Are you able to Develop a Tree From a Pine Cone?

Pines grow practically everywhere! You’ve probably noticed their cones covering the ground beneath their canopy and wondered, “Can you grow a tree from a pine cone?”

As deforestation and forest destruction continue on a mass scale, planting trees is an exciting and important endeavor for anyone who cares about Earth’s wild ecosystems. A tree can provide shade, year-round greenery, oxygen, bird habitat, privacy screening, and free mulch in the form of pine needles. These long-lived trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere and improve soil without needing much water or maintenance. 

Pine trees are among the most common trees in North America, growing in southern woodlands, western mountains, far northern latitudes, and many urban environments. They are coniferous and evergreen, meaning they produce cones and maintain year-round greenery with their needle-shaped leaves.

The Pinus genus contains 110-190 species, depending on the source. All pine trees produce their seeds inside of cones. These seeds, sometimes called pine nuts, are arranged inside the bracts of the cone. In other words, the cone is a container for the seeds.

If you want to grow a pine tree from seed, there are several things you need to understand about these unique coniferous trees. Let’s dig into how to grow a tree from a pine cone

The Short Answer

Collect ripe seeds from cones, germinate them in fall, then plant for new trees.

No, you cannot plant a whole pine cone and expect it to grow. A cone is like a woody container for pine seeds. However, you can collect ripe seeds from inside the cone and germinate them to grow a new tree. In fall, gather mature cones that are just slightly opening their scales.

You want cones that are not fully closed but not fully flared open, either. Find the winged seeds hidden inside the scales and check if they are full and white, which indicates ripeness. Once you’ve spotted mature seeds, gather the cones and dry them in the sun to get the scales to open. Then, vigorously shake the cones to release the seeds. 

Sow seeds in fall. Plant ¼ inch deep into the native soil with plenty of space from the mother tree. Alternatively, sow seeds in a container filled with a blend of potting mix, bark, and peat moss. Keep the soil consistently moist but never soggy. Don’t allow it to dry out. Once a sapling is about 8 inches tall, transplant it outdoors at least 10-20 feet away from neighboring trees, depending on the species.

The Long Answer

Close-up shot of a pile of cones on the ground in the forest. The Pinus elliottii cone is a distinctive woody structure characterized by its elongated shape and robust scales. These cones have a cylindrical or slightly tapered appearance. The scales of the cone are thick and woody, often armed with prickles at their tips. They are dark brown in color with open scales.Collect ripe seeds from mature cones and plant them for future trees.

You cannot plant a whole cone in the soil and expect it to grow. However, you can collect ripe seeds (sometimes called pine nuts) from mature cones and sow them to grow new trees. Collecting and planting coniferous tree seeds is not as easy as growing vegetables, but it is a rewarding way to connect to your local ecosystem. A tree planted today could provide shade, beauty, and oxygen for generations to come!

First things first, what are conifers? Pine trees are conifers, which means they produce cones. The cones are the reproductive structure of the plant. In contrast, many of our garden plants, like apple trees or magnolias, are flowering plants. They produce flowers that get pollinated and grow into fruits, which contain ovaries full of seeds.

  • Coniferous = gymnosperms or “naked seed”
  • Flowering plants = angiosperms or “vessel for the seed,” referring to seeds encased in a floral ovary

All botanical complexities aside, pines are ancient trees with intriguing differences from our flowering plants. Interestingly, coniferous plants developed millions of years before flowering plants. Flowerless gymnosperms ruled the world during the age of the dinosaurs from the Triassic and Jurassic eras. During the Cretaceous period, about 100 million years ago, angiosperms (flowering plants) took over and are now the most dominant plants on Earth

Still, pine trees are like living fossils that grow prolifically in many forests throughout North America. Geological records indicate that they evolved around 140 million years ago. A single tree can live for 100 to 1,000+ years! One of the oldest pine trees is located in eastern California in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. This Great Basin Bristlecone tree (Pinus longaeva), is nicknamed “Methuselah” and is estimated to be 4,800 years old!

If you plant a pine tree today from cones collected in your backyard or local forest, that tree could live for centuries to come!

The Botany of Pine Cones

Close-up of Pinus ponderosa cone on a stump in the forest against a blurred background. The Pinus ponderosa cone is a large and distinctive woody structure characterized by its elongated oval shape and robust scales. This cone has a reddish-brown hue. The scales of the cone are thick and woody.Identify female cones that contain ripe seeds.

The first step to growing a pine tree from seed is to identify the female cones so you can check if the seeds are still inside. Every pine tree has two types of cones:

  • Male Cones: These inconspicuous tiny cones are less woody and contain pollen.
  • Female Cones: These are the classic mid-to-large-sized cones that we call pine cones.

Generally, male cones are clustered in groups near the lower branches, while female cones are higher up on the tree and stand noticeably erect amongst the foliage while developing. When the female cones finish their seed-growing cycle, they fall to the ground. These are the cones we most commonly pick up from the forest floor.

The female cone acts like a woody protective container full of seeds. Once fertilized with pollen, the seeds develop inside the cone, tucked inside little structures called bracts and scales. These hard, woody structures are designed to hide and protect the seeds as they develop. 

In the botanical world, pines are called monoecious. Notice the root word mono, or “one,” in that term. It means that both the male and female cones are produced on one tree. In other words, these trees have separate male and female reproductive parts on the same plant.

When the seeds are done ripening inside the female cone, the cones open (flare out) and drop the seeds so they can germinate. Occasionally, a seed may remain inside the cone and have the potential to germinate while still attached to the cone. This explains the misconception that a new tree can germinate and grow straight from a planted cone. However, this is very rare. A tree needs to naturally release its seeds from the cone or you can manually remove them to plant a new tree.

Identify the Species

Close-up of a Monterey tree (Pinus radiata) in a sunny garden. This  tree is characterized by its tall, straight trunk and dense, conical crown of dark green foliage. The tree's leaves, which are needle-like and arranged in clusters of three, are typically around 4 to 6 inches long. The tree bears are oblong cones with scales that are armed with a small prickle at the tip. They are dark brown in color.Identify native species by needle bundles and cone characteristics for easy maintenance.

Before you dive into cone collection, it’s helpful to know what species are native to your region. If you have a pine growing in your landscape, it may be ornamental. If you are collecting cones from a local park or forest, it is likely an endemic species that is perfectly adapted to your area

Native plants are best because they establish quickly, tolerate local soil conditions, and are accustomed to surviving without human intervention. This means you won’t need to do very much maintenance after your baby tree germinates.

The most common pines in North America include:

  • Ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa): Widely distributed in the Western U.S.
  • Monterey (Pinus radiata): Native to the central coast of California and widely planted in drought-prone areas
  • Eastern White (Pinus strobus): Most commonly grown as Christmas trees in the East
  • Loblolly  (Pinus taeda): Quick-growing and most common in the Southern U.S.
  • Pitch (Pinus rigida): Common in the Southeast in sandy soils with humid climates
  • Longleaf (Pinus palustris): Slow-growing and keystone species native to the Southeast

The easiest way to start identifying the tree is to count how many needles reside in each bundle of leaves. A bundle of needles is called a fascicle. Grab a cluster of pine needles from the tree (no need to pull it off!) and see how many individual needles are attached at a single base. Most fit into one of two groups:

  • White Pines: Needles bundled in groups of 5 
  • Yellow Pines: Needles bundled in groups of 2

Once you figure out the category, you can estimate the length of the needles and clarify the species.

Next, examine the cones. Cones are the biggest giveaway for the type of pine. Measure the length of the cone and observe its shape so you can cross-reference online or in a tree identification book. Search keywords like “pine trees native to (your region)” or “pictures of (species) pine cones.” 

Avoid Serotinous Cones

Close-up of Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) cone among green needle-like foliage on a branch. The cone is small and cylindrical. It is characterized by its unique shape, with prickly scales that are curved inward towards the center of the cone, giving it a slightly twisted appearance. The cone is a light brown in color and has a resinous texture.Serotinous coniferous trees rely on fire to release seeds from closed cones.

Some coniferous trees require fire to spread their seeds. They are called serotinous because the cones will hang on the tree for many years after the seeds mature. The cones are very thick and hard, literally glued shut by a thick resin. The seeds essentially wait dormant inside the closed hanging cones. 

When a fire sweeps through, resin melts into the cones, and the heat triggers the cone to open up, releasing the seeds into the wind. These trees will only mature their seeds after exposure to a forest fire:

  • Jack  (Pinus banksiana): Native to the Northeastern and Midwestern U.S.
  • Lodgepole  (Pinus contorta): One of the first trees to grow back after wildfires in the West.
  • Prickly or Table Mountain (Pinus pungens): Grows in rocky, dry areas of the Appalachian Mountains.

Collecting seeds from these cones is difficult to impossible because they don’t fall from the tree until after a fire. While these trees are not suitable for humans to propagate by hand, they provide fascinating insight into the ecological importance of prescribed fires for rejuvenating a landscape.

Identify Mature Female Cones in Late Summer or Fall

Close-up of a  cone with open scales on a branch in the forest. The cone is an oval structure with thick, woody scales arranged in a spiral around an axis.Collect young, closed cones in late summer or early fall for viable seeds.

Young cones are bright green and squeezed tightly shut. They have a distinct cone shape and don’t have the signature flare of a mature cone. The scales haven’t spread out yet. 

As the season progresses, cones begin to turn brown, slightly open up, and fall to the soil. You want to gather the cones before they fully open because the cone will drop its seeds once the scales flare out and the cone dries. If the cone is still somewhat moist and lighter brown to purple rather than dark and crumbly, it’s a good sign that the cone still contains viable seeds. 

The best cone harvesting window typically occurs in late summer or early fall, around September or October. 

Collect Cones

Close-up of a woman's hands holding a bunch of collected cones against a blurred background of a green forest. Collect fallen, partially opened cones with viable seeds, distinguishing them from empty cones.

You can collect seed-filled pine cones from the tree or from the ground, but the fallen cones are typically more reliable. The trees naturally drop the cones whenever the seeds are done ripening. 

Examine the area beneath the tree and look for cones that are still somewhat closed. This indicates they recently matured and fell. The ripe cones of each species look different, so you must familiarize yourself with local species and do some investigation inside the cones to determine if they have any ripe seeds.

Remember, an open flared cone has already lost its seeds. You need partially opened cones that are light brown or purplish in color. The sweet spot of mature cones is when the scales are slightly opened, but not all the way flared out.

Check for Ripe Seeds and Dislodge Them From Cones

Close-up of a cone on a white table with several seeds nearby. This cone has a cylindrical shape and is characterized by its woody texture and scales that are closely packed and spirally arranged around a central axis. When mature, the cone scales open to release winged seeds encased in papery husks, which are light brown or tan in color.Look for visible white seeds between scales; discard immature cones and collect mature ones.

First, check if there are any visible seeds emerging from between the scales. They will look pale white with a small leafy wing. The little wing is designed to help the seed disperse far away in the wind. Most cones contain a seed inside every scale. Sometimes, you will find papery wing-shaped husks without any white seeds inside. This means the cone was not fully mature, and the seed didn’t develop. Toss that cone to the ground and find another.

If you don’t see any seeds showing between the scales, it’s time to manually pull apart the cone. Hold your cone over a container of any kind and begin peeling back the scales, which are the woody, rounded exterior parts of the cone. Be careful to avoid any prickles that may be developing at the tip of the scales. 

Once you’ve identified the cones with mature seeds, collect as many as you’d like inside a container. 

How Can You Tell When the Seeds are Ripe?

Ripe (Mature) Unripe (Not Viable)
Cone is reddish-brown or brown with purple tint, may be on tree or on the ground Cone is still green and on the tree
Cone is partially open, with scales peeling back but not fully flared Cone is tightly closed and hard
White, rounded seed is inside the papery husk Wing-shaped papery husky is empty
Seed appears full and plump Seed is small or absent
Seeds sink if submerged in water Seeds float on water surface

Dry the Cones

Close-up of dry cones in the wicker basket in the garden. the cones are conical in shape, featuring overlapping scales that spiral around a central axis. Pine cones exhibit a range of colors, from brown, gray to even reddish-brown.Dry collected cones in the sun to open scales and extract seeds.

Now comes the fun part! You’ve identified which cones likely have ripe seeds and collected a handful of bag-full of ripe cones! Spread them out in a shallow container and dry them in the sun for a few days. As they dry, the cones will open their scales, making it easier to remove the seeds. 

Shake Out the Seeds

Close-up of a cone on a wooden surface against a blurred background of a green garden. The pine cone is conical in shape, composed of overlapping scales arranged in a spiral pattern around a central axis. Within the cone, seeds are encased in papery husks, which are light brown or tan.Shake dry cones in a container to collect the seeds and separate them for planting.

Once cones are dry, you can shake or throw them around to dislodge the seeds. Be sure to do this in an enclosed bag or container so you don’t lose any good seeds to the wind.

Once it seems like most of the pine nuts have been separated from the cones, collect the wing-encased seeds in separate containers so they are easy to plant. Optionally, remove the seeds from the winged husk so you have only raw, ripe pine nuts.

Sow Seeds in Fall

Close-up of a man's hand transplanting a young seedling into the ground in the garden. A pine seedling features a slender, straight stem with small, needle-like leaves arranged in clusters. The stem is brownish-green, with a smooth texture. The leaves, resembling miniature versions of mature pine needles, are dark green and measure a few centimeters in length.Plant the seeds in containers or ground, ensuring proper spacing for growth.

Pine trees naturally drop their seeds in fall when the cones open. You can plant seeds in containers or in the ground to grow lots of saplings. To plant in-ground, be sure there is enough space between the mother plant and the baby saplings.

Some species require 10-20 feet of space to grow to their full glory! If you don’t want to space them that far apart initially, you can grow the tree to a larger size in a container and transplant once it is several years old.

If sowing in a pot, make a blend of:

  • 1 part potting mix
  • 1 part pine bark
  • 1 part peat moss

Sow the seeds just ¼” deep, or about twice their largest dimension. Avoid burying too deep into the soil, or the seed may not have enough energy to germinate. Keep the soil consistently moist but never soggy during the first growing season. Pine trees are very drought tolerant, but moderate moisture can help them establish much more quickly and reliably. Never let the seedling sit in waterlogged soil, or the roots will suffocate.

You can leave your tree containers outdoors for the winter. While some sources recommend cold-stratifying seeds in the fridge, I find this unnecessary. You can just plant the seeds outdoors so they can be exposed to natural winter temperatures just like they would naturally! 

Remember that pines are hardy trees, and they have reproduced for millions of years before humans even existed. Keep your saplings moist and protected, but allow them to enjoy the natural weather of your region. Up-pot the sapling on a yearly basis and transplant to its permanent spot when it is around 6-12” tall with a robust root system.

Patiently Grow Your Trees

Close-up of watering a young tree from a large green watering can in a garden decorated with stones. A young pine tree presents a slender, straight trunk with branches extending outward in a symmetrical pattern. The branches are adorned with long, needle-like leaves that radiate in all directions, giving the tree a dense and bushy appearance. The needles are bright green in color.Plant pine saplings in well-drained soil with partial sun, water appropriately, and be patient.

Pine trees do best in areas with partial to full sun, where they can stay moderately moist. In hot climates, afternoon shade is beneficial for the first 1-2 years of growth. Well-drained soil near other successful pines is helpful for establishment. There is no need to fertilize saplings.

Planting saplings in fall ensures they can root in place and develop over winter without the harsh rays of summer sunshine. After the first spring, the newly planted trees can typically survive off local rains. If you experience several weeks without rain, supplemental irrigation is helpful for young seedlings, especially those in pots.

A standard watering schedule might look like:

  • Water directly after planting
  • Water the sapling every 1-2 days for the first 1-3 weeks
  • Gradually reduce watering to once per week for several months
  • Allow the tree to adjust to local rains, only watering during intense droughts

Now for the waiting game! Patience is key for any tree grower. Fortunately, pines don’t need much care once they’ve passed the initial seedling phase.

Different species grow at widely varying rates. It can take 20 to 40 years for a pine to reach full size, but the initial growth years can be quite rapid. For example, Ponderosas can grow up to 12” in a single year, while a Pinyon sapling may only grow 2-6” per year. 

Slow growth is not a bad thing for these ancient trees, but be sure to keep an eye on the soil and needles. If the tree appears yellow, brown, wilted, or sickly, be sure to diagnose the issue as soon as possible.

Final Thoughts

Pine cones are like woody containers for seeds. You can’t plant a whole pine cone and expect a tree to grow. If the cone is fully open, it already released its seeds into the wind. However, you can collect ripe seeds from partially opened cones in fall. It’s helpful to dry the cones in the sun to release the winged seeds from inside the scales. Plant these seeds about ¼” deep and keep them moderately moist to grow your own saplings.

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