Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cool Fall Seeds

I've been walking about a lot lately, for pleasure and work. This is not really a problem since it is perhaps the nicest time of year for wandering around in natural places. Fall colors are peaking in our neck of the woods. The colors are gorgeous, especially the red maples.

The beautiful leaves overhead and underfoot easily distract. Plants are not only changing colors, they are producing seeds: nuts, berries, achenes, and other fruits. Of course, this year it is hard to miss the hard, loose carpet of acorns -- a banner year for oaks. Berries seem less abundant, the strange weather of Spring 2010 seems to have dampened fruit production in some plants including apples, peaches, grapes, and many Viburnums.

A couple plants caught my eye in the last week, even amidst the rich palate of fall foliage. Their leaves are not colorful, yet each produces some rather showy seeds: common milkweed and Virgin's bower.

The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is one of those plants critical to the monarch butterfly. Monarch caterpillars rely entirely on milkweed plants for food and growth. The cardiac glycosides in milkweed make monarch caterpillars distasteful to predators. The last batch of monarch butterflies to emerge from the chrysalis are the migratory ones, now making their way to Mexico on favorable winds. Likewise, the seeds of the milkweed plant are bursting forth from their capsule and taking flight on the wind.

Milkweeds are a common, native plant in meadows; they do so well in disturbed areas that some think of them as invasive. Yet many insects would beg to differ. Besides the monarch, bees, wasps, flies, skippers, and other butterflies sip its nectar. And other bugs, bees, and moths search out its pollen. For me, the bursting forth of the silky seeds in a field is a beautiful sight.

Virgin's bower is an odd plant that grows in wood and field edges, thickets, and stream sides. It is a vine, as its name -- Clematis virginiana -- suggests. This plant is more common than I realized. I see it in almost every moist thicket, twisting and climbing among the shrubs. This time of year it is quite showy with its silky, feathery seeds. These are actually achenes with silky styles, but perhaps other common names are more apt: devil's darning needles, old man's beard, or devil's hair.

Just a reminder to look for other cool things in nature, as you take in the annual New England fall foliage spectacular. These plants are worthy of a peek.