2013-12-05 / From The Garden

A Classic Symbol of the Holidays

By Cynthia Gibson

Pinecones are small pieces of Mother Nature’s sculpture. Remarkably symmetrical and fragrant, they are easily collected this time of year from a forest, your backyard, or a public park (that have pine trees). Charming uses include arranging them in a bowl, turning them into simple ornaments, or decorating a wreath.

Historically, pinecones symbolize fertility and regeneration. They were translated into remarkable ceramic wreaths during the Renaissance by Luca della Robbia, who made the humble pinecone a star of nature. His superb sculptures reside in museums, but are reproduced for sale in many parts of Italy.

On this side of the Atlantic, there has been confusion between the pineapple and pinecone in American furniture motifs. Finials on bedposts are carved pinecones, not pineapples. This also applies to finials on the colonists’ garden posts or fence posts. During the Colonial period, there were many pinecones for decorative inspiration, but pineapples were rare.

Pinecones are the female “flower” of their trees, holding the seeds that birds love to eat. The most common pine trees in Rhode Island are white pine, red pine, and hemlock. The pinecones of the hemlock are tiny and make excellent ornaments for your Christmas tree. This is the time of year to look for them on the ground. The boughs of the hemlock have a weeping shape and the tiny cones can be found the ends of their pine needle structure.

The pinecone of the white pine is very long and skinny. These trees are very common on Aquidneck Island. St. Mary’s Church in Portsmouth has tons of the cones on the ground, as does Miantonomi Park in Newport. The pinecones of the red pine are woody, stubby, and look fairly typical.

Before using pinecones in creative ways they need to be dried, as they carry sticky sap that is hard to remove from your hands. While the cones can be air dried on sheets of newspaper, this can take from hours to days.

The long pinecone of the white pine is common on Aquidneck Island. The long pinecone of the white pine is common on Aquidneck Island. Baking the pinecones is a far better way to remove the pine tar. Line a cookie sheet with foil and bake the pinecones in a preheated oven of 200 degrees for one hour. You will smell the pine tar melting off the cones. Watch the pinecones so they do not burn.

Using a microwave oven is by far the speediest way to dry pinecones. Place three pinecones at a time on a dish on top of three layers of paper towels and set the timer for one minute on high. Again, watch the process so they do not burn. Your microwave will smell like a pine forest when you are done, so clean the oven and dishes with lemon juice, repeating if necessary. Faster is not always better.

Pinecones are often sold in bags that are soaked in the scent of cinnamon, but the strong fragrance can make your eyes burn. It is preferable to gather your own pinecones and after drying them, douse them with “Frasier Fir” essential oil by Thyme or another lovely holiday fragrance called the “Smell of Christmas”. The Portsmouth Shop at 2511 East Main Rd., Portsmouth, sells the glorious Frasier Fir essence and candles. Smell of Christmas can be purchased on line at amazon.com.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. A great find for me was the pinecone shaped tins at fancyflours.com. This very special company truly caters to the holidays. They sell sets of nine pinecone cookie tins for $12. This is a bargain, as the tins are reusable and come with the authentic Swedish gingerbread recipe traditionally used this time of year. The recipe and pinecone cookies have become an annual repeat performance for the holidays.

For an easy-to-make gift for holiday gatherings, purchase cello bags from Michael’s craft shop and some ribbon and tags. Place the pinecone cookies, in the bags sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Happy pinecone hunting! Nature’s Christmas ornaments are waiting for you on the forest floor.

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