Our Nature Study class met at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, TN, which has a variety of habitats for observing seed dispersal.
Also known as Snapweed or Touch-Me-Not, the Jewelweed is a delicate little plant that grows in wet places. The small, trumpet-shaped flowers themselves are petite and intricately lovely. But our interest here lies in the seed pods, which grow right alongside the blossoms but are a completely separate appendage. If the pods are touched in the Autumn when they are ripe, they explode with a tiny ferocity that is startling! Once I happened to brush by a large patch of jewelweed bushes and could hear the seeds popping all around! In this way, the parent plant sends her “children” into the world where they have a better chance of starting life in bright sunlight and nutritious soil. The sap of this plant is a folk remedy for poison ivy. You can find soaps, salves and sprays online or at your local health food store.
Another plant which is known for projectile seed dispersal is Witch Hazel. This helpful plant blossoms in the dead of winter and 8 months later the seed pods split apart explosively and send the glossy black seeds into the air — sometimes reaching 33 feet from the parent plant! The Native American Mohegans reportedly introduced English settlers to using the Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method for finding underground water. The name “witch hazel” is believed to have come from the Middle English “wicke” for “lively” and “wych,” an old Anglo-Saxon word for “bend.” The Osage used witch hazel bark to treat skin ulcers and sores, the Potawatomi steamed twigs over hot rocks in their sweat lodges to soothe sore muscles, and the Iroquoi brewed a tea to treat dysentery, colds, and coughs.
Children have a special fondness for another plant in this projectile category: Oxalis (known locally as Wood Sorrel or Sourgrass). This low-growing plant has yellow flowers and sour, Shamrock-shaped leaves which children (and some adults) love to chew.
Other plants shoot their seeds — the wild geranium and certain violets, for example. Even some of our garden peas bean varieties scatter their seeds by curling in a spiral and dispersing their seeds in a circular pattern — the better to ensure their nutrition and survival.
We began our ramble beside the creek in search of Jewelweed, but the large patch I had observed a few weeks earlier was no longer in evidence. (However, on our way home my son and I spied a large patch and spent a very pleasant 20 minutes “helping” disperse some seeds.) Next we all headed over to the large wildflower habitat and although no Witch Hazel was located we did discover (and sample) plenty of Oxalis leaves. We observed several other fascinating and beautiful specimens:
…..found a growth of Staghorn Sumac so dense it formed a den of sorts where several animals had obviously sheltered…..
…..were captivated by the morning glory’s beauty…..
…..discovered buckeyes floating in the creek……
…..caught a crawdad…..
…..unearthed a giant fungus…..
…..found a branch covered with insect hieroglyphics…..
Of course, everyone enjoyed capturing observations in their nature journals!
Taking a walk along the banks of a stream or drainage ditch is your best bet for finding Jewelweed. Remember, the blossoms and seed pods grow concurrently and you may need to revisit the Jewelweed patch to check for seed pod ripening.
Witch Hazel is a bit harder to locate, but since the flower blooms in winter this is a good time for locating the plant. You’ll find them in mostly in open woods.
Oxalis can be found wherever there is grass growing, especially along the border between a grassy area and an overgrown field. Look for their tiny yellow flowers and candelabra seed pods growing concurrently.
What did you notice? What do you wonder? What does it remind you of? What mechanism does the plant use to disperse its seeds? Does the seed pod curl up or form a spiral after dispersal? How might this help scatter the seeds far away from the parent plant? After finding several Buckeyes, one of our students wondered if Chestnuts and Buckeyes are one in the same, and launched into a bit of on-site research with a field guide. You never know what questions will arise when you take the time to observe and wonder!