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Pine cones, in a way, made Minnesota what it is today.

In the state's early colonial history, our towering white pines became the backbone of the lumber industry that Minnesota's major cities were built around.

"When you look at them historically, you could say that white pines are the most powerful plant in the world," says Alan Branhagen, director of operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. "A 200-foot mast made for a significantly larger and faster ship than the 80-foot masts used by other [non-English/American] navies. We probably wouldn't be speaking English here today if it weren't for those pines."

We're also home to the jack pine and the red (or Norway) pine, the official state tree. Red pines have reddish wood and distinct long, two-needle bundles that break easily when bent — other species' needles bend without breaking. Its cones are small and round, even after the scales open to shed their seeds. Jack pines also have two-needle bundles, but with cones that are curved and tapered, similar to a hot pepper. The cones are serotinous, only opening in response to high temperatures, such as those caused by forest fires.

White pines have five needles per bundle, and large, elongated cones with white coloration on the scales. Scotch pines, the most commonly planted pine species (though not native to Minnesota), are the typical "Christmas tree" pine. Its short, green or blue-green needles grow in bundles of two, with cones that are round at the bottom and pointed at the top — like a teardrop. Other non-natives you'll see: Swiss stone and Korean white pines, appreciated for the nuts they produce.

When collecting pine cones, stick to private property. Look down for specimens that haven't been trampled by wildlife, or twist open cones off branches. Keep in mind that cones are also a food source for animals, so take only what you need.