As I sat in my garden, watching bumblebees hard at work, I felt a spray on my back. It didn’t feel like water, more like grains of rice. I turned around and was showered again with a burst of small brown seeds. They were from my lupine plant! The seeds developed in hairy, pea-like pods attached to the stem. In the afternoon heat, the pods burst open, shooting seeds several feet into the air.
I was examining one of the seeds, marvelling at the dispersal mechanism God created in this plant, when I realized I wasn’t alone. An agile chipmunk snatched a seed from the soil and, at lightning speed, disappeared into the foliage. I love watching this process of seed dispersal by plants and animals in my backyard.
In my southern Ontario garden, snowdrops are the first sign that spring has arrived. Slender green shoots push through the last remaining patches of snow and bloom with delicate white flowers. Snowdrops produce seed pods that droop to the ground on long stems. When they are ripe, the plump yellow pods split open and seeds spill out.
Each small pale seed has a little tail. This appendage is called an elaiosome and is made of protein and fatty acid. The plant has made the perfect food for ant larvae! Ants drag the seeds back to their colony to feed the elaiosomes to their young. The unwanted seeds are then discarded, either outside, or inside a “waste” room in the colony. By discarding seeds, ants provide germinating sites for new plants to grow.
In early summer, I love harvesting strawberries, but I have to be quick. Many berries are pecked over by sparrows and finches. Larger birds, such as grackles and robins will eat the berries whole. Strawberry plants produce tiny white seeds attached to the surface of the fruit. When birds eat the berries, whole or only partially, they consume the seeds and later disperse them in their droppings. Raccoons, skunks, and rabbits also enjoy these sweet red berries. Paw prints on my deck have revealed visits from these clever critters. I hope they help disperse strawberries throughout my garden.
By the end of summer, I’m not looking at the ground but watching out overhead. A steady “thunking” sound on our deck tells me our red oak tree is filled with seeds. Acorns can be hazardous if the pointed end of the shell lands on your head! The falling acorns are also a sign that gray squirrels are busy harvesting. Strong teeth make it easy for squirrels to crack through the hard shell to reach the seed. Some acorns are eaten right away, and others are buried for winter. Many acorns that are never recovered will grow into new oak trees.
Fall is the busiest seed harvest season. Purple coneflowers, which provided a buffet of nectar and pollen for insects all summer, now host a banquet of seeds for birds. When the seeds are ripe and the flower heads are covered in black prickles, goldfinches arrive. This is one of their favorite foods. The white triangular seeds are difficult for me to reach, but these tiny birds fit easily between the spines to wrestle them out. As they hunt for their snack, seeds are pulled out and dropped to the ground. These may later germinate.
The Virginia creeper, trailing over our fence, produces small dark blue berries. Three or four small seeds are nestled within each berry. Although they are very toxic for you and me, these berries are a nutritious snack for cardinals and starlings. I enjoy the starlings’ antics as they hop about the vine, ducking beneath the red leaves or hanging upside down to reach a berry. Many berries are knocked off into the garden during this process. The ones eaten may be carried to a new location, and discarded in a little packet of fertilizer.
My favorite harvest is at end of the season, just before the snow returns. The sunflower plants are packed with seeds, and the flower heads hang low with the weight of them. Chickadees, sparrows, and nuthatches arrive to pick away at this plentiful offering. Many seeds that are dropped or buried in the ground will become future plants. One enterprising squirrel chews the head off a stalk and drags it away.
I cut off one sunflower head. It is as large as a salad plate and filled with perfect spirals of striped seeds. I sprinkle a few into the garden. The rest will be for me.