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Vail Daily column: Plants are casting seeds all around us

Sage Smith
Curious Nature

Maybe you’ve been counting down since the summer solstice, or maybe you felt it in the rainy chills last month while watching the USA Pro Challenge or maybe you are still waiting for the aspens to boldly state it: Fall is coming. Duh, you say. So what?

Fall is a time of harvest and anticipation. Even in the mountains we celebrate the bounty of our summer gardens at events like Oktoberfest, but we also stock the pantry, uncover and wax our skis, and change wardrobes. Most of us anticipate only the winter snows to come and the big blank white canvas, but fall can mean so much more.

It is at this same time, however, that some of our mountain neighbors live in anticipation of melting snows and our next equinox in March, the time of year when additional sunlight each day adds warmth to our atmosphere like collected interest, enticing us all back into full bloom.

I am speaking, of course, of the plant neighbors in our community. Some of them, at the moment you read this, are still sending out their seeds, dreaming of summers to come.

Ensuring Lifetimes

Have you ever blown the seeds off the white globe of a mature dandelion or its larger cousin the salsify? I hope so. You may not think much about it, but by sending those seeds on their way, you are helping the plant find fertile soil for its next generation, for its children. You are helping to ensure another lifetime for dandelions. But dandelions aren’t the only plant seeds which ride the wind or have hopes for another season.

Each fall milkweed fruits the size and shape of coin purses open as they dry, releasing dozens of lentil-size parachute-equipped seeds. The parachute is composed of many fine silky white hairs called filaments. Fireweed releases its own much smaller, but similar silky seeds to ride the wind.

Not What It Appears

And have you ever seen white cotton pile along roads and bike paths in the spring? The “cotton” we see isn’t really cotton at all, but small white follicles or hairs around tiny seeds released from poplars and cottonwoods of the tree family Salicaceae.

Even if you didn’t realize it, plants are casting seeds all around us. Besides riding the wind, some plants create snack foods which entice the animals who eat them to spread their seeds, sometimes fertilizing it as they do.

Like peas we buy at the store, wild peas from the plant family Fabaceae contain legumes which are housed in a pod. Vetch is a thin thread-like vine found in the understories of most aspen forests. Cream white, purple or pink, vetch blossoms are about the size of a honeybee, and the pods are also tiny. Lupines are common blue wildflowers which bloom from June into the fall. When they fruit, they contain several seeds in larger pubescent, or hair-covered, pods. Both species can be tasty treats for our grazing neighbors. Keep an eye out for wild pea pods this fall, but don’t eat them unless you are with a specialist because most species can be poisonous to humans.

Another plant which casts its own seeds and can also be found in the understories of our forests is the geranium. After pollination, a long lance-shaped fruit begins to grow with five seed-containing facets. As the fruit dries or is brushed by wildlife, the facets recoil back toward the stem with enough force to cast seeds into unknown, but hopefully fertile, territory on the nearby ground. These seeds weather the long winter and hope for a favorable spot come spring.

I like to imagine that our plant neighbors, the ones dreaming of summers to come, have high hopes for the magic potential of every seed. And though fall is just beginning, the seeds being cast today and during the past summer represent the potential of forests to come.

Sage Smith is a naturalist with Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. A twin brother from Eagle, he likes to draw from experience, maneuver rapids and sing from the heart.


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