In this issue we have slightly departed from the usual pattern of profiling a specific tree, in order to look at the fruits of some of the Conifers to be seen around Dulwich, either scattered on the ground or decorating the branches of their often sombre parents.
There are only three British native conifers, the Yew, which has poisonous red berries, the Juniper, a spiny shrub whose berries are used to flavour Holland Gin, and the Scots Pine which has proper cones. However, a wealth of exotic conifers also flourishes here, each with its own distinctive fruit, from slender elegant fir cones, hard, woody pines to Cedars and Cypresses. Each has a unique and surprisingly different cone, Many cones open and disperse their seeds while still on the tree, allowing them to be spread by the wind, each being equipped with a small wing. Others hold on to their seeds for years, only releasing them after fire has swept through the forest. The cones then open and the seeds fall to the ground and rapidly re-colonize the devastated area, the seedlings benefitting from the newly opened canopy. In areas where forest fires are frequent, many plants use this means of survival. The Eucalypts do so and the Restios, a large reed-like plant from South Africa, has seeds which will only germinate after being thoroughly affected by smoke.
But to get back to the conifers, perhaps the most easily recognised is the Bhutan Pine (an example is in Lings Coppice, Croxted Road) whose long banana shaped cones are so tempting to pick up and so sticky to touch! A less sticky treasure, also seen on the ground, belongs to the Douglas Fir (Pymers Mead, Croxted Road). This slender cone is about 8cm long, with a little tongued bract sticking out between every cone scale, giving it a slightly fuzzy appearance; it is the only conifer to do this.
Scots Pine cones are shorter, woodier, often numerous, lying all over the ground, their seeds already dispersed. There are several trees in Dulwich Park where the similar, but much larger cones of the Black Pine can also be found. The Monterey Pine, from Southern California, has much larger and harder cones which cling onto the tree for years waiting for fire to release them. There is quite a large specimen in Peckham Park, the cones clear to see. The Umbrella Pine is rare here (there is an example at Kew) but seen everywhere in Southern Europe, which gives us the delectable Pine nut, happily without burning. Cedars and Monkey Puzzles hold on to their cones for several years, then they disintegrate on the tree leaving a little spike still standing above the foliage.
Cypress cones are rather different, resembling a miniature football, at first green, then turning brown or grey and splitting open along the seams to release their seeds as they drop (a specimen is in College Road). Larch trees tend to hold on to their cones, which are small and rather soft. They cluster along the bare branchets like tiny roosting birds, unlike the Japanese Larch where each cone scale is turned back at the tip, so they look more like miniature roses! Sunray Gardens has a Larch and they are widely planted in woods and parks, but not really suitable for gardens.
This is just a small sample of what is to be seen around at this time of the year, but I hope it will encourage you to explore more widely.