Seeds of success
Mark and Hugh sow seeds of various kinds in the New Forest and report on the results
Seeds of success. How plants prosper despite our worst efforts
The wonderful David Attenborough with his insatiable thirst for knowledge recently found himself with the latest high-tech camera which had the most amazing magnification. The enormous contraption was mounted on a sturdy tripod with a lens that was positioned a very short distance from the subject. He was observing some woodlice in the most incredible and never seen before close-up detail. The tiny mother could be seen caring for her microscopic young, fussing over them, cleaning and grooming. He commented that almost all creatures shared the same aims. That was to make a home, find food to eat and to create offspring. However, plants of all shapes and sizes have no choice of where they find themselves living. Having no mouth, they don’t eat but they take their energy from the soil and the sun. Despite these differences they do create offspring. Ask any gardener and they will tell you that keeping unwanted plants at bay is one of the hardest tasks.
And some fell on stony ground.
The inspiration for this article is the thistle. I am doing voluntary work at a farm where the fields are covered with these determined plants. Each thistle head contains a hundred or so seeds in a tightly packed ball. Each tiny seed has a hooked tip (which apparently was the inspiration for Velcro). If you are careless enough to walk within, ooh say a metre of them they will seemingly leap out and sink their hooks into whatever you are wearing. It really is astonishing how tightly they grip. Bootlaces seem to be a particular favourite. Whilst picking these tenacious seeds off one day I got to thinking. What a perfect strategy! First attach yourself to a passing body with tiny dual-role hooks. It’s first objective is to grip; it’s second is to irritate. Once the seed is a reasonable distance from the host plant the aggravated creature will rid itself of said hooks. The seed has achieved free transport to a new breeding ground.
The ubiquitous oak and for good reason.
Do you know how many acorns a large oak produces in a good year? It’s estimated at ten thousand! These seeds are highly nutritious and as such they are very popular with many animals. It’s well known that forest ponies can eat some but not too many, pigs however thrive on the things. Some years an oak will produce a huge harvest of acorns, other years much less. The reasons for these fluctuations are unknown and they certainly are no indicators of weather to come. Plants cannot forecast weather; some would argue that nor can our weather forecasters.
Saplings that start life beneath a huge oak might never get the sunlight they need to thrive. Other saplings will have their top shoots nibbled by deer which will kill them. The molars of pigs and ponies will grind down the seeds rendering them useless, it’s not easy for seeds and saplings. In order to succeed the oak needs help from those that store the acorns in a winter larder. Squirrels are the friend of the oak in that they take the seed a decent distance from the parent tree, bury it and then forget the location. This is a perfect start in life for the young oak in that it is safely hidden from the eyes of ponies and pigs and far away from the life sapping shadow of the parent.
Life’s a beech man.
The pannage season which is officially referred to as the Right to Mast allows commoners of the New Forest to release their pigs onto the forest. The seeds that the roaming pigs devour are beech mast and acorns as well as crab apples. I once saw a very poignant black and white photograph of a family of WW2 refugees in a forest somewhere who were collecting beech mast to eat. These days we throw food away, sometimes unwrapped. How times change. For the foragers amongst you there is nutrition to be had from acorns. They need to be soaked in water in order to leech out the tannin but once prepared they can be roasted to make a snack or ground down to make flour.
The beauty of flight.
As a woodworker I know full well that the sycamore provides the very best wood for chopping boards as the fine grain is easily cleaned and holds few germs. The saplings of this tree are strong enough to grow beneath the canopy of the parent. For a while there was a fad for ‘sycamore bashing’ where groups of people would destroy as many of these trees as possible. The tree was considered a pest and people decided it should be rid of. How very odd. Needless to say, the sycamore has survived these feeble efforts.
‘Under the coole shade of a Siccamore
I thought to close mine eyes some halfe an houre,’
wrote Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1598.
Regular readers will know that, like Shakespeare, I am inherently lazy. Perhaps we should take a minute to consider the minor miracle that is the wing shape of the sycamore seed. How in the name of all that is rational did a humble tree manage to ‘accidentally’ create a winged seed? As most of you know I am in awe of nature but where, what, who, when came the inspiration for a winged seed? I’ll tell you this, nature truly is a mystery. These perfectly formed wing shapes allow the seed to descend slowly to the ground. On a still day they will fall more or less directly below the parent which is not ideal. However, on a breezy day these seeds can really travel.
She loves me, she loves me not.
Love struck teenagers are responsible for some good work. They have spread seeds far and wide as they ask the humble dandelion of their prospects. Here we have another mystery in that these seeds are suspended beneath an almost perfect parachute. In a decent wind these seeds can travel enormous distances although as far as I can see the exact distance isn’t recorded. These populous plants are some of the spring’s earliest nectar bearers for pollinators. Like daisies and many others the flower closes at night and then re-opens in the morning. How anthropomorphic?
Burn baby burn.
We all know of the controlled burning across heathland which is carried out on a regular basis. This benefits the heathland enormously. The burn is carried out in small areas only. The burning team wait for a time when the peat is wet but the plants are dry. This means that seeds on and below the peat will survive. Controlled heath fires are often started downwind, that is to say that the fire has to burn towards the wind, not with it. This burning clears the ground and destroys parasites promoting new and fresh growth. The Masai tribe have known this for years by the way and despite being forbidden to carry out the practice in the newly named African national park continue to do so. Their stock craves the fresh plant growth. Administrators in shiny new offices might not appreciate this, but there we are.
The typical heath fire which is almost always started by a mindless arsonist will normally take place in the height of summer when the peat is bone dry guaranteeing maximum damage. In addition, the fire will be driven by winds and attain speeds far in excess of that attainable by fleeing creatures. I’m sure you are aware of this but please do be careful when the heath is dry. Fires can take days to extinguish.
Despite my new found vigilance in skirting at least a kilometre around any of the cursed thistles I still return home to find the blessed things all over me. Patiently I pick them off and drop them to the ground. This means that the clever seeds have once again achieved their aim. Isn’t nature both clever and annoying.
More tales and cartoons for Lymington and the New Forest from Mark and Hugh
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Meanwhile, if you'd like to read previous articles on diverse subjects written by Mark and illustrated by Hugh's cartoons here they are, click the links embedded in the titles:
Moonlit meeting with cetaceans
Trees and what they tell us
Cartography and trig pillars
Pony drifts and pannage in the New Forest
A journey from the New Forest via Lymington
The brilliance - and persistence - of Marconi
Equality in the skies
Bees pollinators par excellence
Cordless home entertainment
The joy of sheds
When the Isle of Wight was just Wight
Pond Life in our Forests
Rufus Stone and Sir Walter Tyrrell
Graffiti through the ages
Freedom of the roads
Watch the birdie
Unstoppable momentum of nature
Socially distanced socialising
Calshot Spit, a curse for mariners...