By Sarah Hatfield
Most of you have probably noticed that the leaves this year have been, by tourism standards, disappointing. I would also add ‘hard to predict’ as the best color in my neighborhood came weeks after Pennsylvania had declared the region peak. However, the lack of color means that my attention falls elsewhere on walks through woods and fields. What’s caught my eye this year are the various seed pods.
I’ve got some favorites, the ones that always seem to enchant me. Queen Anne’s Lace leaves its adorable little ‘bird’s nests’ that I can’t help but imagine cradling fantastic miniature beasts. Turned upside down, they resemble pointed hats of gnomes and other diminutive forest dwellers — perhaps they make autumnal pilgrimages from their woodland homes to collect the season’s new headwear.
Upon closer inspection, the seeds look like many-legged insects, or perhaps something more at home on the bottom of the sea. The ‘legs’ actually help the seeds attach to passers-by, ensuring the plant’s effort to reproduce is successful. Plants rarely spend energy on things that aren’t beneficial, after all.
Milkweed seed pods are always a treat to find. While still filled with tightly packed seeds, they inspire even the most stubborn curmudgeon to engage in the childish act of teasing them out and setting them free. Once empty, the creamy sheen on the inside of the pod resembles satin. This is a great contrast to the rough, gray exterior of the pods. One can fantasize about traversing rainwater rivulets with ash seed paddles in milkweed pod boats; that is, if one were not much bigger than an acorn.
The bright red seeds of the Cucumber Tree are mostly gone by now, a few still catch my eye as I wander the hedgerows searching for abandoned birds’ nests. I found some in a puddle, surrounded by a gel similar to a salamander egg. I wondered aloud if it was a protection for the seed, a coating that only dissolves once it has been wet long enough, triggering the seed that it has found good conditions to grow. Alas, the ones I found were in an old sink, destined not for greatness, but a quick return to base nutrients to feed the forest. I could imagine them being forest currency like rubies or garnets, so bright they shine.
Sensitive Fern spore casings are a wetland’s magical wands — clusters of dark brown capsules on a long, chocolate brown stem, they stand out this time of year in wet areas. They look great in holiday wreaths or dried and in a vase indoors. The look is both modern organic and enchantingly prehistoric.
Evening Primrose seed cases resemble elongated wooden tulips. All lined up on the stem together, it is a floral column of browns and taupe. While this doesn’t sound appealing, they resemble the shape of roman candles, adding a flare to bouquets or dried arrangements. They are also quite tall and suitable for life-sized wands, should you want to wander around your garden engaging in magic. I wonder, are there carpenter fairies? If so, they certainly designed these seed pods.
Above your head dangle the cones of birch and alder. Held tightly on delicate branches, these seed pods decorate their trees as few do. Their silhouettes against a steel gray winter sky embody both the starkness and beauty of the cold season. Bring them in to welcome change. Birch is a symbol of new beginnings and rebirth, alder of balance, new life, and determination, both homes of tiny magical creatures.
The list can go on and on. Many of these seed pods, as I’ve mentioned, make for lovely autumn and winter bouquets, conveniently not needing water. If you’re bored this winter, you can glue bits of them together to form fairy creatures, or use them to create unique wreaths or other holiday decorations.
While you’re doing this, though, think about their remarkable purpose — to spread seeds or spores to ensure the survival of their species. The little white fluffs of asters, the silky parachutes of milkweed; both rely on wind to take their seeds far and away. Queen Anne’s Lace, burdock, and tickseed hitch a ride on fur or clothing, hoping to land in a spot where next year’s plant can take root. Fern spores embark on a complicated journey, involving water and another spore, before they germinate into new ferns (I don’t really understand this process to be honest!) — though Sensitive Ferns rely on wind to blow the macroscopic spores from burst capsules first. Tap a dry spore head on your hand and out comes the spores!
A few pointers if you decide to collect for yourself: don’t harvest endangered or threatened species; ask permission if you’re on land that isn’t yours; only ever take what you need, and it is always best to leave 10 for every one you take if seeds are still inside. See what delight you can find this fall on a walk or amble, and bring a bit of the intrigue home to remind you that the world has some fantastic ways of surviving. Remember to release your seed pods outdoors when you’re done, so they can complete their work!
Oh, and speaking of wreaths, Audubon is having their annual wreath fundraiser and you can purchase a locally-made and ACNC decorated (with seed pods!) wreath. Go online to order yours today.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at ACNC.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.