Female cone of the conifer families
The members of the pine family (pines, spruces, firs, cedars, larches, etc.) have cones that are imbricate (that is, with scales overlapping each other like fish scales). These are the "archetypal" cones. The scales are spirally arranged in fibonacci number ratios.
The female cone has two types of scale: the bract scales, derived from a modified leaf, and the seed scales (or ovuliferous scales), one subtended by each bract scale, derived from a highly modified branchlet. On the upper-side base of each seed scale are two ovules that develop into seeds after fertilization by pollen grains. The bract scales develop first, and are conspicuous at the time of pollination; the seed scales develop later to enclose and protect the seeds, with the bract scales often not growing further. The scales open temporarily to receive gametophytes, then close during fertilization and maturation, and then re-open again at maturity to allow the seed to escape. Maturation takes 6–8 months from pollination in most Pinaceae genera, but 12 months in cedars and 18–24 months (rarely more) in most pines. The cones open either by the seed scales flexing back when they dry out, or (in firs, cedars and golden larch) by the cones disintegrating with the seed scales falling off. The cones are conic, cylindrical or ovoid (egg-shaped), and small to very large, from 2–60 cm long and 1–20 cm broad.
After ripening, the opening of non-serotinous pine cones is associated with their moisture content—cones are open when dry and closed when wet. This assures that the small, wind disseminated seeds will be dispersed during relatively dry weather, and thus, the distance traveled from the parent tree will be enhanced. A pine cone will go through many cycles of opening and closing during its life span, even after seed dispersal is complete. This process occurs with older cones while attached to branches and even after the older cones have fallen to the forest floor. The condition of fallen pine cones is a crude indication of the forest floor's moisture content, which is an important indication of wildfire risk. Closed cones indicate damp conditions while open cones indicate the forest floor is dry.
As a result of this, pine cones have often been used by people in temperate climates to predict dry and wet weather, usually hanging a harvested pine cone from some string outside to measure the humidity of the air.
Members of the Araucariaceae (Araucaria, Agathis, Wollemia) have the bract and seed scales fully fused, and have only one ovule on each scale. The cones are spherical or nearly so, and large to very large, 5–30 cm diameter, and mature in 18 months; at maturity, they disintegrate to release the seeds. In Agathis, the seeds are winged and separate readily from the seed scale, but in the other two genera, the seed is wingless and fused to the scale.
Berry-like Podocarpus cone
The cones of the Podocarpaceae are similar in function, though not in development, to those of the Taxaceae (q.v. below), being berry-like with the scales highly modified, evolved to attract birds into dispersing the seeds. In most of the genera, two to ten or more scales are fused together into a usually swollen, brightly coloured, soft, edible fleshy aril. Usually only one or two scales at the apex of the cone are fertile, each bearing a single wingless seed, but in Saxegothaea several scales may be fertile. The fleshy scale complex is 0.5–3 cm long, and the seeds 4–10 mm long. In some genera (e.g. Prumnopitys), the scales are minute and not fleshy, but the seed coat develops a fleshy layer instead, the cone having the appearance of one to three small plums on a central stem. The seeds have a hard coat evolved to resist digestion in the bird's stomach.
Members of the cypress family (cypresses, arborvitae, junipers, redwoods, etc.) differ in that the bract and seed scales are fully fused, with the bract visible as no more than a small lump or spine on the scale. The botanical term galbulus (plural galbuli; from the Latin for a cypress cone) is sometimes used instead of strobilus for members of this family. The female cones have one to 20 ovules on each scale. They often have peltate scales, as opposed to the imbricate cones described above, though some have imbricate scales. The cones are usually small, 0.3–6 cm or 1⁄8–2 3⁄8 inches long, and often spherical or nearly so, like those of Nootka cypress, while others, such as western redcedar and California incense-cedar, are narrow. The scales are arranged either spirally, or in decussate whorls of two (opposite pairs) or three, rarely four. The genera with spiral scale arrangement were often treated in a separate family (Taxodiaceae) in the past. In most of the genera, the cones are woody and the seeds have two narrow wings (one along each side of the seed), but in three genera (Platycladus, Microbiota and Juniperus), the seeds are wingless, and in Juniperus, the cones are fleshy and berry-like.
Spherical cone of Nootka cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis)
Long slender cones and winged seeds of California incense-cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) from the Muséum de Toulouse
Cones and wingless seeds of Chinese arborvitae (Platycladus orientalis) from the Muséum de Toulouse
The cones and seeds of Sciadopitys (the only member of the family) are similar to those of some Cupressaceae, but larger, 6–11 cm long; the scales are imbricate and spirally arranged, and have 5-9 ovules on each scale.
Taxaceae and Cephalotaxaceae cones
Members of the yew family and the closely related Cephalotaxaceae have the most highly modified cones of any conifer. There is only one scale in the female cone, with a single poisonous ovule. The scale develops into a soft, brightly coloured sweet, juicy, berry-like aril which partly encloses the deadly seed. The seed alone is poisonous. The whole 'berry' with the seed is eaten by birds, which digest the sugar-rich scale and pass the hard seed undamaged in their droppings, so dispersing the seed far from the parent plant.
Though not included under the conifers, this group of cone-bearing plants retains some types of 'primitive' characteristics. Its leaves unfurl, much like ferns. There are three extant families of Cycads of about 305 species. It reproduces with large cones, and is related to the other conifers in that regard, but it does not have a woody trunk like most cone-bearing families.
Like the Cycads, this unique cone-bearing plant is not considered a conifer, but belongs in the Order Welwitschiales. Welwitschia mirabilis is often called a living fossil and is the only species in its genus, which is the only genus in its family, which is the only family in its Order. The male cones are on male plants, and female cones on female plants. After emergence of the two cotyledons, it sets only two more leaves. Those two leaves then continue to grow longer from their base, much like fingernails. This allows it great drought tolerance, which is likely why it has survived in the desert of Namibia, while all other representatives from its order are now extinct.