Nature Nearby

I have to confess that if I had the opportunity I would go every other day to some exciting outdoor location, be it a bog, a marsh, a cypress swamp, a desert—or a national park or two! But few folks have that sort of opportunity—including me. What I really do, however, is only an occasional excursion surrounded in time by a lot of mundane activities: walking the dog, walking to work, walking the dog, going to the store, walking the dog, spending time with children and grandchildren, and walking the dog.

That being the case, and my soul demanding attentive connection with the natural world, I’ve learned that there’s a great deal I don’t know about God’s creation even within a half-mile radius of our home. I’ve written often about the wonders of the old orchard that lies between our condo and RBC. There’s another couple acres that have been allowed to remain wild between us and Wal-Mart, but since it’s a rare deer haven in our heavily developed area, I leave that spot alone.

For a number of years I’ve walked our condo lane looking and listening for birds in the conifers that line its length, and have every so often pinched off a brilliant chartreuse twig of spring growth from a Colorado spruce, which is almost feathery soft, to brush against my face. Across the county road there are some balsam firs and what look like Douglas firs hybridized for landscaping. Along our lane are Austrian pines, red pines, a lonesome jack pine, and Colorado spruces. I used to call them the “blue spruces” but learned by seeing them growing next to each other that there are natural blue and green varieties. Some new spruces have been planted by the condo association that have cones only about a quarter the size of the standard spruce. (Horticulturists and animal breeders are alike: always tinkering with genetics!)

This year I’ve decided to learn more about the life cycles of the trees in the area, and spring is the ideal time to do that. As is virtually always the case, what I’ve learned is amazing. Let me share (as illustrated by my photos) just the bit about how the wonderful conifers reproduce.

Austrian pine showing new growth spike, male cones, and immature female cones

I have always noticed the different fruiting structures on the trees, but never understood exactly what I was looking at: As new growth begins, swelling twigs push off the waxy tip covers that protected them in the winter. Then clusters of what appear to be new cones seem to pop up almost overnight; but these never get hard and they never stay. Instead they sort of bloom and start shedding yellow “dust” in the wind—or when I snap them with my finger to create a virtual cloud, not of dust, but of pollen. Such, of course, is the cause of many spring allergies (along with oak pollen). Here’s the amazing part: these temporary cones are actually the male cones that cast into the breezes their pollen grains (male gametophytes), some of which are snagged by sticky young female cones (the permanent ones). When the grains land, they create a pollen tube that extends down between the cone scales (ovules) to fertilize the female gametophytes.

Then, as is common in virtually all reproduction, fertilization occurs, and the egg begins to divide and grow as the cone itself also grows and hardens into the mature new cones we see by summer’s end. The male cones dry up and drop off to add to the duff on the ground below the tree. In the second year, the cone scales open up and drop their fertile seeds to grow new trees—that is if squirrels have not gotten to the seeds first! Eventually the old female cones drop from the tree and often find themselves as parts of Christmas decorations. (That reminds me of the time a few years back when I was scolded by a neighbor for snipping a few cone-laden boughs from along the lane to use in the house. He felt I was “damaging community property.” I guess he was unaware that for healthy trees careful pruning leads to more growth, not less.)

But that’s not the end of the evergreen wonders. You’ve probably noticed that most permanent cones are near the top of the tree—especially on the spruces—and most of the temporary male cones are nearer the bottom of the tree. So how do the two tango? Well, it’s best that they not. That would result in too much inbreeding and weaken the stock. To ensure genetic diversity and healthier trees, it’s better that the female cones catch the pollen from male cones of other trees. If the female cones were below the male cones on the same tree, simple gravity would ensure that they would get the majority of pollen from above them. Instead, by being near the top they are more likely to receive windblown pollen from other trees.

That’s a total “wow” to me. Yet some claim that none of that was intelligently directed: it was the result of time plus chance and accidental order—called “unguided evolution.” Hmm. I have to go with the sentiment expressed by Joaquin Miller, who, examining a tree, exulted, “Ten thousand leaves on every tree, / And each a miracle to me; / And yet there be men who question God!” And this set of “miracles” is one of hundreds that surround us and show us the Creator’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). I wanted to share this recent lesson with you just in case you’ve not experienced a creation wow lately. Go out now and hug an evergreen!

See you outdoors!

Dean

Spruce twig with and without waxy winter cap