Seeds in the Wild
As a cut flower lover and future vegetable breeder (grad school starts next week folks) I mostly find myself focused on how human food crops grow, reproduce, make seed, etc. A recent trip back to my spectacular, high desert hometown in Colorado reminded me of a few “seed” phenomena that are taking place in the wild plants you might know well.
I thought I might showcase my favorite examples, and try to articulate the delicate features of high elevation plants that pulled my heart in the botanical direction that it has followed ever since.
Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)
The pollination dance of the ponderosa pine is among my favorite biology stories to share and it all starts with the cones.
If you have yet to notice, there are two types of “cones” on a pine tree: male and female. The smaller male cones inhabit the lower limbs of the Ponderosas, and it takes some serious tilting of your head to spot the female cones that decorate the tops of the trees. This split of cone location is characteristic of many pines, and there’s a good reason for it.
Pine trees prefer to cross-pollinate with other nearby trees, with pollen brought in by wind. Every year, for a few weeks, the male cones will release their pollen that magically drifts upwards to reach the waiting female cones on other trees.
Perhaps none of this is too spectacular, but when you put the pine pollen grains under a microscope things do get pretty exciting. In order to achieve the buoyant lift that they need to reach the upper boughs, pine pollen has developed a very unique shape. The main cell is round, and unremarkable. Attached to this circle, however, are two half circle air pockets that allow the pollen to fly. Put it all together and the shape you end up with looks VERY much like a little teddy bear head.
Every year, when the pine pollen begins to light up my allergies, I try to remind myself that I am simply reacting to thousands of little bear faces flying into my nose. And though it may not help much, it gives me a smile before my next sneeze.
Scrub Oak (Quercus gambelii)
The next high desert delight runs on a very different schedule, so different that it earned its own name: mast seeding.
This phenomenon is a characteristic of many forest species that produce delicious, edible fruits and nuts. The principle is that every few years, as a function of economies of scale, resources, and weather, a large seed production event will occur. All at once, after years of few to no fruit, a species in a specific area will produce a massive amount.
You can imagine why this is a good idea. Just think of all of the various critters that lay claim to the food produced by a forest. In a low production year, all of the fruits are eaten up with none left behind. This isn’t just a problem for the squirrels that don’t get enough to eat for the winter. Without any fruits (and their seeds) leftover, the trees or shrubs of a forest have no chance to produce children. In an abundant year there is more than enough for all the hungry species, and what doesn’t get eaten becomes the forest of the future.
On my most recent trip home I discovered myself in one of my favorite mast fruiting events with the scrub oak. These bushy trees produce the cutest little acorns and as I saw them I was transported back to my childhood antics of removing each little acorn “cap” to make hats for all of my fingers.
Elephant’s Head Wildflower (Pedicularis groenlandica)
I cannot talk about the unique native plants of Colorado without bringing up my favorite wildflower in the world: Elephant’s Head.
This magical spike flower is adorned with what, even under very close scrutiny, appear to be the heads of dozens of pink and purple elephants. The petals have a delicate silky texture, and altogether it is a spectacular delight of the natural world.
Elephant’s Head is a peculiar plant, though. Preferring to grow in boggy, wet soils at high elevations, it graces alpine meadows with an almost tropical appearance. But there is a secret to this flowers ability to grow up so showy and large in high mountain regions...
It’s actually a parasite (hemi-parasite, technically).
As the seeds of this plant begin to germinate, these flowers are quick to locate and identify the neighboring grasses and sedges. Then, using an extended root structure with a sharp hook on the end, they stick themselves into the roots of the neighbors and begin to suck up nutrients from these other plants as they need them. Creepy, right?
The Elephant's Head flowers are not totally reliant on the work of others, and they do photosynthesize a little from their small leaves. In general, though, these flowers embody a very deadly beauty and if I’m honest I like them even more for it.
Turns out that some really crazy stuff is going on out there in the wild plants. I’ve always adored the high desert plants for their resiliency and odd adaptations that they’ve accumulated over millennia.
Do you have any favorite wild plants that you know the stories of? What wild plants are your favorite?
Send me your thoughts on this and any other plant-y topics!