Collecting Pine Seeds to Grow Saplings

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 2:00 PM

It all begins with a small pinecone.

A KKL-JNF team set out to gather pine cones from the tops of the trees along the Nahal Tut stream in northern Israel, to provide seeds for the next generation of pine forests. KKL-JNF produces three tons of seeds every year, and this huge seed bank is the source of the vast number of trees that the organization plants all over the country. Pine seeds are gathered during the hot summer months, when the cones are mature but have not yet opened; the seeds are still inside them, waiting to be scattered.

Aviv Eisenband
, Director of KKL-JNF's Forestry and Professional Development Department, led a team from the organization’s Seeds and Nurseries Division that set out to gather pine cones from forested areas along the Nahal Tut stream in northern Israel. The pine trees here soar to impressive heights, but these professionals are skilled at this complex task: they are trained in rappelling. On this occasion, they have also hired a special Akavish (Heb. Spider), an elevated work platform with jointed 'legs' that weaves its way easily among the trees before hoisting itself to a height of twenty-four meters off the ground, giving the workers easy access to the very tops of the trees.

Aviv Eisenband and Hagai on the crane. Photo: Yoav Devir

Aviv Eisenband. Photo: Yoav Devir

According to Aviv Eisenband, some ten trees can be picked in the course of a hard day’s work, yielding several kilograms of seeds. The platform raises the team into the air, and the picking begins. The workers maneuver the platform, pull branches towards them, move from one side of the tree to the other, prune where necessary and don’t allow a single pine cone to escape them. After all, this is the next generation of Israel’s trees that they are holding in their hands.

Seeds are collected from only the very best trees, which are characterized by great height, vitality, resistance to drought and immunity from the depredations of pests and disease. These seed-producing trees are carefully selected, as there is a good chance that the offspring will resemble the parent tree and reproduce their desirable characteristics.

The Akavish. Photo: Yoav Devir.

“In certain cases, trees are propagated vegetatively from cuttings, and this method allows us to clone the original plant,” explains Eisenband. “When we find a tree that has special qualities – for example, one that has survived in harsh conditions when all the others around it have died,  or a tree whose appearance is especially impressive – we propagate it in a series of cuttings.”

Apart from the section in Nahal Tut, KKL-JNF has two other similar sites where pine cones are collected: one is located in British Park’s Massua Forest, the other in Amatzia Forest in southern Israel. All three areas were planted thirty years ago, and today they are composed only of carefully selected trees.

Pine trees are notable not only for their ability to take root easily and grow fast, but also for their capacity to withstand drought. Seeds are collected, however, only from the Greek variety of the Jerusalem pine, because of its resistance to the pine bast scale Matsucoccus, a pest that has caused serious damage to pine forests throughout Israel.

According to Aviv Eisenband, this Greek variety has another outstanding advantage: “These trees produce serotinous cones that can remain on the tree for years and which open only in response to fire or excessively high temperatures. Pine cones of this type ensure that the forest will renew itself naturally after a fire,” he explains.

Serotinous cones retain their seeds indefinitely, and release them only in response to an external trigger. Small, hard, grayish and tightly closed, they are easily identified by their growth on thick branches or sometimes close to the trunk of the tree. They were formed when the tree was very young, and still hang there today, waiting patiently for a forest fire that will spur them into action and cause them to shed their seeds.

KKL-JNF staff. Photo: Yoav Devir.

After an hour’s work, the pickers come down from the treetops and proudly exhibit a large sack full of pine cones. After a brief rest, they quickly climb up again; many more cones await them in the same spot the others were picked, and a lot of work still remains to be done.

At the end of the day, the sacks of pine cones will be taken to the KKL-JNF National Seed Center in Beit Nehemia, where seeds are extracted from some 250 different varieties of trees and plants. The pine seeds are removed with the help of a special oven, at a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. The heat causes the cones to open, and when they are shaken the seeds tumble out.

Each seed is attached to a wing that enables it to be carried and scattered by the wind. In this case, human beings are responsible for scattering the seeds, and the wing is no longer necessary; it is removed with water. Now the seed is ready, and together with its companions, it can be dispatched to its new home in one of KKL-JNF’s nurseries, where it will be planted and lovingly tendered until it grows into a sapling ready for transplanting.

So, next time you visit one of KKL-JNF’s forests, don’t forget that everything you see there began with a small pine cone somewhere at the very top of a tall tree.

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