Saturday, October 3, 2009

North Country Hitchhikers: Getting Stuck on Seeds

There are lots of plants out there that really grab you…literally. We’ve all encountered at least one, probably more. With hooking barbs or puncturing spikes, they lam onto our shoes and socks, pant legs and shirt sleeves – and heaven help you should you be wearing a woven poncho when you have your run-in with them! Our dogs return from a romp in the field with seeds of all sorts clinging to their fur. Yep, late summer and fall are the time of year to get to know your seeds.

First, there’s common burdock (Arctium minus), which is actually a member of the sunflower family, and a non-native plant. Burdock, while obnoxious when it gets tangled in your poncho or hair, is actually fairly innocuous when it comes to clinging seeds. By now we’ve all heard how the fellow who invented Velcro got the idea from the little hooked barbs that make up the burdock burr. If you don’t believe it, go out and find a burr and take a close look. Each little grabby part is shaped like a crochet hook. These hooks cling, very well, to any fur or slightly fuzzy thing that brushes past. Why, they’ll even cling to your fingers, but at least they aren’t painful.

Sticktights, or beggar ticks (Bidens spp.) come in three varieties, all of which have the same type of seed. It’s small and brown, sort of triangular in shape, with singular prongs sticking out from the corners on either end of the short side of the triangle. The plant itself is rather non-descript, but at least it is native. And while the seeds stick to your socks and pants (or poncho), like a pitchfork stuck in hay, they are painless to remove and do little damage to your clothes or flesh.

Has your dog ever returned home with lots of small green things stuck to his fur? They are sort of conical in shape, with a bunch of hooked barbs (like burdock) on the larger, rounder end. They cling very, very well to fur (and ponchos), but they are soft and painless. These seeds are from our friend agrimony (Agrimonia spp.). Agrimony is in the rose family, but unlike roses proper, the plant will not attack you with thorns – only the fruit is clingy.

Another clingy seed, which is also painless while still being a pain in the neck, is the seed from avens (Avens spp.). The seeds look like large brown commas, and they usually stick in groups to your clothes (or dog’s fur). This is because they wait for their ride as a ball-like cluster at the end of a stalk. When the appropriate ride comes by, a whole mess of them grab on at once. I’ve been pulling these seeds from my dog’s fur for years, but only this summer did I discover the plant from which they came. Fortunately, unlike some seeds, they remove easily.

And then there’s field sandbur (Cenchrus spinifex). The species name, spinifex, I think says it all. It looks painful, it sounds painful. And, take it from me and the twelve kids who ran into it with me this week, it is painful. I had kids in tears, kids with bleeding fingers, and even have festering spots on my fingers where bits of spines broke off and have become lodged. This is nasty stuff. I’d never seen it before, and if I never see it again it will be too soon. Unbeknownst to us, we walked through a large patch of the things and found our pants and socks covered. The seedheads are about the size of a pea and covered with stiff, sharp thorns. They grabbed our clothing and went right through, poking several of the kids in their legs. When we grabbed the seeds to pull them off, they fought back, stabbing our fingers with their brutally sharp spikes and refusing to let go of our clothes. When they did release, they often clung to our fingers instead. They wouldn’t come loose with a shake, oh no, you had to grab them again and extract them from your flesh. They make burdocks seem nice and friendly by comparison.

Seeds are pretty impressive in and of themselves, but when you add their modes of transportation, they can become quite fascinating. Who’d have thought there could be so much variety in hitchhikers alone? For a really fun activity, put on a pair of old kneesocks over your pants and go wading through a field this fall. When you emerge, look at all the kinds of seeds that are stuck to your socks. You can extend the fun into the winter by wetting the socks down so the seeds sprout. Plant the sprouted seeds and see what plants grow. This is a great way to learn the plants that live in your area, and to gain a greater appreciation of the determination exhibited by some of them to send their offspring out into the world beyond their own neighborhoods.

Photo of grasshopper on burdock, Wikimedia Commons

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

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