Setting seed: the many ingenious (and sometime bizarre) ways that plants propagate by seed.

Close up of a small child blowing a dandelion clock.

Are you looking for more gardening tips?  Here at Field Gate Flowers we have propagation on the mind with the winter-spring run of our 4-month propagation course A Cut Above due to start on 1 November.

We’ll be covering all the various ways of propagating – ie. making new plants for free by taking a bit of the parent plant and encouraging it to grow as an independent plant. Plants are programmed to reproduce, so they don’t need much encouragement under the right conditions.  But left to their own devices, they do a pretty good job of repopulating, even though it may not be in the spot you had planned for them.

Here are some of the ingenious ways in which plants spread their seed:

Explosive!

The fruit (usually the expanded ovary of the flower) splits open, propelling seeds far and wide. Accidentally touch the small and deceptively pretty-looking flowers of the ephemeral weed Cardamine hirsute (hairy bittercress), you’ll experience the hair-trigger mechanism that makes this such a super-seed-spreader. Other plants that use this method of seed dispersal are Lunaria annua (honesty), Lathyrus odoaratus (sweet pea) and Lupinus (lupins).

Wind Dispersal – pepperpot

We humans think we’ve invented some clever stuff but very often nature has already been there and done it.  Witness the perfect design of a poppy head which keeps the seeds inside until they’re ripe and ready and the perfect gust of wind comes along to shake them out. Also good for shaking into a brown envelope if you want to save, swap and distribute yourself.

Wind Dispersal – parachute

Another example of plants taking advantage of the environment to help them reproduce. Dandelions (Taraxacum) equip their seeds with a parachute-like structure that allows them to be carried by the wind over long distances. The ‘invention’ of the Dandelion Clock has of course also enlisted generations of small children to help with dispersal!  Epilobium (willowherb) and Cirsium (thistle) do the same, although they’re not quite as child-friendly.

Wind Dispersal – helicopter

The ‘wings’ on sycamore, maple and ash seed pods help them to be carried great distances by the wind before finding a landing place far from the parent tree. This gives the plant the advantage of being able to spread itself far further than most, giving it multiple chances to find the perfect environment for germination.

Velcro?

Pah! Plants thought of that long ago… Seeds of plants such as burdock and Galium aparine (cleavers/goose grass) use hooks on stems, leaves and seed pods to attach themselves to the coats of passing animals and the clothes of passing humans. Animals generally brush them off at another location – job done for the plant. Humans tend to deposit them in carpets and washing machines!

Fruit Consumption:

Another way that plants use animals to hitch a ride… They produce fruits that are attractive to animals which eat them and excrete the seeds at a new location.  If you’ve ever eaten an apple outdoors and spat out the pips, you’re doing a similar job, though unlikely to have planted an apple tree.

Water Dispersal:

Many aquatic plants or those growing close to rivers and shorelines use water to disperse their fruits.  Coconut palm fruits can travel thousands of miles in ocean currents and have adapted to float and survive in saltwater.

Ant Dispersal (Myrmecochory):

Yep, ants.  Some plants (Euphorbia is one) form seeds with nutritious appendages called elaiosomes, which attract ants. Ants carry the seeds back to their nests, where they eat the elaiosomes but leave the seeds unharmed, discarding or ejecting them from the nest.

Gravity Dispersal:

The most obvious and for some plants their prime method of seed dispersal.  Acorns mature in their beautifully crafted cups and drop to the ground. Very often they’re picked up by wildlife such as squirrels and taken to a winter store. Some are dropped along the way, and some winter stores are forgotten about or pillaged by other animals. Whichever way, it’s a win for the mighty oak that gets to spread its seed far and wide.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways in which plants spread their seed.  And seed is only one way by which plants can be propagated. Join our ‘Plants for Free’ (free, online) propagation masterclasses on 23 and 24 October and from there you can progress to the full propagation course ‘A Cut Above’ which begins again on 1 November 2023.

Roz

2 Comments on “Setting seed: the many ingenious (and sometime bizarre) ways that plants propagate by seed.”

  1. Hi, ive been collecting hundreds of hardy annual seeds this year.. calendula, scabiosa, nastursiums, amongst others and i have been scattering them for the last couple of months in hedgerows.. do you think there is chance they will germinate and grow? im in dorset, uk..

  2. Seeds in the wild sow and germinate themselves without any help from us so it’s very possible that many of your seeds will germinate. If you scattered them close to the area in which you collected them then even more chance as the environment is clearly the right one for them. Good luck!

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