form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care

Slow for the Cone Zone


Bruns weeping spruce (Picea omorika 'Pendula Bruns') has gorgeous purple cones

Bruns weeping spruce (Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’) has gorgeous purple cones

There are lots of reasons to add a few conifers to your landscape, and one of the most compelling is the decorative cones that many bear.  Fir, or Abies, have the reputation for having the dressiest cones, but as you’ll see, even the under-appreciated pines put on some stylish decoration that lasts all year. So slow down and observe when you pass a conifer and enter the ‘cone zone’!

Wine red female cones drip off the branches of Picea orientalis 'Early Gold' in spring.

Wine red female cones drip off the branches of Picea orientalis ‘Early Gold’ in spring.

The following series of three images depicts the cones of Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ through the seasons. This tree wears gorgeous foliage even without its ‘jewelry’, and together with its cones makes one of the most decorative specimens in the garden, even giving floriferous angiosperms a run for their money.

The cones of Abies koreana (Korean fir) 'Horstmann's Silberlocke' in early spring

The cones of Abies koreana (Korean fir) ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ in early spring

The cones start out as small, chartreuse gumdrops and then become lavender and celadon eggs with a texture and design that would make Faberge proud.

Korean fir, Abies koreana 'Horstmann's Silberlocke'

These cones decorate a tree that is already stunning, with its curved silver-lined needles.

By autumn they have dried out and matured  to rich rusty brown, resembling intricately woven baskets.

The autumn cones of 'Horstmann's Silberlocke' Korean fir shatter when touched, leaving their spindles.

The autumn cones of ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ Korean fir shatter when touched, leaving their spindles.

The spruces (genus Picea) in the next two photos, taken at Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen, CA, have similarly shaped cones but with dramatically different colors.  Well, some of us like emeralds and others prefer rubies – it’s the same with cones.

The limey elongated cones of Wison's spruce (Picea wilsonii) complement the turquoise needles on this specimen at Quarryhill Botanical Garden.

The limey elongated cones of Wison’s spruce (Picea wilsonii) complement its turquoise needles

Both Picea wilsonii and Picea likiangensis hail from China, and both get too big for most gardens, but we love to seek them out and enjoy their lovely ornaments.  Both of these specimens are large and laden with cones.


A cone-studded Picea likiangensis specimen at Quarryhill Botanical Garden.

As a general rule, firs hold their cones upright and spruces, as in the two examples above, have pendulous cones. The quite, unassuming ‘Poulsen’ fir (Abies x. arnoldiana ‘Poulsen’ doesn’t put out a huge display of cones every year, but when it does, it’s a showstopper.

firs, conifers, cones

The black-raspberry cones on Abies x arnoliana ‘Poulsen’ sit pertly atop the branches

They start out in spring a rosy black-raspberry, then deepen to grapey purple.

pine cones

Poulsen fir (Abies x arnoldiana ‘Poulsen’) cones in early summer

By late summer/autumn they have faded to a soft lilac.

Poulsen's fir with

Soft lilac cones of Abies x arnoldiana ‘Poulsen’, a shrubby conifer with a dignified habit

Even though most of us call the cones of all conifers ‘pine cones’, the cones borne by pines look very different from those of the firs and spruces.  Many of true pine cones look like they are carved out of wood when they are young, as with the new cones of one of the mugo pines (Pinus mugo var. mugho).

Like wooden scrimshaw, a baby cone of a mugo pine looks as if it is carved from one solid piece

Like wooden scrimshaw, a baby cone of a mugo pine looks as if it is carved from one solid piece

With its yellow cone in early summer, this branch of ‘Golden Ghost’ red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’) resembles a bird with flamboyant plumage. The two-toned needles put on even more of a display than the cones!

Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) 'Golden Ghost' in spring with new needles and cone

Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora) ‘Golden Ghost’ in spring with new needles and cones

In this photo of ‘Golden Ghost’ we see both this year’s cone (the tiny ‘carved’ one on the left) and last year’s mature cone (on the right).

pine cone, pine cones

Two years of cones on Japanese red pine ‘Golden Ghost’

This Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’) is a prolific coner, with lovely green, sculptural cones.

Japanese black pine 'Thunderhead'

Even the ladybugs seem to like ‘Thunderhead’s apple green cones

Since we’re moving through the colors, white pines have great cones, too!  They are much more fragile than those of the red or black pines, and often have a sap glacee that makes them glitter in the sunlight.

pine cones

Sap-glazed cones of Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’

We mentioned emeralds and rubies earlier, but some cones are aquamarines. The cones of this Oriental arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis) don’t even look like cones.

pine cones

These Platycladus cones look more like gems sprinkled along the branches

All of the cones that we’ve shown you so far are females – they contain the ovaries and ultimately the fertilized seeds. But let’s not forget the boys! Unlike much of nature, where the male of the species gets the elegant plumage and fine feathers, in plants the male’s display is generally less showy.  But we think that this crowd of pollen cones on the ‘Golden Ghost’ pine are one of the trustiest signs of spring!

pine cones

Pollen cones on Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’

So whether you’re walking in your own garden or a botanical preserve such as Quarryhill, when you see a conifer, stop and take a look.  If more people don’t start slowing for the Cone Zone, Form and Foliage is going to begin issuing citations!

6 thoughts on “Slow for the Cone Zone

  1. You know I love ’em – well done, ladies!

  2. Such a beautiful post on conifers! Even though I studied botany in college years ago, I learned a great deal from your June entry. Congrats on the use of Latin. The photographs are really spectacular and the humor in your writing kept my attention. Thanks for sharing.

  3. What a great post! I’m so glad you spotlighted these amazing plants, they are gorgeous! How come flowers get all the attention? I’ve always loved the Horstmann’s fir…it sparkles!

    • Yes, sparkle is a good word for it! There are some very cool dwarf varities, too, such as ‘Kahout’s Icebreaker’, although whether the little guys produce much in the way of cones remains to be seen. And we always say, flowers aren’t everything!
      Jan and Sara

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