Woody seedpods of Arctic lupine are capable of
incredible longevity. Seeds discovered in fossilized lemming burrows, frozen and buried beneath as much as 18
feet of Pleistocene glacial sediments, can still sprout and
grow today. Closer to home, our native pin-cherry seeds
may lie dormant in the soil for decades before increased
sunlight and changes in soil temperature induce them to
grow. Foxes, coyotes, martens, black bears, ruffed grouse,
and hermit thrushes eagerly consume the tree’s shiny red
drupes and then wander off to plant more seeds with
their moist and nourishing excrement. Deer mice, chipmunks, and red squirrels may collect the seeds from the
feces and store them. Not all these stored seeds are eaten,
however, and so the life cycle goes on.
Wind and water provide other ways for a seed to get
away from a parent plant. We can all appreciate the utility of a coconut floating in an ocean to land upon some
distant island. Here at home, I have observed a similar
phenomenon. Following a dump of some six inches of
rain, I was examining conditions along a tributary of
Mill Brook as it raged with floodwater, when I noticed
numerous speckled-alder fruits rafting down the brook’s
turbulent flow. Over several minutes, hundreds passed
by. The fruits’ conical structure, with air spaces between
scales supporting nutlet seeds, enabled them to be fully
buoyant, carrying the wetland trees’ precious cargo to
some promised land.
Worldwide there are many marvelous winged seeds,
including our own region’s familiar elm seeds, which
have a papery circle of wing tissue. Ashes and maples
bear single- or double-winged samaras. Even minute
birch seeds are surrounded by wings that enable them to
flutter to the ground and dash across a hard snowpack
with help from the winter wind.
Tiny, densely packed flowers on willows and poplars
are perfectly set up for wind pollination. Thousands
of these late-summer seeds, suspended in air by tufts
of white, silk-like hairs, look like snow and remind us
northerners that winter is near.
Some wind-blown seeds become attached to animal
fur, though they may only ride for a short distance
before being brushed, groomed, or blown away. On the
previous page, notice the goldenrod seed on the face of
the handsome “silver fox,” which is a black-furred color
phase of the more common red fox.
An unusual dispersal method employed by some
plants has been described as “ballistic expulsion.” Squeeze
the ripe fruit of jewelweed, also aptly known as “
touch-me-not,” and the five-chambered seedcase will explosively
eject seeds in your face! Witch hazel also catapults its
seeds away from the seed capsule – as far as 20 to 30 feet.
Some plants employ the strategy of self-propelling
their seeds. The noxious nonnative weed of the American
west, the tumbleweed, dies – pulls up stakes, as it were
– and detaches from its roots. It’s now free to roll with
Some hawthorns (Crataegus sp) have wildly spiny trunks.
Boxelder (Acer negundo) maple keys.