By Luke Miller
With millions of years of practice, it shouldn’t be surprising to see how clever plants can be when it comes to reproduction. Here are just a few examples of Nature’s ingenuity.
If there’s fruit hanging from a tree or shrub, you can be sure there’s an animal or bird with its eye on the tempting morsels. These crabapples may be just a visual treat to us, but they’re late-winter sustenance to birds when other food is scarce or buried in snow. After eating the fruit and taking wing, there’s no telling where they will deposit the pit. The law of averages ensures at least a few of the seeds will end up on fertile ground.
From deer to chipmunks, acorns are a staple food for creatures great and small. Squirrels are perhaps the best-known collectors, and while they eventually eat most of their stash, some are forgotten and left to grow into new trees. Every so often, oaks will bear an especially heavy crop (called a mast year). Some say this is nature’s way of ensuring there’s an abundance of seeds that won’t be entirely consumed by birds and animals.
Cottonwood trees cast their fate to the wind. The lightweight cottony seeds can ride the wind for miles (that’s important on the plains, where cottonwoods often grow). Or they may land on a river and float downstream, eventually lodging in a riverbank and growing into an important soil stabilizer. Homeowners are more apt to see cottonwood seeds massed along the edge of their sidewalk (shown) or -- horrors! -- embedded in window screens on a windy June day.
Grass seeds also travel by wind. And sometimes they hitch a short ride on the coat of an animal, such as a curious canine exploring pasture. Eventually, the seeds fall off -- if they’re lucky, in a spot where they’ll have a chance to sprout.
Some seeds, such as burdock, are in for the long haul. They cling tenaciously to animal fur, allowing them to hitch a ride over great distances (think migrating buffalo). Closer to home, dogs may bring clingy seeds into our yards after romping in a nearby field.
Finally, there are sunflowers, which have a decidedly laidback method of propagation: They rely on poor housekeeping. As gluttonous birds attack seed heads, some seeds are dislodged in the mayhem and fall harmlessly to the ground. There, hidden among the chaff, they can eventually sprout into a new generation of sunflowers.