Green Pages

Dreams of Pine Cones Aplenty

National tree produces bumper crop of seeds.
By B Naqqi Manco, Caicos Pine Recovery Project Manager

There was a buzzing of emails back and forth between Caicos Pine Recovery Project partners in October as Nursery Caretaker Junel “Flash” Blaise and I cleaned and counted seeds from this year’s pine cone collections. The number of seeds was unexpectedly high this year — a grand total of 8,676 seeds were found, smashing ten times over last year’s collection of only 772 seeds.

Harvest of cones from Caicos Pines in Pine Cay and Middle Caicos

The overwhelming majority of the seeds, 8,488 of them, were from the Pine Cay population, which is still relatively healthy and productive. Only 188 seeds came from the few productive trees in Middle Caicos, and no mature cones were found in North Caicos. Each cone has the capacity to produce over 100 seeds, but low pollen load in the air due to so few healthy trees producing it means that fewer cone scales are pollinated. Pines are ancient trees that existed before insects, so they depend exclusively on wind for pollination. Interestingly, though the cones usually ripen and open in mid-October, this year the cones began opening in mid-August. The cause of this shift is unknown.

Cones were gathered by Flash and me on Pine Cay and Middle Caicos with specially-made cone collectors, constructed by hand from Casuarina poles, 2-quart juice cans, cloth collection bags, and Velcro strips. Flash impressed with his tree-climbing prowess, gathering cones even during high winds and rain related to far-away disturbance from Hurricane Maria. While working in rain during the collection days was annoying, it proved fortuitous — humidity and moisture causes pine cones to close their scales, locking the seed inside and making it easier to collect.

Junel "Flash" Blaise harvest pine cones on Pine Cay.

The cones, which filled three large garbage cans, were brought to DECR’s North Caicos office where the Pine Project staff members knocked, pulled, and picked seeds out of the cones using fine tweezers, needle tools, and headlamps to see inside the cones. The cones were allowed to dry further (the dryer cones get, the more their scales open) and then a second beating of the cones yielded even more seed. When I described the increasing numbers of seed appearing as the laborious picking-out went on, Millennium Seed Bank contact Tom Heller asked if we were yet having any disturbing dreams related to picking seeds out of pine cones — and the question startled. Indeed, the days on end of picking out seeds must have gotten into our heads, because we had begun experiencing disturbed sleep related to dreams about digging pine seeds out of cones — and sometimes even crawling into the cones to get the seeds out! Apparently, this syndrome is a fairly commonplace occupational hazard related to cleaning pine cones of their seeds, well known to the employees of the Millennium Seed Bank. Some stress from work, I suppose, remains unanticipated and surprising.

Junel Blaise and the author display the "dream" seed collection.

The majority of this year’s “dream” seed collection will be sent to the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank in the United Kingdom, where it will be safely stored long-term in a state-of-the-art underground deep-freeze facility. This collection will provide a safety net of living tissue that can be grown if the wild trees are lost —like a Noah’s Ark for our National Tree. Some of the seed will also be grown by RBG Kew’s UK Overseas Territories Programme team, using experimental methods on how best to propagate the plant in sterile laboratory and temperate greenhouse conditions. Plants resulting from this effort will be repatriated back to TCI when ready.

A portion of the seed will also be planted in the Caicos Pine Recovery Project nursery in North Caicos, where they will join last year’s seedlings and provide a new generation of pines to be replanted into the wild. Together, these efforts will support the dream of having a once-again stable and safe population of our National Tree growing in the wild — and that’s about as much as we want to dream about pine trees anymore! a

The DECR and the Caicos Pine Recovery Project wish to express sincerest gratitude to Pine Cay and The Meridian Club in facilitating and supporting this extremely important conservation measure to save our National Tree!

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