Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/July 1891/On the Wings of the Wind


OF course you know my friend the squirting cucumber. If you don't, that can be only because you've never looked in the right place to find him. On all waste ground outside most southern cities—Nice, Cannes, Florence; Rome, Algiers, Granada; Athens, Palermo, Tunis, where you will—the soil is thickly covered by dark, trailing vines which bear on their branches a queer, hairy, green fruit, much like a common cucumber at that early stage of its existence when we know it best in the commercial form of pickled gherkins. As long as you don't interfere with them, these hairy, green fruits do nothing out of the common in the way of personal aggressiveness. Like the model young lady of the books on etiquette, they don't speak unless they're spoken to. But if peradventure you chance to brush up against the plant accidentally, or you irritate it of set purpose with your foot or your cane, then, as Mr. Rider Haggard would say, "a strange thing happens": off jumps the little green fruit with a startling bounce, and scatters its juice and pulp and seeds explosively through a hole in the end where the stem joined on to it. The entire central part of the cucumber, in short (answering to the seeds and pulp of a ripe melon), squirt out elastically through the breach in the outer wall, leaving the hollow shell behind as a mere empty windbag.

Naturally, the squirting cucumber knows its own business best, and is not without sufficient reasons of its own for this strange and, to some extent, unmannerly behavior. By its queer trick of squirting, it manages to kill at least two birds with one stone. For, in the first place, the sudden elastic jump of the fruit frightens away browsing animals, such as goats and cattle. Those meditative ruminants are little accustomed to finding shrubs or plants take the aggressive against them; and when they see a fruit that quite literally flies in their faces of its own accord, they hesitate to attack the uncanny vine which bristles with such magical and almost miraculous defenses. Moreover, the juice of the squirting cucumber is bitter and nauseous, and if it gets into the eyes or nostrils of man or beast, it impresses itself on the memory by stinging like red pepper. So the trick of squirting serves in a double way as a protection to the plant against the attacks of herbivorous animals and other enemies.

But that's not all. Even when no enemy is near, the ripe fruits at last drop off of themselves, and scatter their seeds elastically in every direction. This they do simply in order to disseminate their kind in new and unoccupied spots, where the seedlings will root and find an opening in life for themselves. Observe, indeed, that the very word "disseminate" implies a general vague recognition of this principle of plant-life on the part of humanity. It means, etymologically, to scatter seed; and it points to the fact that everywhere in nature seeds are scattered broadcast, infinite pains being taken by the mother-plant for their general diffusion over wide areas of woodland, plain, or prairie.

Let us take as examples a single little set of instances, familiar to everybody, but far commoner in the world at large than the inhabitants of towns are at all aware of: I mean the winged seeds that fly about freely in the air by means of feathery hairs or gossamer, like thistledown and dandelion. Of these winged types we have many hundred varieties in England alone. All the willow-herbs, for example, have such feathery seeds (or rather fruits) to help them on their way through life; and one kind, the beautiful pink rose-bay, flies about so readily, and over such wide spaces of open country, that the plant is known to farmers in America as fireweed, because it always springs up at once over whole square miles of charred and smoking soil after every devastating forest fire. It travels fast, for it travels like Ariel. In much the same way, the colt'sfoot grows on all new English railway banks, because its winged seeds are wafted everywhere in myriads on the winds of March. All the willows and poplars have also winged seeds; so have the whole vast tribe of hawkweeds, groundsels, ragworts, thistles, fleabanes, cat's-ears, dandelions, and lettuces. Indeed, one may say roughly, there are very few plants of any size or importance in the economy of nature which don't deliberately provide, in one way or another, for the dispersal and dissemination of their fruits or seedlings.

Why is this? Why isn't the plant content just to let its grains or berries drop quietly on to the soil beneath, and there shift for themselves as best they may on their own resources?

The answer is a more profound one than you would at first imagine. Plants discovered the grand principle of the rotation of crops long before man did. The farmer now knows that if he sows wheat or turnips too many years running on the same plot, he "exhausts the soil,"—as we say deprives it of certain special mineral or animal constituents needful for that particular crop, and makes the growth of the plant, therefore, feeble or even impossible. To avoid this misfortune, he lets the land lie fallow, or varies his crops from year to year according to a regular and deliberate cycle. Well, natural selection forced the same discovery upon the plants themselves long before the farmer had dreamed of its existence. For plants, being, in the strictest sense, "rooted to the spot," absolutely require that all their needs should be supplied quite locally. Hence, from the very beginning, those plants which scattered their seeds widest throve the best; while those which merely dropped them on the ground under their own shadow, and on soil exhausted by their own previous demands upon it, fared ill in the struggle for life against their more discursive competitors. The result has been that in the long run few species have survived, except those which in one way or another arranged beforehand for the dispersal of their seeds and fruits over fresh and unoccupied areas of plain or hillside.

I don't, of course, by any means intend to assert that seeds always do it by the simple device of wings or feathery projections. Every variety of plan or dodge or expedient has been adopted in turn to secure the self-same end; and, provided only it succeeds in securing it, any variety of them all is equally satisfactory. One might parallel it with the case of hatching birds' eggs. Most birds sit upon their eggs themselves, and supply the necessary warmth from their own bodies. But any alternative plan that attains the same end does just as well. The felonious cuckoo drops her foundlings unawares in another bird's nest; the ostrich trusts her unhatched offspring to the heat of the burning desert sand; and the Australian brush-turkeys, with vicarious maternal instinct, collect great mounds of decaying and fermenting leaves and rubbish, in which they deposit their eggs to be artificially incubated, as it were, by the slow heat generated in the process of putrefaction. Just in the same way, we shall see in the case of seeds that any method of dispersion will serve the plant's purpose equally well, provided only it succeeds in carrying a few of the young seedlings to a proper place in which they may start fair at last in the struggle for existence.

As in the case of the fertilization of flowers, so in that of the dispersal of seeds, there are two main ways in which the work is effected—by animals and by wind-power. I will not insult the intelligence of the reader at the present time of day by telling him that pollen is usually transferred from blossom to blossom in one or other of these two chief ways—it is carried on the heads or bodies of bees and other honey-seeking insects, or else it is wafted on the wings of the wind to the sensitive surface of a sister-flower. So, too, seeds are for the most part either dispersed by animals or blown about by the breezes of heaven to new situations. These are the two most obvious means of locomotion provided by Nature; and it is curious to see that they have both been utilized almost equally by plants, alike for their pollen and their seeds, just as they have been utilized by man for his own purposes on sea or land, in ship or windmill, or pack-horse, or carriage.

There are two ways in which animals may be employed to disperse seeds—voluntarily and involuntarily. They may be compelled to carry them against their wills; or they may be bribed and cajoled and flattered into doing the plant's work for it in return for some substantial advantage or benefit the plant confers upon them. The first plan is the one adopted by burrs and cleavers. These adhesive fruits are like the man who buttonholes you and won't be shaken off: they are provided with little curved hooks or bent and barbed hairs which catch upon the wool of sheep, the coat of cattle, or the nether integuments of wayfaring humanity, and can't be got rid of without some little difficulty. Most of them, you will find on examination, belong to confirmed hedgerow or woodside plants: they grow among bushes or low scrub, and thickets of gorse or bramble. Now, to such plants as these, it is obviously useful to have adhesive fruits or seeds: for, when sheep or other animals get them caught in their coats, they carry them away to other bushy spots, and there, to get rid of the annoyance caused by the foreign body, scratch them off at once against some holly-bush or blackthorn. You may often find seeds of this type sticking on thorns as the nucleus of a little matted mass of wool, so left by the sheep in the very spots best adapted for the free growth of their vigorous seedlings.

Even among plants which trust to the involuntary services of animals in dispersing their seeds, a great many varieties of detail may be observed on close inspection. For example, in hound's-tongue and goose-grass, two of the best-known instances among our common English weeds, each little nut is covered with many small hooks, which make it catch on firmly by several points of attachment to passing animals. These are the kinds we human beings of either sex oftenest find clinging to our skirts or trousers after a walk in a rabbit-warren. But in herb-bennet and avens each nut has a single long awn, crooked near the middle with a very peculiar S-shaped joint, which effectually catches on to the wool or hair, but drops at the elbow after a short period of withering. Sometimes, too, the whole fruit is provided with prehensile hooks, while sometimes it is rather the individual seeds themselves that are so accommodated. Oddest of all is the plan followed by the common burdock. Here, an involucre or common cup-shaped receptacle of hooked bracts surrounds an entire head of purple tubular flowers, and each of these flowers produces in time a distinct fruit; but the hooked involucre contains the whole compound mass, and, being pulled off bodily by a stray sheep or dog, effects the transference of the composite lot at once to some fitting place for their germination.

Those plants, on the other hand, which depend rather, like London hospitals, upon the voluntary system, produce that very familiar form of edible capsule which we commonly call in the restricted sense a fruit or berry. In such cases, the seed-vessel is usually swollen and pulpy; it is stored with sweet juices to attract the birds or other animal allies, and it is brightly colored so as to advertise to their eyes the presence of the alluring sugary foodstuff. These instances, however, are now so familiar to everybody that I won't dwell upon them at any length. Even the degenerate school-boy of the present day, much as he has declined from the high standard set forth by Macaulay, knows all about the way the actual seed itself is covered (as in the plum or the cherry) by a hard, stony coat which "resists the action of the gastric juice" (so physiologists put it, with their usual frankness), and thus passes undigested through the body of its swallower. All I will do here, therefore, is to note very briefly that some edible fruits, like the two just mentioned, as well as the apricot, the peach, the nectarine, and the mango, consist of a single seed with its outer covering; in others, as in the raspberry, the blackberry, the cloudberry, and the dewberry, many seeds are massed together, each with a separate edible pulp; in yet others, as in the gooseberry, the currant, the grape, and the whortleberry, several seeds are imbedded within the fruit in a common pulpy mass; and in others, again, as in the apple, pear, quince, and medlar, they are surrounded by a quantity of spongy edible flesh. Indeed, the variety that prevails among fruits in this respect almost defies classification: for sometimes, as in the mulberry, the separate little fruits of several distinct flowers grow together at last into a common berry; sometimes, as in the fig, the general flower-stalk of several tiny one-seeded blossoms forms the edible part: and sometimes, as in the strawberry, the true little nuts or fruits appear as mere specks or dots on the bloated surface of the swollen and overgrown stem, which forms the luscious morsel dear to the human palate.

Yet in every case it is interesting to observe that, while the seeds which depend for dispersion upon the breeze are easily detached from the parent plant and blown about by every wind of doctrine, the seeds or fruits which depend for their dispersion upon birds or animals always, on the contrary, hang on to their native boughs to the very last, till some unconscious friend pecks them off and devours them. Haws, rose-hips, and holly-berries will wither and wilt on the tree in mild winters, because they can't drop off of themselves without the aid of birds, while the birds are too well supplied with other food to care for them. One of the strangest cases of all, however, is that of the mistletoe, which, living parasitically upon forest-boughs and apple trees, would, of course, be utterly lost if its berries dropped their seeds on to the ground beneath it. To avoid such a misfortune, the mistletoe-berries are filled with an exceedingly viscid and sticky pulp, surrounding the hard little nut-like seeds; and this pulp makes the seeds cling to the bills and feet of various birds which feed upon the fruit, but most particularly of the missel-thrush, who derives his common English name from his devotion to the mistletoe. The birds then carry them away unwittingly to some neighboring tree, and rub them off, when they get uncomfortable, against a forked branch the exact spot that best suits the young mistletoe for sprouting in. Man, in turn, makes use of the sticky pulp for the manufacture of bird-lime, and so employs against the birds the very qualities which the plant intended as a bribe for their kindly services.

Among seeds that trust for their dispersal to the wind, the commonest, simplest, and least evolved type is that of the ordinary capsule, as in the poppies and campions. At first sight, to be sure, a casual observer might suppose there existed in these cases no recognizable device at all for the dissemination of the seedlings. But you and I, most excellent and discreet reader, are emphatically not, of course, mere casual observers. We look close, and go to the very root of things. And when we do so, we see for ourselves at once that almost all capsules open where? why, at the top, so that the seeds can only be shaken out when there is a high enough wind blowing to sway the stems to and fro with some violence, and scatter the small, black grains inside to a considerable distance. Furthermore, in many instances, of which the common poppy-head is an excellent example, the capsule opens by lateral pores at the top of a flat head a further precaution which allows the seeds to get out only by a few at a time, after a distinct jerk, and so scatters them pretty evenly, with different winds, over a wide circular space around the mother-plant. Experiment will show how this simple dodge works. Try to shake out the poppy-seed from a ripe poppy-head on the plant as it grows, without breaking the stem or bending it unnaturally, and you will easily see how much force of wind is required in order to put this unobtrusive but very effective mechanism into working order.

The devices of this character employed by various plants for the dispersal of seeds even in ordinary dry capsules are far too numerous for me to describe in full detail, though they form a delightful subject for individual study in any small suburban garden. I will only give one more illustrative case, just to show the sort of point an amateur should always be on the lookout for. There is an extremely common, though inconspicuous, English weed, the mouse-ear chickweed, found everywhere in flower-beds or grass-plots, however small, and noticeable for its quaint little horn-shaped capsules. These have a very odd sort of twist or cock-up in the middle, just above the part where the seeds lie; and they open at the top by ten small teeth, pointed obliquely outward, for no apparent reason. Yet every point has a meaning of its own for all that. The plant is one that lies rather close upon the ground; and the effect of this twist in the capsule is that the seeds, which are relatively heavy, and well stored with nutriment, can never get out at all, unless a very strong wind is blowing, which sweeps over the herbage in long, quick waves, and carries everything it shakes out for great distances before it. So much design have even the smallest weeds put into the mechanism for the dispersion of their precious seeds, the hope of their race and the earnest of their future!

Artillery marks a higher stage than the sling and the stone. Just so, in many plants, a step higher in the evolutionary scale as regards the method of dispersion, the capsule itself bursts open explosively, and scatters its contents to the four winds of heaven. Such plants may be said to discharge their grains on the principle of the bow and arrow. The balsam is a familiar example of this startling mode of moving to fresh fields and pastures new: its capsule consists of five long, straight valves, which break asunder elastically the moment they are touched, when fully ripe, and shed their seeds on all sides, like so many small bombshells. Our friend the squirting cucumber, which served as the prime text for this present discourse, falls into somewhat the same category, though in other ways it rather resembles the true succulent fruits, and belongs, indeed, to the same family as the melon, the gourd, the pumpkin, and the vegetable-marrow, almost all of which are edible and in every way fruit-like. Among English weeds, the little bittercress that grows on dry walls and hedge-banks forms an excellent example of the same device. Village children love to touch the long, ripe, brown capsules on the top with one timid finger, and then jump away, half laughing, half terrified, when the mild-looking little plant goes off suddenly with a small bang and shoots its grains like a catapult point-blank in their faces.

It is in the tropics, however, that these elastic fruits reach their highest development. There they have to fight, not merely against such small fry as robins, squirrels, and harvest-mice, but against the aggressive parrot, the hard-billed toucan, the persistent lemur, and the inquisitive monkey. Moreover, the elastic fruits of the tropics grow often on spreading forest trees, and must therefore shed their seeds to immense distances if they are to reach comparatively virgin soil, unexhausted by the deep-set roots of the mother-trunk. Under such exceptional circumstances, the tropical examples of these elastic capsules are by no means mere toys to be lightly played with by babes and sucklings. The sand-box tree of the West Indies has large round fruits, containing seeds about as big as an English horsebean; and the capsule explodes, when ripe, with a detonation like a pistol, scattering its contents with as much violence as a shot from an air-gun. It is dangerous to go too near these natural batteries during the shooting season. A blow in the eye from one would blind a man instantly. I well remember the very first night I spent in my own house in Jamaica, where I went to live shortly after the repression of "Governor Eyre's rebellion," as everybody calls it locally. All night long I heard somebody, as I thought, practicing with a revolver in my own back garden; a sound which somewhat alarmed me under those very unstable social conditions. An earthquake about midnight, it is true, diverted my attention temporarily from the recurring shots, but didn't produce the slightest effect upon the supposed rebel's devotion to the improvement of his marksmanship. "When morning dawned, however, I found it was only a sand-box tree, and that the shots were nothing more than the explosions of the capsules. As to the wonderful tales told about the Brazilian cannonball tree, I can not personally indorse them from original observation, and will not stain this veracious page with any second-hand quotations from the strange stories of modern scientific Munchausens.

Still higher in the evolutionary scale than the elastic fruits are those airy species which have taken to themselves wings like the eagle, and soar forth upon the free breeze in search of what the Americans describe as "fresh locations." Of this class, the simplest type may be seen in those forest trees, like the maple and the sycamore, whose fruits are flattened out into long expansions or parachutes, technically known as "keys," by whose aid they flutter down obliquely to the ground at a considerable distance. The keys of the sycamore, to take a single instance, when detached from the tree in autumn, fall spirally through the air, owing to the twist of the winged arm, and are carried so far that, as every gardener knows, young sycamore trees rank among the commonest weeds among our plots and flower-beds. A curious variant upon this type is presented by the lime, or linden, whose fruits are in themselves small, wingless nuts; but they are borne in clusters upon a common stalk, which is winged on either side by a large membranous bract. When the nuts are ripe, the whole cluster detaches itself in a body from the branch, and flutters away before the breeze by means of the common parachute, to some spot a hundred yards off or more, where the wind chances to land it.

The topmost place of all in the hierarchy of seed life, it seems to me, is taken by the feathery fruits and seeds which float freely hither and thither wherever the wind may bear them. An immense number of the very highest plants—the aristocrats of the vegetable kingdom, such as the lordly composites, those ultimate products of plant evolution—possess such floating feathery seeds; though here, again, the varieties of detail are too infinite for rapid or popular classification. Indeed, among the composites alone—the thistle and dandelion tribe with downy fruits—I can reckon up more than a hundred and fifty distinct variations of plan among the winged seeds known to me in various parts of Europe. But if I am strong, I am merciful: I will let the public off a hundred and forty-eight of them. My two exceptions shall be John-go-to-bed-at-noon and the hairy hawkweed, both of them common English meadow-plants. The first, and more quaintly named, of the two has little ribbed fruits that end in a long and narrow beak, supporting a radial rib-work of spokes like the frame of an umbrella; and from rib to rib of this framework stretch feathery cross-pieces, continuous all round, so as to make of the whole mechanism a perfect circular parachute, resembling somewhat the web of a geometrical spider. But the hairy hawkweed is still more cunning in its generation; for that clever and cautious weed produces its seeds or fruits in clustered heads, of which the central ones are winged, while the outer are heavy, squat, and wingless. Thus does the plant make the best of all chances that may happen to open before it; if one lot goes far and fares but ill, the other is pretty sure to score a bull's-eye.

These are only a few selected examples of the infinite dodges employed by enlightened herbs and shrubs to propagate their scions in foreign parts. Many more, equally interesting, must be left undescribed. Only for a single case more can I still find room—that of the subterranean clover, which has been driven by its numerous enemies to take refuge at last in a very remarkable and almost unique mode of protecting its offspring. This particular kind of clover affects smooth and close-cropped hillsides, where the sheep nibble down the grass and other herbage almost as fast as it springs up again. Now, clover seeds resemble their allies of the pea and bean tribe in being exceedingly rich in starch and other valuable foodstuffs. Hence, they are much sought after by the inquiring sheep, which eat them off wherever found, as exceptionally nutritious and dainty morsels. Under these circumstances, the subterranean clover has learned to produce small heads of bloom, pressed close to the ground, in which only the outer flowers are perfect and fertile, while the inner ones are transformed into tiny, wriggling corkscrews. As soon as the fertile flowers have begun to set their seed, by the kind aid of the bees, the whole stem bends downward, automatically, of its own accord; the little cork-screws then worm their way into the turf beneath; and the pods ripen and mature in the actual soil itself, where no prying ewe can poke an inquisitive nose to grub them up and devour them. Cases like this point in certain ways to the absolute high-watermark of vegetable ingenuity: they go nearest of all in the plant-world to the similitude of conscious animal intelligence.—Cornhill Magazine.