The sex life of the Christmas Tree

Hanbidge on Horticulture

Patricia Hanbidge

Just when you thought you had the whole reproduction thing worked out, you have the opportunity to learn about “ancient tree sex” in Christmas trees no less! How is that for a different spin on the holiday season? Maybe a new Christmas song could revolve around this odd but interesting topic!

Our typical choice for a tree to grace our home for the holiday season is a pine, spruce or fir. These trees are all conifers or cone producing plants and are part of the gymnosperm division of plants. Gymnosperms have been reproducing for over 300 million years, far before any of our more modern day flowering plants (or angiosperms) even existed. How they reproduce sexually is very different than that of our flowering plants. While in angiosperms, showy flowers are produced with the reproductive parts of the flower part of the show or nestled tightly inside of the petals. Plants belonging to the gymnosperm division of plants actually contain both male and female cones on the same tree. Male cones are smaller than the female cones and are located on the lower regions of the tree. The female cones are larger, and generally located in the upper regions of the tree and contain all the seeds of the conifer. These showy female cones consist of scales that are intricately arranged and show great difference between species. We use them to adorn wreaths, our tables and other holiday festive decor. Yes, we are actually using the female reproductive organs of gymnosperms or if you like the “lady bits.”

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A typical conifer reproductive cycle begins in the spring. The male cone has an easy job. These clusters of small, often coloured cones release huge quantities of pollen in the hope of “knocking up” a fair female cone. You may have noticed clouds of what appears similar to yellow smoke in early spring in the forest. These individual pollen grains are distributed by wind in the hope of finding a “mate.” The job of the female cone is of course much more complex. It is her job to keep those individual pollen grains safe until fertilization can occur. She has a complex duty so early in the spring when the pollen clouds are floating on the breezes, she gently opens her scales in order to allow some of these pollen grains to get lucky enough to enter her lair and be protected. The following spring is actually when fertilization occurs and together, the male and female parts will produce sexual cells. As the seed matures from the fertilized ovule the female cone will grow. Eventually when mature, the scales of the cone will flex and separate, thus releasing the seed to enable the forest to regenerate.

We hope that you have enjoyed this light rendition of the sex life of the Christmas Tree. Please feel free to contact us if you would like us to write an article on a subject in horticulture you are curious about.

Happy December!

Hanbidge is a horticulturist with the Saskatoon School of Horticulture and can be reached at 306-931-GROW(4769); by email at growyourfuture@gmail.com; facebook: @schoolofhort; twitter: @hortiuclturepat; instagram: patyplant or check out our website at saskhort.com.

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