Seeds of Change

25 Jul

Seeds of Change

Today John and George were so busy putting the finishing touches on our upcoming Native Plants MOOC (yea, it’ll be mobbed).  We didn’t take much field time, except to look at something you see every day but ponder once a decade—native woody plants coming up seemingly isolated where you don’t expect to see them.

That led to some thought on why plants wind up growing where they do.  Oh, I know the answer!   The wind, or a bird, or a bear in the woods drop a seed, and the seed grows.  Got it, but events aplenty happen between the bird ingesting the seed and a tree grows in Brooklyn.  Nature does not work in a human time and space.

For starters, that seed had to arrive from somewhere.  Maybe merely across the creek, or then again, perhaps from across the sea.  There are plenty of transoceanic examples, and the Bottle Gourd stands out.  The species has an archaeological history widespread in the Americas dating back 10,000 years and in Asia almost that long.   Botanists have debated for decades how this species could seem to be native around the ancient world so long ago.  It did not originate twice, on both sides of the Pacific.  Did very very ancient people move it thousands of miles?  One notion is that Easter Islanders took it westward to the Old World.  Another idea is that the first Native Americans brought it from Asia.  Or maybe it floated a few thousand miles.  To test the bobber theory, researchers floated some for about a year in sea water, and let them sit another six years;  the seeds sprouted like new.  Take home lesson:  seeds get around.

So then, the seeds arrived from somewhere near or far, and now they can grow.  Hold on, not so fast.  How long a delay between arrival and growth?   Maybe the season is not right this month.  Maybe conditions aren’t right this century.  How about another thousand years?  Seeds can be patient, and can await environmental cues, such as disinterrment.  In 1879 Professor William Beal at Michigan State University buried in glass jars seeds of several wild species, leaving a time capsule experiment that remains running.  The seeds are tested at intervals, and some remain willing despite attrition.  Going back farther, barley seeds from King Tut’s tomb reportedly sprouted in modern times, although the claim is disputed.

Free of dispute, Canna seeds 600 years old from an Argentinian grave spawned pretty new Cannas.  And their circumstances were weird.  The Canna seeds from the grave were inside walnuts.  Ancient biotechnicians understood how to insert Canna seeds into immature living walnuts, allowing the nuts to mature into rattles.  In 2012 30,000-year-old seeds of a Carnation relative buried (by squirrels) in Russia grew like Rip Van Winkle awakening.  That’s probably the all-time seed nap record.

Native Florida Canna.  Were its seeds 600 years old? (By John Bradford)

Native Florida Canna. Were its seeds 600 years old? (By John Bradford)

Right, so the seeds came from places unknown, then they waited patiently in the soil seed bank.  Now it is time to boogie!  The seed sprouts dutifully, and hello world!  Hello drought, hello shade, hello sun, hello frost, hello competition, hello drowning, hello bugs, hello fungi, hello hungry bunnies.  The perils facing a tender green sprout remind me of leaving home at age 18!

Obviously the conditions must be suitable—that goes without saying doesn’t it?  Probably, but even that boring observation gains interest if the seedling’s establishment requires relationships with other species.  (We’ll come back to this next week.)   It also becomes more interesting if the overall conditions are changing…oh for example, let’s say by Global Warming.  Just this year the Sunshine State figured in an eye-opening example.  In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, January 2014, biologist Kyle Cavanaugh and collaborators applied 28 years of satellite imagery to discern, as they say in their own title, “poleward expansion of mangroves is a threshold response to decreased frequency of extreme cold events.”   Where a mangrove might sprout has shifted in just 28 years.  That’s not my lifetime, but that of my son.

Mangrove headed north! (By John Bradford)

Mangrove headed north! (By John Bradford)

Today we looked at a lonesome Gumbo Limbo sapling with its secret history,  a single Pineland Pinweed 10 miles from any known others, and where did that baby Hercules Club come from?  A little imagination beyond “bird dropping” makes it more fun.  Maybe the guilty birds were the last flock of Carolina Parakeets in 1920.   Who can say it ain’t so?

Hercules Club (by John Bradford)

Hercules Club (by John Bradford)


Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Uncategorized


11 responses to “Seeds of Change

  1. Uncle Tree

    July 26, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Another superbly interesting post, George and John! I love speculation mixed in
    with many educated guesses and contemporary factoids. Gumbo Limbo? LoL
    Cheerz to heartiness and thick rough-N-tough skin! Long may we roam ~

  2. George Rogers

    July 26, 2014 at 11:21 am

    Uncle Tree…speculation galore! And here’s to thick bark. Thanks much.

  3. Mary Hart

    July 28, 2014 at 4:49 am

    Food for thought indeed! Throw in climate change, pesticides etc. etc. …….

  4. George Rogers

    July 28, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to see data on natural plant establishment in relation to pesticides. I’d be willing to bet it matters.

  5. Mike Y

    July 28, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    We have this one area at Halpatiokee where we removed a 50 year old berm and scraped it back down to wetland elevation. We did not put in a single plant and 6 months later the area was already teaming with young native plants. This is an important consideration for land management because we often do not have enough money to replant areas that we restore and very much must rely on natural recruitment.

  6. George Rogers

    July 28, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    Mike, So glad you made that comment. I think that is fascinating and encouraging. At Halpatioke one day I’ll enjoy seeing the berm.

  7. Mike Y

    July 29, 2014 at 10:15 am

    I emailed Jon a map of where we did the work. If you are out there at any point feel free to take a look.

  8. George Rogers

    July 29, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    For sure! I have a dunkin donut there every time I drive home from Jensen Beach or Stuart. Will make a little side trip with my coolata.

  9. Uncle Tree

    July 30, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    Hi there, George. 🙂 I was just wondering if you have
    any posts on Passiflora Edulis in your archives. I recently
    was introduced to that magnificent blossom, so I had to write:

    Hope you’re having a great week! Cheerz, Uncle Tree


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