Growing Conifers Trees From Seed

In their natural environment confier trees don't grow easily, but with a little patience and knowledge you can raise your own from seed.

| August/September 1991


The seeds of conifer trees are tucked inside cones.


We've all heard the old say "mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow." Well, those sighing, whispering conifer forests that still cover much of North America sprang from humble beginnings, too. The beautiful and useful trees, however, have a hard time getting started on their own.

That doesn't mean that evergreens are necessarily difficult to grow. With a little patience and a dollop of knowledge, there's no reason why you can't have the pleasure and satisfaction of raising your own conifer trees from seed.

The trick to growing conifers (a group including pine, spruce, fir, and other narrow-leaved evergreens) lies in understanding how best to work in harmony with nature to first sprout the seeds and then to protect the delicate young plants from disease. As you likely know, conifer seeds (some of which are as large as a quarter inch in diameter, while others are minute) are tucked between the scales of cones. The best time to gather them is in the fall, when the fibrous "petals" at the base of the woody husks have begun to open, indicating ripeness. Simply pick or clip off some cones and place them in a dish. As they dry, the seeds should loosen and drop out, though occasionally a stubborn piece of "fruit" will have to be dismantled in order to get at the nuggets within. 

At this point, your chances of success will be much improved if you take the time to understand how Mother Nature goes about reproducing conifers. Evergreens seeds don't sprout as readily as, say, garden-variety marigolds. Nature, you see, must protect her future forests from such catastrophes as fire, drought, and disease, and does so by means of stratagems that prevent an entire crop of seeds from coming up (and thus being vulnerable) all at one time. Some of the cone-borne kernels begin to grow immediately, white others may lie dormant for a very long time.

Therefore, if you were to simply stick wild conifer seeds in the ground, it might be years before any of them began to grow. Some wouldn't sprout until bacteria and fungi had eaten away at their coatings. Others would burgeon only after exposure to fire, to repeated freezing or thawing, or in response to some other natural sequence of events. The key to success, then, is speedy germination that in some way replicates the processes found in the wild.

One easy way to achieve germination is by exposing the kernels—for periods of time that can vary from one species to another—to cold temperatures. This treatment, called "stratification," serves to break the dormancy of the embryos.

10/3/2017 5:53:43 PM

I love the perfect symmetry of the conifers in Acadia...Bar Island. I'm guessing they are Norwegian Firs. On my hike there, I picked some of the cones that were open off the trees that appeared to still have seeds. Do I let them sit in a dish and then pick out the seeds, or should I just put all the cones I gathered (I have them in a paper cup) into the crisper in the fridge until spring? I really want to get started on growing the babies in a pot to transplant when I move to my new home. Does anyone have any experienced advice?

3/3/2015 2:11:55 PM

When transplanting into pots after you have the small growth happening and they crowd each other; how long can I keep the seedling in a pot? Is a year not a good idea?

1/19/2008 10:41:02 AM


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