales tightly tucked together) until the cone is mature and for a variable length of time after maturity is reached (depending on species). (Note: some pine tree species' cones remain closed long after maturity until opened by fire). Generally, the heat of the summer will cause the cones to open - exposing the individual shape of the cone scales. The seed will tend to remain in the cone until the cone is dried and opened further. Thus pine trees generally dump the seeds out of the cones during fall months (Sept - Nov). Each seed comes attached with a fairly prominent wing (for most pine species, some have no wings & some wings just remain stuck in the cone after the seed falls out). The wing aids in seed dispersal allowing the wind to carry the seed up to a few hundred feet (on level ground) from the parent tree. The wing has the appearance of the wing of a flying ant (only larger, thicker, and woodier in texture). Seeds are often found on the ground near a pine tree with the wing still attached. The wing of most species seed will fall off fairly readily upon handling. The best way to remove the wing is to hold the wing in the fingers of one hand and the seed in the fingers of the other hand and pull your hands straight apart.

Finding Seed:
The easiest way to follow the process below is to go outside and pick up an opened pine cone from the ground and examine it as you continue reading. To get seed out of a cone, you must know where to look on the cone to find out if the cone has any seeds to give. (In the following, "top of the cone" refers to where the cone was attached to the tree, "bottom of the cone" refers to pointy tip of the cone opposite the top of the cone, "side of the cone" refers to the area inbetween the top and bottom - the tips of the cone scales.) Lay the cone on its side and select a prominant easy to observe cone scale. Look on the bottom side of the cone scale way back near the stalk of the cone; there will be two oval shaped impressions on the bottom side of the cone scale. Each of these impressions was once home to a seed that has since fallen out of the cone. Now that you know where seeds are located inside a pine cone examine the bottom-side of the other cone scales on the cone to see if there are any seeds remaining in the cone. The cone scales that are the most difficult to examine (excluding the top most and bottom most scales) are the ones that are likely to have trapped viable seed. A cone that has opened and fallen to the ground will generally have 0-10 trapped seeds (depending on species, age of cone, individual cone characteristics), 0-10 of which may be viable.

Thus there are two to three general ways to collect seed:
1) Collect these trapped seeds from fallen cones. You may have to sort through many cones to find a decent number of viable seeds. This method works well for Coulter pine but works especially well for Jeffery pine as Jeffery pine seeds are quite difficult to obtain using method (2) below in a forest setting. I have used this method to obtain Sugar pine seed & this is the only way I have ever got my hands on Sugar pine seed. It also works fairly well for other common nursery pines - Italian stone, Pinus eldarica (Mondell), and I assume it would also work for many other species. However, some species' cones open very completely and tend to dump all their seed leaving none trapped in the cone (Mugo pine, many Allepo pine cones); thus this method would not work well for cones that behave this way. For Coulter Pine (I describe the following method specifically for Coulter pine but it may work well for other species also): it is wise to shake the cone around a little, drop it, or bang in on the ground. This may dislodge trapped seed & is a good technique if you want to quickly go through a lot of cones on the spot without too much intricate effort to obtain seed. (Optional: If you have a bucket of water available, you may shake the cone under water & this works fairly well to remove seed.) Some seed may still remain trapped even after these treatments. You can hold the cone next to your ear and shake it and you may be able to hear seeds rattleing around in the cone. When you locate where the seed is, part the nearest cone scales and shake the seed out. Coulter pine cones scales do a good job at holding loose seeds inside a cone. Other seeds may be trapped tightly in their impressions and will not merely fall out with any degree of shaking or banging. This type of seed trapping is fairly common in Coulter pine (and Jeffery pine) and it is worth the effort to look under each cone scale to locate any that exist. When one is found, part the cone scales widely and try to shake it out. This will probably not work. Then get some needle-nose pliers and with the cone scales parted, gently grab the seed with the pliers and remove it gently but firmly either pulling striaght out or edgeing it out of its impression from the side of the seed. Do not twist on the seed with pliers, this is a very good way to crack the seed without removing it. (Jeffery pine seeds may crack open with any more pressure than a slight amount, Coulter pine can take a little more plier pressure because of the thicker seed walls). Every Jeffery and Sugar pine seed I've ever had I got from using the techniques in (1). Pliers where especially helpful with Jeffery pine.
2) Collect seeds off the ground. While the techniques outlined in (1) above are best for collecting seeds in the forest where there is a thick layer of ground cover, this technique is best for collecting a large number of seeds from trees whos fallen needles are regularly raked up. Thus this technique works well for trees that you may have planted in your yard that you clean up after. This technique requires 2 things: good eyes and a back that bends. This is an excellent technique for pine trees that have fairly large seeds such as Italian Stone (technique 1 is also excellent for Italian Stone) or Coulter pine. Things to keep in mind are that the larger & more easily visible the seed is, the more likely it has already been found by a bird or squirrel or something. For Coulter Pine: Coulter pine seeds are generally 5/16" to 3/4" in length and when fresh are covered with a dark brown to black color. This color wears off over time and leaves the seed a light tan color (these seeds are just as likely to be viable as the dark colored seeds). Decide which direction the wind normally blows for the area you are in and look around the base of the tree and a wide patch of land (for up to a few hundred feet from a single tree) in the direction the wind would have blown the seeds. Newly deposited Coulter pine seeds are commonly found with their large wing (1"-2") still attached. These are easy to spot on a light colored ground because the wings are a dark woody color. I collect the bulk of my Coulter pine using technique (2), with a much smaller number of seeds coming from the techniques in (1) above. There is a spot in Hesperia where large Coulter pines are planted near a property line. The seed blows off of the private land and goes right in my pocket. I can't get any closer than about 25ft from the trunks of the trees and still manage to collect about a hundred viable seeds per year from about three trees. If you want some Italian Stone seed find a large Italian stone and a property owner that will give you access to it and walk under the tree look down and there will likely be large (5/8" - 5/4") seeds everywhere. If you live in Hesperia a good hint is Hesperia Lakes.

3) The Selfish Seed Collector: collect whole unopened or very freshly opened mature cones. Don't use this method in the forest, it is too destructive. If you are collecting seeds from the forest you must realize that thousands of seeds are produced for every one seed that is lucky enough to land in the right spot and have the right things happen to it so that it may grow. Removing a large number of seeds from the forest, such as "by the conefull," will most certaintly be detrimental to to forest's ability to regenerate itself. In addition, seeds are a prime source of nutrition for many birds and squirrels who live in the forest. So my point is, don't piss me off, do this with your own trees on your own land.
Here's how: look for cones that will be easy to get to - those on low hanging branches or those that you can get by climbing a short distance up the tree. Alternatively, you may get whole ripe unopened (or very freshly opened) cones by trimming a tree at the right time of year.
What is the right time of year?: First do some background work and find out two things: (1)what a mature cone looks like for your particular species, (2)what time of year maturity is reached for your particular species (I have seen some dates on the internet for various species, but I don't recall where it was).

Remember: Wrong time of year or immature cone = waste of time!

Remember: Don't destroy the forest trying to get seed!

Separating the seed: Once you have a good number of seeds, put them in a bucket of water and mix them around good. Separate the seeds that float from the seeds that sink. If any seeds seem to be suspended in the water (not floating or sinking) put them in a special pile of their own.
Save all of the seeds that sink. Of the seeds that float, look for seeds that either float low on the surface of the water or float vertically, low on the surface of the water. Save these seeds. These seeds may be viable and they may not be. Only experience can help predict this with some accuracy. If you're curious, crack a few open, if the inside is not fleshy off-white, the seed is no good. But now that you've cracked it open, it is no good regardless. (Actually, I have managed to grow 2 trees with sucess whose shells had been removed, and they were a struggle.) Get rid of the rest of the seeds that float. The seeds that remained suspended in the water are usually the fastest to germinate, but this depends on the question of why they were not floating or sinking rather than the fact that they simply were not. A good percent of the time one can tell if the seed is viable or not but this just takes a lot of experience..
To recap:
You should now have up to 3 piles of seed:
1)Those that sunk (likey the largest pile)
2)Those that floated low on the surface of the water (likely the medium-sized pile)
3)Those that neither floated nor sunk (likely the smallest pile)
The seeds that sunk are the ones that you can count on the most to grow.

The right time to start:
For ideal growth, you want to have the trees spend their first weeks in non-freezing weather. I plant my seeds in the end of December or in Jan. and expect them due by March-April. However this is extrememly vairable depending on what you do to your seeds before planting as certain processes may speed this up: soaking, stratification, scarification.

Growin' the trees:
First find a sunny window INdoors to place the pots. If you start the trees outdoors you're asking for trouble from birds and squirrels & THESE EXTREMELY FOUL SMELLING CRAP WHITE MINI WORMS DESTROYING YOUR PRECIOUS SEED. Get some small growing cubicles (like the six pack ones that you can buy small flowers or tomatos in). The most important thing is depth not width & don't go overboard! I use Kellog's all purpose potting soil, others will do, but I just like Kellogs. Fill the pots up with the potting soil and water them very well. Push the seed vertically into the soil (one per cubicle) so that the top is barely below the surface of the soil and cover the top of the seed with a very thin layer of soil. Make sure you put the proper end of the seed facing down into the soil. The end of the seed which should enter the soil first is pointier than the other end. If it is hard to tell which end is pointier I think you have a defective seed ;-). Water occasionally, don't soak 'em but just keep the soil throughly watered at all times and just wait, be patient it may take a few months to see anything change..
A friend of mine uses the following technique with great success for Pinon pine: soak the seeds overnight and then place the seeds between a few layers of very damp paper towels. Keep the paper towels consistently very damp by spraying with a squirt bottle very often. Once the seed cracks open and the tap root begins to extend, the seeds need to be planted in potting soil, root end down (duh). The root (and future tree) will die quickly if it does not begin to get nutrition from actual soil, not paper towels.

When the seeds start rising:
This is a good sign. When the needles start bowing out you need to watch to make sure they continue to bow or grow longer. If they do, leave the tree alone; if they are bowed somewhat and then don't change for about two days, hold the tree in place gently but firmly and slowly pull the seed off. Also important, the tree will lean towards the window so it is necessary to turn the pots around so that the tree remains roughly verticle. As soon as the seed falls off, take the tree outside and plant it in about a 1-gal. sized pot (in potting soil) and keep it watered. If you take good care of it and give it exactly what it needs (who knows what this is?) it may grow up to a foot or so in the first two years. After the first two years it will likely be outgrowing the 1 gallon pot and it should be planted, preferably in its permanent location in the ground. Coulter pines that are planted in larger and larger pots tend to grow slower and are easier to kill (sometimes hard to keep alive). Water them well, very few trees are drought resistant in a pot and Coulter pine is not one of them.

An interesting note:
If you are lucky enough to find an unopened but ripe cone, it may contain ~170-200 viable seeds!! Getting all the seeds out without injuring them should take a few hours, water & pliers help.
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