Castilleja

Scouting the “Top Seeds” in the Field

From Park E-ventures, August 2013

We pay attention to the plant life that colors the trail sides and provides the textured backdrop for our photos. We seek out spring blooms and marvel at nature’s varied flower art.

But when was the last time you stopped to appreciate the seeds that create and propagate these beauties for future generations? Here is the list of my top seven “Super Seeds”—what are yours?

Largest Seed
Manroot, Wild Cucumber (Marah fabacea)
These smooth and beautiful seeds have many decorative uses, but the most fascinating and unexpected use is for fishing. Native American peoples have been known to throw the ground seeds into the water, where soap-like chemicals break up the bonds in water and stun fish that can no longer access the oxygen in the water.

Smallest Seed
Seep Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus)
A cousin of the well-known sticky monkeyflower, seep monkeyflower loves wet areas like roadside ditches and narrow streams. You may notice its beautiful yellow flower, but if you get there too late then you will instead see delicate paper pouches. When these dry and crack open, they disperse hundreds of tiny seeds onto the moist ground!

Most Unusual Shape
Coast Buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium)
From the same family as the buckwheat we eat, the Buckwheats got their name from their unusual seed shape. “Buck” is an adaptation of “beech,” as the nuts of the beech tree share this double-triangular pyramidal shape. “Wheat” is in reference to the way that the food crop is used, much like wheat. The similarity ends in the name though—DO NOT attempt to eat Coast Buckwheat seeds!

Most Likely to Spark the Imagination
Paintbrush (Castilleja)
The first time you see the seed of the beautiful paintbrush flower, it is as mysterious and alluring as the flower itself. Why is the seed white and almost translucent? Who would live inside those seeds; is it a home for a colony of microscopic honey bees? Whatever question pops into your mind, there is no doubt that these seeds are evidence of nature’s endless complexity.

Most Likely to Make You Think You're in the Arctic
Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis)
Every seed has its year. Every summer adventure that ends in blissful blackberry-induced stomachaches due to the “bumper crop” of roadside berries has its beginnings in the delicate changes in the weather. On a “good coyote brush year” in the Golden Gate National Parks, millions of seeds float through the air on fluffy white umbrellas, coating some areas in drifts so thick you could imagine that you’re in the mountains strapping on skis.

Most Likely to Be Overlooked
Deerweed (Acmispon glaber, previously Lotus scoparius)
By the time these seeds are ripe, all that is left of the plant is a brown skeleton, further obscured by dust kicked up off the road or trail. These seeds are small pea-relatives that come in pointed pods not usually longer than your pinkie fingernail, but the little beans that come out are mottled, multicolored pieces of natural art.

Most Likely to Get Stuck in Your Socks
Purple Needle Grass (Stipa pulchra, Nassella pulchra)
You know the feeling: you just jogged off trail for a moment to get a better glimpse of that soaring hawk in the sky, and suddenly…ouch! If you’re lucky the offending seed is this one: California’s state grass! The nest-like mess you see in this photo is just one example of this seed’s adaptations for dispersing itself.

By Annette Russell
Seed Collection Ecologist
Marin Headlands Native Plant Nursery

Photos by Michael Dumont


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