A Glimpse of Nature -- King-sized California Cones

Last week, several readers correctly pinpointed California as the home of my giant pinecone.   “Terrific!,” I thought, “These folks traveled to the northern Sierras where they saw the same wonderful trees I did:  sugar pines.”  But, no.  At least two readers who visited southern California remembered king-sized cones.  Their emails introduced me to the Coulter pine.  That’s right.  Two different California pines create impressive cones.  Let’s compare them.

The Sugar Pine

I estimate my cone to be 14 inches long, which would be on the low end of the species’ potential.  According to the U.S. Forest Service, “Mature sugar pine cones are among the largest of all conifers, averaging 12 inches (30 cm) in length, and can reach 22 inches (56 cm) long.” 

Cone of Sugar Pine, Tahoma, CA, July, 2023

The scales of this long, slender cone are blunt, as you can see in the enlargement.  

Giant cones like this are common in Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park along the western shore of Lake Tahoe.

Sugar Pine Along Lake Tahoe, July 2023

In that well-preserved section of shoreline, jumbo cones litter the forest floor and hang pendent from the limbs of large trees.

Pendent Sugar Pine Cones

Sugar pine trees are as impressive as their cones.  The U.S. Forest Service tells us that “Sugar pines may live 400 to 500 years and are second only to giant sequoia (Sequoia gigantea) in total volume.”  Most sources, including Calscape, describe the sugar pine as “the tallest and most massive pine tree.”  And, it was until very recently.  As The Gymnosperm Database explains, “The severe droughts and fires of the 21st century have decimated the great sugar pines of the Sierra” which was formerly their stronghold.  Several ponderosa pines now outdo the tallest surviving sugar pine which is a mere 259 feet! 

If the largest specimens have succumbed to logging and extreme conditions, sugar pine is still abundant.  Its range includes mountainous areas of the Sierras, northern California,  and parts of Oregon, where it is found in mixed coniferous forests.  Indeed, one of our Facebook followers shared her memorable experience with sugar pines (and ants) at Crater Lake. 

Natural distribution map for Pinus lambertiana

Elbert L. Little, Jr., U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,

and others,Public domain

The Competition

According to Calscape, a service of the California Native Plant Society, the state has twenty-nine species or subspecies of pine.  I have seen some of them in my journeys, but not many.  California is a large, biologically diverse state, and my explorations have focused on locations in the northern half including Lassen, Mendocino, Point Reyes, and the East Bay area.  My home base during this recent vacation was Sierraville, a quiet, ranching town far from Tahoe’s bustle.  Thus, I might be forgiven for being unaware of the Coulter pine and its unforgettable cones.  Take a look!


Coulter Pine

TankredGottfried, CC BY-SA 4.0

This cone is stout – more ovoid than cylindrical – and a bit shorter, only 8-16 inches long.  More impressively, it is massive!  Weighing in at 4-10 lbs “when fresh,” this cone has the nickname “widowmaker.”  Calscape notes that “people are actually advised to wear hardhats when working in Coulter Pine groves.”  And, if the cone’s weight isn’t sufficiently daunting, its prickles sure are.  Wikipedia’s description is apt: “Each segment, or ‘scale’, of the cone is tipped with a talon-like hook.

Compared with the sugar pine, the Coulter pine is a relatively small tree, usually under 80 feet and less than a meter in diameter.  The image above illustrates its 6-12 inch needles grouped in bundles of three.  The sugar pine’s needles, in contrast, are much shorter:  only 2-4 inches long.  Like our local white pines, the sugar pine produces fascicles with five needles.  [Note:  If you want to learn pines, count those needles!]

The range and habitat of this species might best distinguish it from sugar pine.  It is, as you can see from the map below, a more southern and coastal species, and one that is more limited in this distribution.  Its preferred habitat according to The Gymnosperm Database is “dry rocky slopes, flats, ridges, and chaparral, transitional to oak-pine woodland." 


Natural distribution map for Pinus coulteri

Elbert L. Little, Jr., U.S. Department of Agriculture, 

Forest Service, and others, Public domain


Thank you, readers, for your pinecone stories and identifications.  Your participation brings meaning and joy to this endeavor – and keeps me on my toes!

Happy nature study,


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