Presenting… pine cones great and small

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The Museum’s architecture is adorned with plants. Stone ferns carved by the O’Shea brothers unfurl from the capitals and wrought iron palm fronds embellish the roof. But we actually have very few botanical specimens on display in the Museum itself. The Oxford University Herbaria, by contrast, have around 1 million plant specimens in their collection and, established in 1621, they boast the oldest herbarium in the United Kingdom.

As Christmas approaches, we bring the outside in, with decorated pine trees a festive essential. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to invite our colleagues at the Herbaria to share a few of their favourites, by installing a display in our Presenting… case. James Ritchie, Herbarium apprentice, revealed the story behind these fabulous pine cones.

IMG_4249Pines belong to the genus Pinus, and have a prominent place in the Plant Kingdom. They grow in many places in the northern hemisphere, but are quite rare south of the Equator. Of the approximately 170 pine species, the Scots Pine is the most widely distributed; occurring through Scotland, central Europe and Scandinavia, and extending into Russia and Mongolia.

Michoacan Pine cone

Michoacan Pine cone

Pines are evergreens and are long-lived trees. A Bristlecone Pine nicknamed ‘Prometheus’, was more than 4,844 years old when it was cut down in Nevada, USA in 1964 . That means it must have germinated at the time of the early Ancient Egyptians!

Pines can also reach great heights. The tallest, at 81.79 m, is a Ponderosa Pine growing in southern Oregon, USA.

The familiar woody pine cones are female reproductive structures and contain seeds. Most cones hang downwards while they grow; when the cone opens the winged seeds fall out and are dispersed by the wind. Pine seeds may also be dispersed by birds, typically when eaten by members of the crow family. The seeds germinate wherever they finally land, in the birds’ droppings.

Narrowcone pine cone

Narrowcone pine cone

Different pines have adapted to specific habitats. Seeds of the Narrowcone Pine are only released after forest fires. They are protected in dense cones which do not burn. Once the fire has cleared the ground of competition from other plants, and produced plenty of nutrient-rich ash, conditions are right for the Narrowcone Pine seedlings to flourish.

You can see the pine cones on display in the Museum until early in the New Year. Next in the Presenting... series will be a special selection of insects collected by none other than Charles Darwin – on show from 10th January.

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

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