By Anita Sanchez

One of the great plea­sures of being a gar­den­er is perus­ing the seed cat­a­log for next year’s gar­den. We sit by the wood stove and flip through the bright­ly col­ored pages, plan­ning which seeds to buy for the annu­al spring plant­i­ng. All of last year’s fail­ures will be rototilled under and for­got­ten, and the spring will start a whole new year of bril­liant gar­den­ing success.

But the fun­ny thing is that this habit of spring plant­i­ng is a human cus­tom. Nature does her seed plant­i­ng at the oppo­site pole of the year — in the fall.

How many seeds will you walk past in a short stroll at the Arbore­tum? thou­sands? mil­lions? Every sin­gle gold­en­rod flo­ret pro­duces a sin­gle seed. Every sin­gle tiny white Queen Anne’s lace flower pro­duces a seed. Milk­weed, this­tle, jew­el­weed, all are gone to seed now. The cen­ter of every sun­flower, daisy, and black-eyed Susan is a trea­sure trove of seeds. Dog­wood berries line the trails. Wild grapes fes­toon the branch­es overhead.

Not to men­tion the for­est har­vest. Acorns car­pet the for­est floor. Apple seeds inside bright fruits clunk down to the ground. Squir­rels are busy plant­i­ng hick­o­ry nuts and black wal­nuts. And many crea­tures — birds, chip­munks, squir­rels, rac­coons, mice, and maybe even a bear or two! — are feast­ing on grapes, berries, and wild cherries.

It’s a ques­tion often asked: do bears poop in the woods? The answer is yes, and it’s a good thing, too. Plants can’t get up and walk around, so they have to find a way to col­o­nize new areas. Hun­dreds of types of plants depend on ani­mals to do their gar­den­ing” for them, since many types of seeds can’t ger­mi­nate with­out first tak­ing a trip through an animal’s stomach.

Wild cher­ry seeds, for instance, are hard and bit­ter, so when an ani­mal eats them, the pits don’t get chewed, and the animal’s diges­tive tract begins to break down the hard shell. When the crit­ter final­ly excretes the cher­ry seed, it’s all ready to get grow­ing. And, as a bonus, the seed is sur­round­ed by a con­ve­nient mound of fer­til­iz­er. All the oth­er soft mushy stuff in the drop­ping con­tains min­er­als and nutri­ents the plant needs to grow strong, like a vit­a­min pill for plants. Botanists with the Nation­al Park Ser­vice who exper­i­ment­ed with pot­ting seeds from a sin­gle drop­ping from a black bear were able to ger­mi­nate more than a thou­sand seedlings.

Plants adver­tise” their wares to their seed-dis­pers­ing cus­tomers. Most fruits are tasty, sweet-smelling, or bright­ly col­ored so they stick out in the land­scape. It’s almost as if the plants are say­ing: Come eat me! 

And the best part (from the plants’ point of view) is that ani­mals don’t deposit their waste imme­di­ate­ly after eat­ing — it takes hours or even days to digest a meal. By then, the ani­mal may have trav­elled many miles from the par­ent plant. The seeds spread to a whole new envi­ron­ment to grow. 

And of course, plants dis­perse seeds in oth­er ways too. Some use the wind, let­ting wings or para­chutes car­ry the crop for hun­dreds of feet — or hun­dreds of miles. Some seeds are hooked or barbed, and hitch a ride stuck to a rabbit’s fur, a dog’s tail, or your socks. 

So next time you take a fall ram­ble, watch nature, the ulti­mate gar­den­er, at her work of plant­i­ng. All those uncount­able num­bers of seeds will lie wait­ing under the snow till spring. Right now the trails at the Arbore­tum are ripe with next year’s possibilities.

Fall 2020

Volume 38 , Number 3

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