The Inventiveness of Plants
Seeds: Then and Now
By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide and Retired Research Forester
Almost every plant at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA) started from a seed. Back “Then”, in the mid-1800s, Socrates Hotchkiss Tryon staked his land claim at the mouth of Tryon Creek. “Then” logging started in the nearby forests. From that time until “Now” we have basically the same kinds of seeds at TCSNA.
So what has changed?
Well, the first thing is the abundance of seeds. The plant’s most important activity on a day-to-day basis is making sugar using just sunshine, water and carbon dioxide from the air. This sugar is in essence the “money” of the plant. Just like you have to budget your money, the plant has to decide where to invest its resources too. And, just like you, the plant only has so much “money.”
The plant’s options are to invest in roots, shoots, leaves or seeds. The roots are pretty important since they absorb the water and minerals the plant needs to stay alive. The leaves are important, because they make the sugar the plant lives on. And the stems are pretty important because they are what holds the leaves up in the air so they can catch some decent sunlight.
But what about the seeds?
Nature’s only measure of success is whether or not an organism leaves offspring. So the plant better invest in seeds. Well, maybe. If it is one of the few plants at TCSNA that dies at the end of each season, like our jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) it really needs to put some priority on seeds, or the family line is finished! On the other hand, if it is a perennial plant like Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) that might live 500 years, it doesn’t need to produce seed every year, but it can’t put it off forever.
Scientists have found that when sugar is in short supply, perennial plants will invest their sugar in leaves, stems and roots before they will invest in seeds.
Why would sugar be in short supply?
There are many reasons why a plant’s sugar supply would be low. For many plants here at TCSNA the most important issue is the amount of light the plant gets. With too little light the plant makes less sugar. With less sugar, the plant invests it in leaves, stems and roots, but not seeds. For example, you’ve probably seen salal (Gaultheria shallon) plants (see photo below) in the forest at TCSNA.
There is one patch of salal growing under a dense canopy of trees that I’ve been watching for 4 years. Struggling along in heavy shade, not once has it flowered, much less produced fruit and seeds! In contrast, the salal growing in my yard in the full sun produces abundant delicious berries every year.
The dominant trees always have lots of sunlight, but for the other plants, light is an important contrast between “Then” and “Now.” From a plant’s perspective, logging can be either good, or bad! For the straight, tall trees, it’s bad news because they are going to be cut down. But, for many (but not all) of the smaller plants and bushes like thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) struggling to stay alive under those big nasty, light-hogging Douglas-fir, logging means “Happy Days are Here Again!” (Assuming of course that the plant doesn’t get ripped out of the ground when a log is dragged over it.) Post-logging, the surviving plants are basking in the full sun and its leaves are pumping out sugar like crazy! With lots of sugar, there’s enough to invest in leaves, stems, roots, and lots of seeds! It was also a great time for the few trees the loggers left behind because the trees were too small, growing in inaccessible areas, or were in some way defective.
Lots of seeds back “then,” what else changed?
Logging is also an excellent way to churn up the ground, exposing mineral soil. That’s a good thing, because in the undisturbed forest, much of the ground is covered with “litter.” No, not litter like candy wrappers and dog-poop bags, but the litter of fallen leaves, small twigs, old cone scales, and such, as shown in the photo below.
Scientists know that litter can form a barrier to the successful germination and establishment of new plants, particularly for species with small seeds. In addition, this litter layer, also known as “duff”, has a tendency to dry out quite quickly, depriving new seeds and seedlings of optimum moisture conditions. For these smaller-seeded species, there is nothing like exposed mineral soil to provide the perfect place to start a new life.
What kind of seeds are there are Tryon Creek SNA?
The diversity of seeds at TCSNA is amazing. Some of the major differences are how the seeds are dispersed and the size of the seeds. These are very important decisions. The best chance for a young perennial plant is to get away from the mother plant, so it doesn’t have to compete with it. So plants have developed a wide variety of mechanisms for getting their seed spread around. Then too, the plant has to decide on seed size. Putting a lot of resources into a few large seeds would give the resulting seedlings a real leg up when they are first getting established. But on the flip side, if the plant produces very few seeds, and they just happen to land on a rock, or get eaten, too bad! Alternatively, the plant could produce millions of smaller seeds, so that at least some would surely land in favorable sites and avoid being eaten, but then they don’t have much energy with which to get started.
How do seeds get spread around?
At Tryon Creek, seeds mainly are dispersed by either the wind, or by various animals. Two good examples of wind-dispersed seeds are our black cottonwoods (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa) and our bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum). Although both are wind dispersed, they choose radically different ways to do that. The cottonwoods have tiny seeds with each seed sporting a large fluffy mass of fine hairs that completely obscures the actual seed (see the picture below.) This fuzz suspends them in the air as they drift around the forest. The maple has gone with a more traditional idea, having a wing (as you can see in the picture below). This wing arrangement helps the seed drift away from the parent tree.
Other plants use a different type of wing to disperse their seeds, a bird’s wings. All they have to do is produce a nice attractive fruit. The fruit attracts birds that digest the fleshy part of the fruit, and excrete the seeds at some distant location. Two examples of this from TCSNA are the western wahoo (Euonymus occidentalis) and red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium), as seen in the pictures below. (In both cases, the blue lines represent a length of half a centimeter, about two tenths of an inch.)
The third, and most unusual way that plants are dispersed is used by the jewelweed that grows abundantly in the wet areas near the creek. When the jewelweed seed pods are ripe, there is hydraulic tension in the walls of the pod. When the pod is touched, or just naturally dries out, the pod “explodes.” The walls of the pod curl backwards with amazing speed and force. This sends the seeds flying through the air to a new location. Before and after photos of a seed pod are shown below.
How important is seed size?
Seed size varies a lot. The monster seed of TCSNA is the beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta var. californica). There are lots of medium sized seeds like Douglas–fir and western wahoo, while the “tiny” end of the spectrum is represented by red huckleberry. Find them all in the photos below, which are all to the same scale; the blue line represents half a centimeter (about 2 tenths of an inch).
It is interesting to note that there is no clear relationship between fruit size and seed size. Look at the vastly different sizes of the red huckleberry and western wahoo seed above. Then look back earlier in this note at the fruits of these two species. The fruits are nearly identical in size.
Clearly, seed size has little or no relationship to the ultimate size of the plant. Douglas-fir grows phenomenally larger than either beaked hazel or western wahoo, and yet the Douglas-fir has the smaller seed. Scientists in California studying seed size of over 2,500 native plant species have come to an interesting conclusion. First of all, shrubs and trees have seeds adapted to their environments in totally different ways. For shrubs, those species with the largest seeds are best adapted to areas with heavy shade and fierce competition. But for trees, the species with the largest seeds are the ones best adapted to survive on drier sites. The trees of TCSNA follow that rule quite nicely. Both black cottonwood and red alder (Alnus rubra) are commonly found in moist sites, and have relatively small seeds. Douglas-fir, with seeds dramatically larger than either of those two species, are commonly found on somewhat drier sites.
So the bottom line is that compared to the post logging “Then”, we probably “Now” have a lot fewer seeds produced by the shrubs and ground cover plants at TCSNA due to heavier shading. And especially for the smaller-seeded plants, the presence of an undisturbed litter layer is holding back the success of the seeds that are produced.
The fruits of the plants in TCSNA ripen at different times of the year. Cottonwoods shed seed in late May, Douglas-firs in July and grand firs in late August or September. On your next hike at Tryon Creek State Natural Area, keep a look out for the seeds and fruits. You’ll be amazed at the inventiveness of our plants.
Posted on March 29, 2015, in Plants & Wildlife and tagged Cottonwood, Douglas-fir, flowers, jewelweed, Maple, Nature, Photosynthesis, Plant reproduction, plants, Roots, Seeds, Trees, Tryon Creek State Natural Area. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.