by Doug Morin
What was that, I wonder? Never mind, I have to focus.
Bang? Was that a bang?
I couldn’t help myself. I opened the window and look down to the garage and driveway. Nothing moved. The neighbors weren’t even home. Back to work.
I raced over to the window, catching a flash of rust-colored fur bolting along a spruce branch to the inner tree. I looked down; the driveway was covered with spruce cones. I stayed put, waiting to catch the culprit red-handed. A minute later, the squirrel ran boldly out one of the long spruce limbs, 40 feet above the ground. It ran to the end of the branch, hung down off it’s back feet, grabbed a cone with its front feet, chewed the cone’s base for a few second, then let it fall. thwack… clunk… bang……… The cone tumbled to the ground, hitting the neighbor’s roof, the side of our house, then my housemate’s car.
Over the course of the last week, the squirrel dropped about 200 cones into our yard and driveway, by my estimate. The cones were coming off a Norway spruce (Picea abies) tree in our backyard.
Native to Europe, Norway spruce is one of the main trees in the forests of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Russia. In the U.S., it is commonly grown as an ornamental and in plantations, but rarely establishes on its own. It is widespread throughout the cities and suburbs of the Northeast, so keep an eye out and you will start seeing it everywhere.
Norway spruce may be the tree most easily identified from a distance. Once you get the search-image, you will be able to recognize it while driving 60 miles an hour on the highway. An evergreen, Norway spruce has short, dark needles. The trees usually grow 50-80 feet tall and two feet in diameter, and often have branches almost all the way to the ground. And, most importantly –here’s your 60mph field mark— branches off the main stem arc upward (“swooping”) while branchlets growing from the main branches are long and hang down (“drooping”). Swoop and droop – it’s that easy.
Now, back to the cones. When you imagine a cone, I bet you think of a dry, brown one, light as a feather. But, cones are not always so. The dry brown ones most of us imagine have passed maturity and already released their seeds. In contrast, the cones pelting our house were still developing – leathery, green (or pink early in the season!), and dense. Plenty dense to dent a car, as we discovered.
But these cones are only one of the two kinds of cones conifers produce. The big cones we tend to think of (and the kind now all over my driveway) are female cones. They are usually between 1 inch and 6 inches long depending on the species and produce seeds under their scales. Squirrels eat the seeds, explaining why our squirrel was amassing a collection of female cones. Lesser known are male cones.
Separate structures from female cones, male cones tend to be small (1/2 inch or less in length) and not as long lasting (they often disappear in days or weeks). They produce pollen for a short time in the spring then, having fertilized female seeds, their job is done, and
they die back. Interestingly, the difference between male and female cones explains why the squirrel was dropping cones from high enough to bombard our roof.
Most trees concentrate male cones on their lower branches and female cones on their higher branches. This serves an evolutionary role: it prevents self-fertilization. With male cones down low and female cones up high, pollen from male cones must get blown by the wind to get high enough to reach a female cone. This wind will usually carry the pollen to another tree. If, however, the cones were intermixed or the males were on top, the pollen would fall directly into its own female cones.
So, if the tree wants to mate with another tree, rather than itself, it puts its female cones up high… giving them plenty of time to accelerate as they fall before pelting roofs, cars, and the occasional unsuspecting bystander.