The Season for Seeds

by Rebecca Shankland
October 2001

No matter where you’re hiking this time of year, your boots, socks, and dog come home covered with bits of prickers or fluff that can’t be removed with hot water and Tide. The plants are making their last-ditch effort to sow their seeds for next spring, and they have clever ways of doing it.

One strategy might be called the parachute—or blowin’ in the wind. Miniature umbrellas sail off on the breeze, carrying tiny payloads of seeds to faraway destinations. The most familiar example is the dandelion, but lots of other plants use this device. The milkweeds put up 3-inch canoe-shaped pods that burst open to reveal white fluff. Around White Rock the road edges are shimmering with poison milkweed (Asclepias subverticillata), usually 1-2 feet tall. The trail from Ponderosa Campground down to Upper Crossing has butterfly weed (A. tuberosa) without its bright orange flowers, but with the tell-tale seed pod. And the recumbent antelope horns (A. asperula) puts up the same-shaped pod, often in pairs that stick up gracefully like the pronghorn’s headgear.

Other plants in the parachute class are the oyster-plant or salsify, but they went to seed by mid-summer. Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) is a good-sized shrub on which you can now see the small white rose flowers, the delicate plumes of the rosy-colored young seed-heads, and the pale white of the more mature plumes. Apache plume likes road edges, so watch for it along Pajarito Road or State Route 4 below Tsankawi.

Four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens) has an ingenious design for its seed pod, a half-inch yellowish paper box slightly squashed in the centers to give a four-winged effect. I have always assumed that the design was meant to impart aerodynamic success, but the salt-bush plants seem to hang on to their seeds well into winter, so perhaps the design has a different Darwinian advantage.

Some parachutes are more sophisticated. The light, feathery plumes of mountain mahagony are easily airborne, but the plume is shaped like a tiny corkscrew so that it spins around as it flies. Then the sharp-pointed seed at the bottom becomes a tiny auger that bores into the earth and plants itself efficiently without rake or hoe.

A second strategy is the hitchhiker. Instead of using the wind, these seeds attach themselves to unwitting passersby. Two dogs of my acquaintance, always hot on the trail of roadside secrets, sometimes find instead goat-head thorns, which imbed themselves in the dogs’ paws. Goat-heads also have an affinity for bicycle tires, and are lethal enough to cause a flat, giving them another name—puncture vine. The nasty weed creeps out into the road, then produces innocuous-looking yellow flowers that quickly evolve into little round spiked clubs. The scientific name, Tribulus terrestris, means “three thorns” “of the earth.”

Other hitchhikers are the aptly named stickseed (Lappula redowskii) and stickseed forget-me-not (Hackelia floribunda). Both begin in early spring with innocent pale blue or white forget-me-not flowers. They are indeed hard to forget when the tiny burrs have attached themselves like little velcro buttons to your shoelaces and socks. Cockleburs, found in damp, disturbed soil, have a more vicious set of barbed hooks angling for your pant leg, but because they are big enough to be seen, you’re less likely to give them a free ride.

A third approach to seed distribution is the edible method. Here the attractive fruits beg to be eaten—and the seeds eventually emerge from the digestive tract of bird, bear, or human ready to begin a new life. The Frijoles Canyon trail last week was liberally marked with bear-patties, each one full of berries. Judging from the nearby bushes, I’d guess the bears had been munching skunkbush, rose hips, privet, Russian olive, barberry, Oregon grape, and acorns.

Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata) has several names—squawbush and lemonadebush both suggest that people have used the orange-red berries. (I’ve found them to taste like turpentine, so I’m happy to let the bears and deer harvest them.) Rose hips, like miniscule red apples, are more appealing, making a nice tea full of vitamins A and C.

New Mexico privet or olive (Forestiera neomexicana) sometimes reaches the size of a small tree, with gray bark and deep blue, olive-shaped fruits. The fruits fall off easily, so don’t expect many in October. It’s a true member of the olive family. Russian olive, however, is an imposter—it’s in the elaeagnus family, but the silvery gray fruits are indeed the size and shape of olives. Unlike the New Mexico olive, these fruits stay on the tree well into winter. Birds love them, but as foreign imports that drink up the water along stream banks and road edges, they can be a nuisance.

Fendler’s barberry (Berberis fendleri) grows in ponderosa territory in large, three-foot high clumps. The thorns are formidable, but the bright red berries are a cheerful contrast with the brown ponderosa needles of autumn. Another barberry with enticing fruits is Oregon grape (Berberis repens), also called creeping mahonia or holly grape. It meanders along the edges of forest paths, but is also used as an ornamental because of its evergreen holly leaves and soft blue “grape” fruits that stay all winter.

A final example of the edible approach is used by the oaks, who offer up their acorns on little cup-shaped platters. Searching for acorns on the Gambel oaks along Olive Street, I found only the empty cups. Acorns are popular with everything from turkeys to bears to humans—Indians ground them for flour--so perhaps I was too late.

Even though you may want to curse the seeds that have learned to hitchhike, remember how ingenious they are at getting their way. Remember, too, the lovely shapes of the parachutes and the delicious colors of the edibles. The plant kingdom has perfected the commandment “Be fruitful and multiply.”