Tag Archives: seeds

Spruce family planning

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOne of the first things we noticed when we drove into Alaska in July was that vast stands of spruce — and Alaska is full of vast stands of spruce — were dark brown at the top. Seeing them from a distance, as we drove through a valley, we wondered if they were suffering from a disease that was killing them from the tips. When we got closer, we realized they were laden with cones. At first, I assumed this was a normal approach to long summer days, but found, on a guided walk through the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, that 2015 was a mast year for white spruce.

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The female cones tend to cluster toward the top of the tree.

Mast refers to the products of trees — cones, acorns, catkins — and many species have mast years, when they produce an above-normal abundance of seeds. Spruce cones are the primary food of Alaskan red squirrels. The squirrels live on the forest floor, digging tunnels under and around the roots of the trees, where the cones can fall right at their doorstep. They eat the seeds at the base of the female cone scales, tossing the rest of the scale and the remaining ‘cob’, out their front doors, where the ever-mounting detritus becomes a whole environment in itself.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Every few years, to keep ahead of the voracious squirrels, who can each hoard up to 9,000 cones a season, the trees produce extra cones. When our guide, Ruth, was telling us this, we joked that spruce had family planning all figured out. And that got me thinking about what we actually meant by those light words. What had they figured out? How had they figured it out? What in the spruce had ‘noticed’ that producing more cones every few years meant they could insure enough offspring without spending the energy to produce extra cones every year?

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Thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for this photo. No squirrel would stand still for me.

We know, if only from watching our dogs go into a decline the second we pull out a suitcase, that animals have consciousness and an emotional life. We don’t put it on a par with our own, and don’t, as a rule, apply any concept of consciousness to plants, though there is a growing, and utterly fascinating, body of work dedicated to exploring what plants know and feel.

In my work as a landscape designer I would ponder why gardens grew better for some people and not others, given that their care was basically the same. I had a client who was extremely ornery. I learned quickly to call him in the morning so I didn’t run into his afternoon drinking. Despite a sense of humor and a certain amount of charm, he could be hard to be around. But his landscape was one of my all-time favorite jobs. He was an artist and a bon vivant. He loved beauty. He had been a photographer for Life magazine, and his house was full of lovely things from all over the world. His garden, despite his routine grumpiness, grew like mad.

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I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

A counter example was a couple in their thirties, successful professionals, extremely nice, though not necessarily warm or charming. Their house was rather bleakly furnished. Every time we met, they both stood with their arms tightly folded the entire time. Their garden did the same thing. It dutifully grew, but it never took off into the kind of riotous abundance that my ornery client’s did.

Another couple with whom I worked for many years started out with a garden that grew grudgingly for a while. But, after both successfully recovered from cancer, it was fascinating to see how they and their garden changed. My clients seemed more at ease, more open. They renovated their house and painted every room a different luminous color from the sea and sky outside. Their garden got more and more lush, and even unusually deep in color.

east-hampton-garden-designed-photographed-by-Betsey-CrawfordThough the idea of sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of plants has enormous appeal, spruce will clearly never follow our example on family planning: make appointments, discuss options, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy, remember to use whatever we get there. Instead, every few years, usually following a warmer prior summer, they will produce extra cones. To do this they have to ‘know’ something. To grow riotously for one person and not for another indicates a capacity to respond. To grow toward the light indicates a capacity to see. Plants don’t have the neurology we use to translate vision into images, as far as we know, but the chemical process is not that far from our own, and some of the genes that direct it are the same. Nature can’t be bothered to give every living thing its own personal set of genes, so both humans and plants have inherited genes from our common, ancient, bacteria ancestors.

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Squirrel apartment building

I love all this, because I love to contemplate our interconnectedness. I love the idea that I am, literally, in the same family tree with the spruces I pass on my hike. That I share up to 80% of my DNA with the squirrel chittering at me, up to 25% with the branch she sits on and the cone she’s about to hide. The ferns brushing my shins, the moss on the edge of the path, the fungal mycelium strands winding through the soil under my feet — these are all kin, descendants, like me, of our unicellular forebears. And, as carbon-based forms, we are all descendants of the earliest stars, whose death launched carbon into the universe.

We live in a world where we differ from all other humans across the globe by less than 1% of our DNA. Nevertheless, we’re having a hard time convincing our very tribal selves that we are all related. Given that challenge, seeing spruce trees and squirrels as family may seem like a low priority. But I find that feeling embedded in the life force that is also the forest makes it easier to remind myself, in the constant brush of personality that makes up everyday life, that underneath our wide-ranging but superficial spectrum of differences, we are all — every one of us — intimately connected.

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I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Going to seed

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Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) about the send off its abundance of seeds.

Some years ago I took a photography workshop at the New York Botanical Garden. At the end of a day spent shooting the vast array of flowers in the perennial gardens, Allen Rokach, our teacher, told us to come back next morning with two favorites to share. Everyone else brought in pictures of flowers at their crispest and dewiest. I brought in a fading iris and the seedheads of giant alliums.

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Giant allium (Allium giganteum) seedheads

Allen was forbearing, even rather fascinated by this choice. It’s not that I don’t love flowers at their freshest. But there is something about the fading flower, the seed heads, the seeds themselves that I am drawn to. This is part of the life of the flower. In fact, this is the point of the flower. While we enjoy the exquisite beauty of form, the softness of petal, colors ranging from the subtlest to the wildest of shades, the whole design is to attract pollinators, get pollinated, and produce the next generation.

Seedheads found at Meadows in the Sky at Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia

Seedheads found at Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia

So all that beauty isn’t about the joy and refreshment of our eyes. We were 100 million years from the horizon when angiosperms (fruit producing plants) first appeared. It’s likely that we owe our eventually showing up to the benefits their nutritious fruits and seeds brought to the animal kingdom. The goal of floral beauty is to create structures for seeds to develop, and to lure bees, hummingbirds, flies, beetles, bats, butterflies and other pollinators to help with the task.

Color, scent, form, and those inviting, exquisite petals signal that sugar is available. While the nectar, deep in the flower, is sipped, the anthers at the end of the flexible stamens brush pollen on their guest. It’s common in spring and summer to see bees, their legs swollen with yellow fuzz, diving drunkenly into flower after flower, dropping some pollen off, picking up more.

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Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in bloom and beginning to form a seedhead

At each flower, the pollen brushes off the carrier onto the stigma, the top of the tiny stalk (the style, barely visible above) nestled in the center of the stamens. The pollen’s DNA information then proceeds to the ovary at the base of the flower. The ovary, often still small when the petals fall, like the columbine above, swells into fruit as the seed matures. Eventually the ripened, swollen fruits begin to dry and split open, emptying their abundance of seeds.

SeedheadsThe abundance can be staggering. That long curve of fluffy seeds in the fireweed at the top of the post is from one flower, on a stalk containing dozens of flowers, among millions of fireweed stalks.

Seeds must then move from pod to receptive ground. In the case of harvesting fruits and seeds for eating, farming or gardening, we have a huge role to play in this, and a minor role, which we share with our dogs and other local fauna, in carrying sticky seeds from place to place on our pants and socks. Other seeds simply fall at the feet of the flower stalk. Not content to wait for creatures to walk by, many seeds are attached to feathery filaments that allow the wind to disperse them.

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Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

All of this can be going on at the same time. The desert creosote above has a fresh flower, with its anthers full of pollen, a fruit at the top, and two stages of open pods: one with the seed filaments just emerging from the dried and split fruit, and one beginning to disseminate its feathery seeds.

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Monkshood bud and seed pod (Aconitum delphinifolium) at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

I like the tossed-aside-lingerie look of fading flowers, but it’s the pods, or seedheads — sculptural, often a bit wacky, with dried-in-place curves and unexpected twists — that I particularly like.  I love the way the designed-for-wind filaments catch the light before they fly off, and the increasing translucency of some pods as they dry.

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Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

Loving flowers takes a certain existential fortitude. They are a fleeting lot. This is especially true of wildflowers. In a garden, you can create bloom all season, all year in warm climates. You can make space for wildflowers, and even plant them, but you have very little control over what they do and where they go. This is why cultivars — flowers bred for particular traits — are so important to the garden industry. They are tamed wildflowers.

The truly wild ones come and go on their own tens-of-millions-of-years-old schedules. If it’s too dry, too cold, too wet, they may choose dormancy. If all is right, they will grow riotously. If there’s too much competition from invasive plants, they will bide their time, the seeds remaining dormant for years. Once they bloom, they slow or speed up their flowering and fading according to the weather.

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Wild geranium seedhead (Geranium erianthum)

While they’re blooming, I don’t think much about all this. I just want to see them. It’s when they fade and the pods ripen that I remember that they’re not here for me. The seedheads remind me that we are part of their history, not the other way around. We have taken full advantage of this process to grow food, harvest seeds, enjoy gardens. But it’s not a cycle for us. It’s a cycle we fit into. Watching this ancient unfolding roots me in the history of the earth, in the forces that, with slow and infinite care, brought us here, blessed with the ability to see and love beauty.

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Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium)