FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Beanie Babies and Pokemon cards were all the rage among trading types in the 1990s. Today, another hot commodity has fallen quiet and out of the sights of most: pine cones.
That's right, there's a group of collectors out there scouring the real (and virtual) worlds for the sometimes tiny, sometimes pointy, sometimes massive seed pods. Among them is Renee Galeano-Popp, a retired 20-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service who's sharing her passion with audiences of all ages during the height of her "service years."
Among Galeano-Popp's favorite flora are pine trees, of which there are about 110 species worldwide. So a year or two ago, the former botanist bet a friend she could get Facebook users to mail her pine cones from all corners of the globe.
"Lo and behold, I'm almost there," she said last week, after sharing a portion of her piney traveling collection with students at the Lab School.
Galeano-Popp has pine cones from 77 species of trees under her care — she and her husband even packed the "cream of the crop" into plastic tubs when they evacuated from their Glacier View home during the summer's High Park Fire. These pods — some of which are less than an inch long to some larger than a foot — fall from trees ranging from a bristlecone pine in Colorado to a white pine in Japan to Syria's aleppo pine.
She couldn't remember which among the dozens was the first to arrive on her doorstep, but said with a wide smile, "It sure is exciting when the package comes."
Through her Facebook page, Project Pine Cone connects with "freaks," ''researchers" and "pine aficionados" from El Salvador, Germany, Mexico and everywhere in between who are willing to ship off a native cone — sometimes in exchange for another.
Surrounded by glass cases and baskets filled with her natural treasures, Galeano-Popp stood in front of a group of kindergarteners and first-graders: "You can call me the Pine Cone Lady, everyone else does." With that, she held up cone after cone and taught the curious youngsters about the process of fertilization, how fire rejuvenates growth among some pine species and the intricate world of which the trees are a part.
"It's a whole community of animals and plants," Galeano-Popp told her audience. "It's a very busy place."
So what can seeing and touching and smelling the trees' woody seed spreaders do for others?
"My mission is to keep botany alive," Galeano-Popp said. "If I can inspire one little kid to look at nature a little more intricately ... then it's worth it."