Just about a year ago, while I was engaged in rather far-ranging reading in garden history, I became fascinated with pinecones. My reading journeyed from the 6th-century BCE Chahar Bagh gardens of Persia to the 20th-century arts and crafts herbaceous borders of England. Familiar with decorative pinecone elements in garden hardscape, I had not, however, given them much studied attention—at least not until I read that sometime around the late Roman and early Byzantine period, pinecones, or more precisely pinecone fountains, emerged as a leading garden feature representing enlightenment and immortality. The finial cones in these fountains were pierced so that water flowed out in streams into large cantharus cups or later into three-tiered fountains typical of medieval garden illustrations.
The medievalist and gardener within me easily made the connection with present-day concrete garden décor. Certainly not the same as those medieval fountains, the fountain pictured on the left below shows that pinecone ornamentation remains alive—at least it does at Sylvia’s Bird Bath and Beyond in Trussville, Alabama. Medieval garden design among Alabama fishing gear! The photo on the right shows pinecone finials pierced at the top to allow for water flow.
According to Linda Farrar in Gardens and Gardeners of the Ancient World, many of those Byzantine fountains appeared in depictions and descriptions of gardens with Christian associations. Water features representing the rivers of paradise are a well-established motif by this time; the pinecone adds connotations of illumination and rebirth—symbolism that long predates those Byzantine fountains. Ostensibly representing enlightenment and immortality, Osiris carried a thyrsus, or staff, topped with a pinecone and entwined with two snakes (1224 BCE). Five hundred years later, pinecones appear in the hands of carved Assyrian winged figures. A pinecone topped staff carried by Dionysus and cones carried in the hands the Aztec agricultural Goddess Chicomecoatl might rather represent fertility—as they did for the Celts.
Back to those gardens and pinecones as garden decoration, though. Search “pinecone fountains” and you will find yourself standing before the Fontanta della Pigna at the Vatican. The 1st-century, 13-foot-tall bronze pinecone originally stood near the Pantheon, maybe close to the Temple of Isis or to the Baths of Agrippa. Moved to the former St. Peter’s Basilica during the Middle Ages, it was relocated to its current site in the environs of the new Basilica in 1608. Once a working fountain, streaming water from its tips, it now seems to bring together varied iconographic elements: vitality, fertility, immortality, resurrection, and enlightenment. Also of note in the Vatican is a Pastoral Staff with a pinecone along the shaft.
Aside from the cultural and mythic significance attributed to the pinecone, my reading led me into unexpected territory of the Fibonacci sequence and hygromorphic response, both of which are garden related. First, the spiral opening of the cone’s scales follow the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21,…) as do many botanical structures, such as sunflower seed heads and the centers of oxeye daises.
I leave the explanations of this phenomenon to the botanists and the mathematicians, but I can’t help but share the beauty of this organic structure with the gardener. Notice both the clockwise and counterclockwise spiral in the cones pictured below. I cannot now look at the composition of a pinecone, or the eye of a daisy, without mathematical and aesthetic appreciation and awe.
Again, without going into detail about types of cells in the scales of pinecones that either stretch or remain rigid when wet, the response of the cone to rain is a fascinating botanical process of self-preservation. To keep their seeds safe from falling too close by the tree trunk during rain and to hold them secure until dry days enable seeds to fly far more afield, pinecones close up when wet—and the mechanism works even when the cones have been long separated from the tree. Below are before and after images of two very long dried pinecones that were soaked in water for just 30 minutes. On the left is a short leaf pine; on the right is a white pine. I’m sure that this is a phenomenon I witnessed countless times without ever really seeing it for the natural “miracle” that it is, without ever realizing that in each of the pairs below the cone on the lefthand side is the cone on the righthand side. For the gardener, pinecones provide natural weather prediction. For the scientist and the contemporary architect, pinecones provide inspiration for a new type of botany inspired engineering.
As the concrete garden décor of Sylvia’s Bird Bath and Beyond attests, the longevity of the pinecone’s place in the garden might not match its 150 million-year-long history as an ancient gymnosperm species, but it preserves hundreds of years of garden fashion. The fountain in the featured image at the start of this post is from the Southern Living Garden at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Birmingham, Alabama. Installed in 2006, “Loblolly” by Brad Morton sits in a secluded corner, quietly celebrating both the botanical richness of the South and garden fountain history.
For the non-gardener or garden historian, there is more to say about the pinecone and the pineal gland and the third eye. As I have to leave some things to the mathematicians and the engineers, I leave those investigations to the folklorists and mystics. I’ll just follow up my study with a search for a pinecone finial I can afford—and a place to put it in my garden.
7 Replies to “Of Pinecones, Fountains, and Fascination”
Very interesting, Susan. I’m going to read this again. R.
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The more I read, the more interesting trails I discovered. Consider reading The Secret Life of Trees and The Revolutionary Genius of Plants.
Fascinating! Thank you.
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I love that you put so much energy and enthusiasm in your many varied studies.
I have always loved pine cones and this may have been my first-ever reading!
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Thank you, Sarah.
I really enjoyed this and recall the material from your advanced master gardener presentation. The ancients were keen observers of mathematical patterns it seems.
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They seem to have made many more connections with the natural world and mathematics than we normally due; that’s for certain.