Emily Dickinson said, “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year,” but she didn’t live in the mountain South! Our nature study class was blessed by warm breezes and sunny skies this week when we met at Warrior’s Path State Park to consider “winged” seeds. One seed with a tight case is called an akene, while a seed case with a wing attached is known as a samara.
As part of our seed dispersal study, we’ve observed seeds that fly with fluff or feathers, seeds that are forcibly projected from the parent plant, seeds that hitchhike on animals and people, and those that are eaten by animals and “scattered” (ahem) as the animal travels about. But winged seeds are different because they are produced primarily by trees which need to send their “little wanderers” far away lest the parent plant overshadow them with shade, deprive them of water, or deplete the soil’s nutrients.
Several trees disperse winged seeds: Elm, Ash, Pine, and Tulip Poplar (our State Tree) to name a few. But the focus of our brief object lesson was Maples (Red, Sugar and Silver) because it’s the perfect time of year for them to be abundantly visible. Their seeds ripen in September and usually fall in mid-October around these parts. The seeds of the Maple are paired to form “keys” which are very familiar to even the smallest child as “helicopters.” Usually only one seed develops in the pair and you must dissect the fruit to determine which holds the seed, but having two wings instead of one boosts the likelihood of more distant dispersal. On our walk we found the samaras of (left to right) Tulip Poplar, Maple and Ash.
We also discovered that right now the Tulip Poplars are ripening and sending their “little wanderers” out into the world. Here’s a photo of a Tulip Poplar seed pod (also known as a fairy broom). When we spied the pods high in the tree, a few of our guys took that opportunity to help disperse the seeds by flinging sticks at the seed pods (and were rewarded with showers of winged seeds!)
At first glance the children thought it looked like Pokeweed (which we studied earlier this Autumn), but on closer inspection they discovered several differences. (Pokeweed on the left) Instead, we identified this as the fruit of a Virginia Creeper. We were all very familiar with the flower, but not the fruit!
When we returned to the shelter for journaling and observation sharing, we were treated to some “hitchhikers” with whom we’d become acquainted a few weeks ago (Devil’s Beggar-tick or Bidens frondosa), a beautifully scented flowering vine (Virgin’s Bower or Clematis virginiana), and a very cool fungus we have yet to identify! We conducted a little experiment of our own to see which samara flew the longest distance. The winner: Maple, hands down!
It’s interesting that once you learn about something in nature you notice it wherever you go. And that’s part of the beauty of Nature Study: Developing a relationship with or connection to our natural surroundings. Knowing about things is not the same thing as knowing them personally. When you really know something, you care about it — it matters to you. And each new discovery can enrich our lives exponentially! Charlotte Mason alludes to this when she says, “The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” (Volume 3: School Education, p. 170)