Original URL: http://daphne.palomar.edu/wayne/plfeb99.htm

Wayne's WordIndexNoteworthy PlantsGee Whiz LemnaceaeBiology 100BiblioYearSearch

Wayne's Word | Noteworthy Plants | Lemnaceae | Gee-Whiz

Noteworthy Plants For February 1999

Blowing In The Wind!

Seeds & Fruits Dispersed By Wind!

Like an endless army of parachutists released from an airplane, seeds and fruits travel the wind currents and gentle breezes of the earth, possibly colonizing a distant mountain slope or fertile valley. Literally hundreds of species in many plant families have adopted this remarkable method of dispersal, including a variety of ubiquitous plants that we recognize as "weeds." The answer to why some weedy composites (such as the European dandelion) have worldwide distributions is truly "blowing in the wind" (to quote from the Peter, Paul and Mary song). Some of the ingenious adaptations for this method of wind dispersal include seeds that resemble parachutes, helicopters and gliders. In fact, one species (see opening photo) reportedly inspired the design of some early aircraft. An astronomer friend of Mr. Wolffia once observed a strange formation of flying objects through his telescope. He was focusing on a squadron of tiny parachute seeds high above his house. And the entire plant body of wolffia (the world's smallest flowering plant) may be transported by powerful cyclonic storms! In the southeastern United States there are records of wolffia plant bodies less than one millimeter long being carried by a tornado, and they have even been reported in the water of melted hailstones!

An Introduction To The Botany of Seeds

Seeds provide the vital genetic link and dispersal agent between successive generations of plants. They are produced and packaged in a botanical structures called fruits which develop from the "female" pistils of flowers. Immature seeds (called ovules) each contain a minute, single-celled egg enclosed within a 7-celled embryo sac. The haploid (1n) egg is fertilized by a haploid (1n) sperm resulting in a diploid (2n) zygote that divides by mitosis into a minute, multicellular embryo within the developing seed. A second sperm unites with the diploid (2n) polar mother cell (also within the embryo sac) to form the triploid endosperm. In most seeds the embryo is embedded in this endosperm tissue which provides sustenance to the embryo during germination. In exalbuminous seeds (found in many plants such as the legumes), the endosperm tissue is already absorbed by the time you examine a mature seed within the pod, and the 2 white fleshy halves in the seed are really the cotyledons (components of the embryo). The 2 sperm involved in the double fertilization process originated within the pollen tube that penetrated the embryo sac. The pollen grain (and pollen tube) come from the "male" organs (called anthers) on the same plant or different parental plants in a remarkable process known as pollination. Pollination is also accomplished by the wind (or water), and it may also involve insects in some of nature's most fascinating relationships between a plant and an animal. This is especially true of the amazing fig trees and their symbiotic wasps.

One of the important functions of seeds and fruits is dispersal; a mechanism to establish the embryo-bearing seeds in a suitable place away from their parental plants. There are 3 main mechanisms for seed and fruit dispersal: (1) Hitchhiking on animals, (2) Drifting in ocean or fresh water, and (3) Floating in the wind. This article concerns one of the most remarkable of all seed dispersal methods, riding the wind and air currents of the world.

Types Of Wind Dispersal:

  1. Gliders
  2. Parachutes
  3. Helicopters (Whirlybirds)
  4. Flutterer/Spinners
  5. Cottony Seeds & Fruits
  6. Miscellaneous

Wind-dispersed seeds & fruits in different plant families:

Helicopters: A. Box Elder (Acer negundo, Aceraceae); C. Big-Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum, Aceraceae); E: Evergreen Ash (Fraxinus uhdei, Oleaceae); F. Tipu Tree (Tipuana tipu, Fabaceae).

Flutterer/Spinners: B. Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa, Scrophulariaceae); D. Tree Of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima, Simaroubaceae); G. Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia, Bignoniaceae)

1. Gliders

The remarkable winged seed of the tropical Asian climbing gourd Alsomitra macrocarpa. The entire seed has a wingspan of 5 inches (13 cm) and is capable of gliding through the air of the rain forest in wide circles. This seed reportedly inspired the design of early aircraft and gliders.

Seed courtesy of The Cucurbit Network
P.O. Box 560483, Miami, Florida 33256, USA

Gliders include seeds with 2 lateral wings that resemble the wings of an airplane. They become airborne when released from their fruit and sail through the air like a true glider. One of the best examples of this method is Alsomitra macrocarpa, a tropical vine in the Gourd Family (Cucurbitaceae) native to the Sunda Islands of the Malay Archipelago. Football-sized gourds hang from the vine high in the forest canopy, each packed with hundreds of winged seeds. The seeds have two papery, membranous wings, with combined wingspans of up to 5 inches (13 cm). They reportedly inspired the wing design of some early aircraft, gliders and kites. Although the seeds vary in shape, some of the most symmetrical ones superficially resemble the shape of the "flying wing" aircraft or a modern Stealth Bomber! According to Peter Loewer (Seeds: The Definitive Guide to Growing, History, and Lore, 1995), the aerodynamic seeds spiral downward in 20 foot (6 meter) circles, although a gust of wind would probably carry them much farther away.

2. Parachutes

An individual parachute of western salsify (Tragopogon dubius) showing an umbrella-like, plumose crown of hairs (pappus) above a slender one-seeded fruit (called an achene). These fragile units can become airborne with the slightest gust of wind, and can literally sail across valleys and over mountain slopes.

Western salsify or goatsbeard (Tragopogon dubius) showing dense, puff-like cluster of numerous parachute seeds (one-seeded achenes). Each achene has an umbrella-like crown of plumose hairs and may literally be carried into the atmosphere by strong ascending air currents.

A population explosion of western salsify(Tragopogon dubius) near Mono Lake, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada of Central California. This ubiquitous species is actually native to Europe and Asia.

Parachutes include seeds or achenes (one-seeded fruits) with an elevated, umbrella-like crown of intricately-branched hairs at the top, often produced in globose heads or puff-like clusters. The slightest gust of wind catches the elaborate crown of plumose hairs, raising and propelling the seed into the air like a parachute. This is the classic mechanism of dispersal for the Eurasian dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and includes numerous weedy and native members of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). A giant Eurasian version of the dandelion called salsify or goat's beard (Tragopogon dubius), is one of the most successful wind-travelers in North America. Its seeds have literally blown across mountain ranges, colonizing vast fields of open land in the western United States. Three weedy species of salsify (T. dubius, T. pratensis and T. porrifolius) have been introduced into the western United States, 2 with yellow dandelion-type flowers and one with purple flowers. The latter, purple-flowered species (T. porrifolius) has a large, edible tap root with a flavor resembling oysters, hence the name "oyster plant."

In some parachutes, the crown of silky hairs arises directly from the top of the seed (not on an umbrella-like stalk). Again, the Sunflower Family (world's second largest plant family with over 19,000 described species) contains many weedy representatives with this type of parachute seed. One of the most troublesome weeds of farm land in the western United States is wild or thistle artichoke (Cynara cardunculus). The large seed head of this weedy composite releases hundreds of parachute seeds which fly through the air and invade vast areas of grazing land with spiny, perennial bushes that literally take over. The large leaf stalks (resembling giant celery stalks) are edible and are sold under the name of "cardoon." Populations of wild artichoke often contain so much variation between spiny and non-spiny plants, that some experts believe that they belong to one variable species. In fact, some botanists believe that the cultivated artichoke (C. scolymus) may be a cultivated variety of the wild C. cardunculus. Incidentally, the delicious artichoke is really a cooked flower head in which the outer bracts (phyllaries) and central basal portion (receptacle) are dipped in butter and eaten.

See Photos Of Thistle Artichoke!

Another plant family which has evolved this parachute method of seed dispersal is the Milkweed Family (Asclepiadaceae). Hundreds of parachute seeds (each with a tuft of silky hairs) are produced within large, inflated pods called follicles. So abundant are the silky hairs, that they were actually collected and used as a substitute for kapok during World War II. Kapok comes from masses of silky hairs that line the seed capsules of the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), an enormous rain forest tree of Central and South America. Kapok is used primarily as a waterproof filler for mattresses, pillows, upholstery, softballs, and especially for life preservers. The floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa), another member of the Bombax Family (Bombaceae) also produces large seed capsules lined with masses of silky hairs. The seeds of kapok and floss silk trees are embedded in these silky masses which aid in their dispersal by wind; however they probably belong in Section 5 below (Cottony Seeds & Fruits).

The Dogbane Family (Apocynaceae) also includes members with seed pods (follicles) and parachute seeds similar to those of milkweeds. One of the best examples is Nerium oleander, a drought-resistant, Mediterranean shrub planted throughout southern California. The foliage contains a powerful cardiac glycoside that can permanently relax the heart muscle.

See Milkweeds With Parachute Seeds!

3. Helicopters (Whirlybirds)

The South American tipu tree (Tipuana tipu) has one of the most unusual legumes in the world. Unlike the fruits of most members of the legume family (Fabaceae), the 3rd largest plant family, the fruits of this tree have a distinctive wing that causes the legume to spin as it falls from the rain forest canopy.

Helicopters (also called Whirlybirds) include seeds or one-seeded fruits (samaras) with a rigid or membranous wing at one end. The wing typically has a slight pitch (like a propeller or fan blade), causing the seed to spin as it falls. Depending on the wind velocity and distance above the ground, helicopter seeds can be carried considerable distances away from the parent plant. The spinning action is similar to auto-rotation in helicopters, when a helicopter "slowly" descends after a power loss.

Numerous species of trees and shrubs in many diverse and unrelated plant families have evolved this ingenious method of seed dispersal, good examples of convergent evolution. Representative examples of helicopter seeds and one-seeded fruits (called samaras) include the Maple Family (Aceraceae): Maples and box elder (Acer); Olive Family (Oleaceae): Ash (Fraxinus); Legume Family (Fabaceae): Tipu tree (Tipuana tipu); Pine Family (Pinaceae): Pine (Pinus), fir (Abies), spruce (Picea), hemlock (Tsuga) and many additional genera; Protea Family (Proteaceae): Banksia and Hakea.

See Mountain Hemlock Seed Cone!

Maples have a double or twin samara composed of 2 winged one-seeded fruits (double samara) joined together at their bases. When they break apart, each winged fruit flies like a typical helicopter seed. Although the Legume Family (Fabaceae) is the third largest plant family with over 18,000 described species, the vast majority of legumes do not have winged seeds or fruits. The South American tipu tree (Tipuana tipu) is a notable exception, with beautiful yellow blossoms that give rise to pendant seeds, each with a large wing on the lower end. The dried, brown seeds spin so neatly in the air that they could be marketed as a child's toy! Although they are classified as gymnosperms with naked seeds arising from woody cones rather than flowers, the Pine Family contains many genera with winged seeds. When shed from cones high on upper branches, they fly over slopes and across deep canyons. The natural reforestation of conifers following fire is proof of the flying ability of seeds from nearby forested slopes.

See Classification Of Plant Kingdom!
See Diversity Of Flowering Plants!

The remarkable Protea Family (Proteaceae) of Australia contains some truly amazing genera with winged seeds, including Banksia and Hakea. Although they are flowering plants, banksias produce a dense flower cluster (inflorescence) that gives rise to a cone-like structure containing many woody carpels. Each carpel bears 2 winged seeds and the entire cone-like structure superficially resembles a pine cone. In fact, some banksias release their seeds following fire and even resprout from subterranean lignotubers like chaparral shrubs.

See More Helicopter Seed Photos!
See Article About Plants That Follow Fire!

4. Flutterer/Spinners

The native range of hopseed bush (Dodonea viscosa), a member of the Soapberry Family (Sapindaceae), extends from Arizona to South America. It is also commonly cultivated in southern California. The papery, winged fruits flutter and spin in the air, and may be carried short distances by the wind.

Go To Longan & Other Members Of Soapberry Family!

The jacaranda tree (Jacaranda mimosifolia) of northwestern Argentina. Like many other members of the Bignonia Family (Bignoniaceae), the papery, winged seeds flutter and spin as they are carried by the wind.

Although their mode of dispersal is similar to single-winged helicopter seeds, the flutterer/spinners include seeds with a papery wing around the entire seed or at each end. When released from their seed capsules they flutter or spin through the air. Whether they spin or merely flutter depends on the size, shape and pitch of the wings, and the wind velocity. This method of wind dispersal is found in numerous species of flowering plants in many different plant families. Some examples of flutterer/spinner seeds include the Quassia Family (Simaroubaceae): Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima); Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae): Empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa); Bignonia Family (Bignoniaceae): Jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia), catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), yellow bells (Tecoma stans), bower vine (Pandorea jasminoides), violet trumpet vine (Clytostoma callistegioides), and the fabulous trumpet trees (Tabebuia serratifolia and T. ipe); Elm Family (Ulmaceae): American and Chinese elms (Ulmus americana and U. parvifolia); Soapberry Family (Sapindaceae): Hop seed (Dodonea viscosa); and the Goosefoot Family (Chenopodiaceae): Four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens).

Some of the most beautiful flowering trees of the New World tropics belong to the Bignonia Family (Bignoniaceae). They typically produce long, slender (cigar-shaped) seed capsules containing masses of flat seeds with papery wings at each end. [The beautiful jacaranda of Argentina has flattened, circular seed capsules.] The lovely yellow bells (Tecoma stans) is native to Mexico and the Caribbean region, and is the official flower of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Some of the South American trumpet trees, including the pink-flowered Tabebuia avellanedae (listed as T. ipe in some references) and the yellow-flowered Tabebuia serratifolia, are also called ironwoods or axe-breakers (quebrachos) because of their dense, hard wood. The latter species is called "pau d'arco" and its wood actually sinks in water, with a specific gravity of 1.20. In South America, trumpet trees drop their leaves during the dry season and produce a profusion of pink or yellow blossoms. The crowns of these huge timber trees resemble gigantic floral bouquets in the midst of the forest. As with so many tropical species, some of the trumpet trees inhabit rain forest areas that are seriously threatened by slash and burn agriculture, large plantations of exportable products, and the general annihilation of the South American rain forests.

Other South American species of Tabebuia are also referred to as pau d'arco, including the pink-flowered T. impetiginosa and T. avellanedae. According to The New York Botanical Garden Encyclopedia of Horticulture Volume 10, 1982, T. avellanedae is a synonym for T. impetiginosa, and T. ipe "is so closely similar to T. impetiginosa that it can scarcely be more than a variety of that species." These attractive pink-flowered species are commonly used as landscape trees in temperate regions.

The powdered inner bark of these pink-flowered species of pau d'arco is sold as a popular herbal remedy that reportedly stimulates the immune system. According to a book by Kenneth Jones (Pau d'Arco: Immune Power From the Rain Forest, Healing Arts Press, 1995), this valuable herb has been proven successful in the treatment of certain cancers, allergies associated with the Candida yeast syndrome, and in disorders involving a weakened immune system.

See Photos Of Yellow Bells, Pau d'Arco, & Trumpet Vine !

Specific Gravity

Probably the best way to appreciate the relative hardness of different woods is the concept of "specific gravity," a numerical scale based on 1.0 for pure water. Without getting too mathematical, the specific gravity of a substance can easily be calculated by dividing its density (in grams per cubic centimeter) by the density of pure water (one gram per cubic centimeter). The brilliant Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes discovered over 2,100 years ago that a body in water is buoyed up by a force equal to weight of the water displaced. Archimedes reportedly came upon this discovery in his bathtub, and ran out into the street without his clothing shouting "Eureka, I have found it." Since one gram of pure water occupies a volume of one cubic centimeter, anything having a specific gravity greater than 1.0 will sink in pure water. The principles of buoyancy and specific gravity are utilized in many ways, from scuba diving and chemistry to the hardness of dry, seasoned wood. Some of the heaviest hardwood trees and shrubs of the United States have specific gravities between 0.80 and 0.95; including shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) and ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) of the eastern states, and canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis), Engelmann oak (Q. engelmannii), hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) and Santa Cruz Island ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius) of southern California. Although some of these trees are called ironwoods, their dense, dry wood will still float in water. Since the pure cell wall material (lignin and cellulose)) of wood has a density of about 1.5 grams per cubic centimeter, even the world's heaviest hardwoods generally have specific gravities less than 1.5 due to tiny pores (lumens) within the cell walls. True ironwoods include trees and shrubs with dry, seasoned woods that actually sink in water, with specific gravities greater than 1.0. They include lignum vitae (Guaicum officinale, 1.37); quebracho (Schinopsis balansae, 1.28); pau d'arco (Tabebuia serratifolia, 1.20); knob-thorn (Acacia pallens, 1.19); desert ironwood (Olneya tesota, 1.15); and ebony (Diospyros ebenum, 1.12). To appreciate the weight of these hardwoods, compare them with tropical American balsa (Ochroma pyramidale), one of the softest and lightest woods with a specific gravity of only 0.17.

5. Cottony Seeds & Fruits

Fuzzy brown cattail spikes (Typha latifolia) contain dense masses of tiny seeds, each with a tuft of silky hairs. Each spike contains about a million seeds! They are shed by the millions in a cloud of white fluff.

Cottony seeds and fruits include seeds and minute seed capsules with a tuft (coma) of cottony hairs at one end, or seeds embedded in a cottony mass. Some of the examples in this group are very similar in function to parachute seeds, but probably are not carried as far by the wind. Many plant families have this type of wind dispersal, including the Willow Family (Salicaceae): Willows (Salix) and Cottonwoods (Populus); Cattail Family (Typhaceae): Cattails (Typha); Evening Primrose Family (Onagraceae): Willow-Herb (Epilobium) and California fuchsia (Zauschneria); Bombax Family (Bombaceae): Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) and floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa); and the Sycamore Family (Platanaceae): Sycamore (Platanus).

In the California sycamore (Platanus racemosa), a common riparian (streamside) tree throughout the state, the one-seeded fruits (achenes or nutlets) are produced in dense, globose heads. The spherical heads hang from branches like little balls. Individual achenes have a tuft of hairs at the base which probably helps in their wind dispersal. Seeds of the South American kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) and floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa) are embedded in dense masses of silky hairs inside large woody capsules. This undoubtedly helps to disperse the seeds when seed-bearing masses of hair are carried by the wind. In tropical regions of the New World, the kapok grows into an enormous rain forest tree with a massive buttressed trunk. Kapok hairs are coated with a highly water-resistant, waxy cutin layer. The empty lumen (cavity) inside each hair is larger the cotton hairs; hence, the hairs are lighter. Unlike cotton hairs, kapok is difficult to spin and is not made into textiles. It is used primarily as a waterproof filler for mattresses, pillows, upholstery, softballs, and especially for life preservers. A kapok-filled life jacket can support 30 times its own weight in water.

One fuzzy brown cattail spike may contain a million tiny seeds. Each seed has a tuft of silky white hairs and is small enough to pass through the "eye" of an ordinary sewing needle. They are shed in clouds of white fluff and float through the air like miniature parachutes. A cattail marsh covering one acre may produce a trillion seeds, more than 200 times the number of people in the world! The fluffy seeds have been used for waterproof insulation and the buoyant filling of life jackets. In addition, each plant produces billions of wind-borne pollen grains; in fact, so much pollen that it was used as flour by North American Indians and made into bread. Cottonwoods and willows also produce masses of seeds, each with a tuft of soft, white hairs. Since they are dioecious, with pollen-bearing male and seed-bearing female trees in the population, only female trees produce the actual cotton. During late spring and summer in the western United States, the cottony fluff from cottonwoods resembles newly fallen snow. Because the wind-blown fluff can be quite messy in cultivated parks and gardens, male trees are generally planted. The discriminatory label of "cottonless cottonwood" refers to a male tree.

See Wind Dispersal Of Cottonwood Seeds!

6. Miscellaneous

Squirrel-Tail Grass (Elymus elymoides), formerly named Sitanion hystrix is an attractive grass native to the mountains and plains of the western United States. Seed-bearing sections (spikelets) of the flower spike (containing one-seeded fruits called grains and very long awns) are carried short distances by the wind. Although not as efficient fliers, the long awns function like the parachute bristles (pappus) of composites.

This miscellaneous category of wind-blown seeds and fruits includes plants that really don't fit the above 5 categories. The Grass Family (Poaceae) includes a number of species with plumose flower stalks that fragment into seed-bearing spikelets that blow into the wind. Some of these species have become troublesome weeds in southern California, including the South African fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum). Although this tufted perennial makes an attractive, drought-resistant landscaping plant along walkways and roads, it is becoming a widespread weed in disturbed areas of San Diego County. Another species, called squirrel-tail grass (Elymus elymoides), resembles a weedy introduced grass, but it is actually a native perennial of dry, rocky mountains and open land in the western United States. To appreciate its airborne seeds, you really must see this grass during a strong gust of wind on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada during late summer!

Mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus minutiflorus), a native shrub in the chaparral of southern California, produces a rather unique wind-blown fruit. The one-seeded fruit (achene) has a persistent, feathery style that glistens in the sunlight. Although they usually don't travel very far, the achenes are blown into the air by strong gusts of wind during the dry, fire season of late summer and fall. This species is not related to the West Indian mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) or the Honduran mahogany (S. macrophylla), members of the true Mahogany Family (Meliaceae). Mountain mahogany actually belongs to the Rose Family (Rosaceae) and produces very hard wood that sinks in water when dry. In fact, the wood of a montane species (C. ledifolius), has a specific gravity of 1.12, as heavy and dense as ebony (Diospyros ebenum).

See More Photos Of Miscellaneous Wind-Blown Seeds!

Wayne's Word Flowering Plant Links:

  1. Plant Sexuality & Political Correctness
  2. Plant Genetics Extra Credit Questions
  3. Diversity Among Flowering Plants
  4. Pollination Patterns In Dioecious Figs
  5. Amazing Fig & Fig Wasp Relationship

Wayne's Word Hitchhiker Links:

  1. Cockleburs--Nature's VELCRO®
  2. Devil's Claws On Big Animals!
  3. Ultimate & Painful Hitchhikers!

Wayne's Word Drift Seed Links:

  1. Ocean Drift Seeds And Fruits!
  2. Dispersal Of Coconut & Its Crab!
  3. Mary's Bean: Fabulous Drift Seed!
  4. Nickernuts: Tropical Drift Seeds!
  5. Prioria: A Costa Rican Drift Fruit!
  6. Sea Heart: Big Rain Forest Liana!
  7. Water Caltrop: A Tasty Drift Fruit!

Wind Dispersal References

  1. Jones, K. 1995. Pau d'Arco: Immune Power From the Rain Forest. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.

  2. Loewer, P. 1995. Seeds: The Definitive Guide to Growing, History, and Lore. Macmillan Company, New York.

Return To WAYNE'S WORD Home Page
Go To Biology GEE WHIZ TRIVIA Page
Send A Message To WAYNE'S WORD

Due To The Overwhelming Number Of Messages Sent To WAYNE'S WORD
(And Due To A Staff Of Only One Human), Replies May Not Be Forthcoming!