Getting to Know a Grass – Basic Anatomy and Identification

Have you ever tried to identify a grass? Most of us who like to look at plants and learn their names will probably admit that we often give up on grasses pretty quickly, or just ignore them entirely. They aren’t the easiest plants to identify to species, and there are so many of them. Without close inspection, they can all look pretty similar. Their flowers aren’t particularly showy, and their fruits are fairly forgettable. They are strands or clumps of green that create a backdrop for more intriguing forms of vegetation. Yet, they are among the most ecologically and economically important groups of plants on the planet. And actually, if you can ascend the hurdles that come with getting to know them, they are beautiful organisms and really quite amazing.

Kōura in the Grass

The grass family – Poaceae – consists of nearly 8oo genera and about 12,000 species. Grasses occur in a wide range of habitats across the globe. Wherever you are on land, a grass is likely nearby. Grasses play vital roles in their ecosystems and, from a human perspective, are critical to life as we know it. We grow them for food, use them for building materials and fuel, plant them as ornamentals, and rely on them for erosion control, storm water management, and other ecosystem services. We may not acknowledge their presence most of the time, but we very likely wouldn’t be here without them.

The sheer number of grass species is one thing that makes them so difficult to identify. Key identifying features of grasses and grass-like plants (also known as graminoids) tend to be very small and highly modified compared to similar features on other flowering plants. This requires using a hand lens and learning a whole new vocabulary in order to begin to understand a grass’s anatomy. It’s a time commitment that goes beyond a lot of other basic plant identification, and it’s a learning curve that few dare to follow. However, once you learn the basic features, it becomes clear that grasses are relatively simple organisms, and once you start identifying them, it can actually be an exciting and rewarding experience.

Quackgrass (Elymus repens) and Its Rhizome

Depending on the species, grasses can be annuals – completing their life cycle within a single year – or perennials – coming back year after year for two or more years. Most grasses have a fibrous root system; some are quite shallow and simple while others are extremely deep and extensive. Some species of perennial grasses spread by either rhizomes (underground stems), stolons (horizontal, above ground stems), or both. Some grasses also produce tillers, which are essentially daughter plants that form at the base of the plant. The area where roots, rhizomes, stolons, and tillers meet the shoots and leaves of a grass plant is called the crown. This is an important region of the plant, because it allows for regrowth even after the plant has been browsed by a grazing animal or mown down by a lawn mower.

The stem or shoot of a grass is called a culm. Leaves are formed along the lengths of culms, and culms terminate in inflorescences. Leaves originate at swollen sections of the culm called nodes. They start by wrapping around the culm and forming what is called a leaf sheath. Leaves of grasses are generally long and narrow with parallel venation – a trait typical of monocotyledons. The part of the leaf that extends away from the culm is called the leaf blade or lamina. Leaves are alternatively arranged along the length of the stem and are two-ranked, meaning they form two distinct rows opposite of each other along the stem.

The area where the leaf blade meets the leaf sheath on the culm is called the collar. This collar region is important for identifying grasses. With the help of a hand lens, a closer look reveals the way in which the leaf wraps around the culm (is it open or closed?), whether or not there are hairs present and what they are like, if there are auricles (small flaps of leaf tissue at the top of the collar), and what the ligule is like. The ligule is a thin membrane (sometimes a row of hairs) that forms around the culm where the leaf blade and leaf sheath intersect. The size of the ligule and what its margin is like can be very helpful in identifying grasses.

The last leaf on the culm before the inflorescence is called the flag leaf, and the section of the culm between the flag leaf and the inflorescence is called a peduncle. Like the collar, the flower head of a grass is where you’ll find some of the most important features for identification. Grass flowers are tiny and arranged in small groupings called spikelets. In general, several dozen or hundreds of spikelets make up an inflorescence. They can be non-branching and grouped tightly together at the top of the culm, an inflorescence referred to as a spike, or they can extend from the tip of the culm (or rachis) on small branches called pedicels, an inflorescence referred to as a raceme. They can also be multi-branched, which is the most common form of grass inflorescence and is called a panicle.

Either way, you will want to take an even closer look at the individual spikelets. Two small bracts, called glumes, form the base of the spikelet. Above the glumes are a series of florets, which are enclosed in even smaller bracts – the outer bract being the lemma and the inner bract being the palea. Certain features of the glumes, lemmas, and paleas are specific to a species of grass. This includes the way they are shaped, the presence of hairs, their venation, whether or not awns are present and what the awns are like, etc. If the grass species is cleistogamous – like cheatgrass – and the florets never open, you will not get a look at the grass’s sex parts. However, a close inspection of an open floret is always a delight. A group of stamens protrude from their surrounding bracts bearing pollen, while feathery stigmas reach out to collect the pollen that is carried on the wind. Depending on the species, an individual grass floret can have either only stamens, only pistils (the stigma bearing organs), or both. Fertilized florets form fruits. The fruit of a grass is called a caryopsis (with a few exceptions) and is indistinguishable from the seed. This is because the seed coat is fused to the wall of the ovary, unlike other fruit types in which the two are separate and distinct.

If all this doesn’t make you want to run outside and take a close look at some grasses, I don’t know what will. What grasses can you identify in your part of the world? Let me know in the comment section below or check out the linktree and get in touch by the means that suits you best.

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Randomly Selected Botanical Terms: Glochids

The spines of a cactus are an obvious threat. They are generally sharp, smooth, and stiff; as soon as you are stabbed by one, it is immediately clear that you’ve gotten too close. Sitting at the base of the spines – or in place of spines – on many species of cacti is a less obvious, but significantly more heinous threat. Unless you’re looking closely, this hazard is practically invisible, and the pain and irritation that can come as a result of close contact has the potential to last significantly longer than the sharp poke of a spine. This nefarious plant part is called a glochid, and if you’ve ever made contact with one (or more likely several dozen of them), it’s not something you will soon forget.

Opuntia polyacantha x utahensis

The spine of a cactus is actually a leaf. The area from which a spine emerges from the fleshy, photosynthetic stem of a cactus is called an areole, which is equivalent to a node or bud on a more typical stem or branch from which leaves emerge. In place of typical looking leaves, a cactus produces spines and glochids. Like spines, glochids are also modified leaves, although they appear more like soft, little tufts of hair. However, this unassuming little tuft is not to be trifled with.

Close inspection of a glochid (with the help of a microscope) reveals why you don’t want them anywhere near your skin. While the surface of a cactus spine is often smooth and free of barbs, glochids are covered in backwards-facing barbs. The miniscule size of glochids combined with their pliable nature and retrose barbs, make it easy for them to work their way into your skin and stay there. Unlike spines, glochids easily detach from a cactus stem. Barely brushing up against a glochid-bearing cactus can result in getting stuck with several of them.

Opuntia basilaris var. heilii

Because glochids can be so fine and difficult to see, you may not even be aware they are there. You probably won’t even feel them at first. Removing them is a challenge thanks to their barbs, and since you may not be able to remove them all, the glochids that remain in your skin can continue to cause irritation for days, weeks, or even months after contact. For this reason, cactuses are generally best seen and not touched, or at the very least, handled with extreme care.

Apart from being a good form of defense, the glochids of some cactus species can serve an additional function. Most cactus species occur in arid or semi-arid climates, where access to water can be quite limited. In order to increase their chances of getting the water they need, some desert plants are able to collect water from the air. A few species of cactus do this, and glochids are a critical component in making this happen.

Cylindropuntia whipplei

A study published in the Journal of King Saud University – Science (2020) examined the dew harvesting ability of Opuntia stricta, commonly known as erect prickly pear. As described above, the spines of O. stricta are smooth, while the glochids are covered in retrose barbs. Both structures are waterproof due to hardened cell walls and cuticles. However, due in part to the conical shapes of both the glochids and their barbs, water droplets from the air are able to collect on the tips of the glochids. From there, the researchers observed the droplets in their travel towards the base of the glochids. As they moved downward, small droplets combined to form larger droplets.

At the base of the glochids are a series of trichomes, which are small hair-like outgrowths of the epidermis. The trichomes do not repel water, but rather are able to absorb the droplets as they reach the base of the glochids. For a plant species that receives very little water from the soil, being able to harvest dew from the air is critical for its survival, and this is thanks in part to those otherwise obnoxious glochids.

See Also: Prickles

Randomly Selected Botanical Terms: Prickles

Let’s start by getting something out of the way: roses have prickles, not thorns. However, just like peanuts aren’t actually nuts and tomatoes are actually fruits, our colloquial terms for things don’t always match up with botanical terminology. This doesn’t mean that we should be pedants about things and go spoiling a friendly dinner party with our “well, actually…” corrections. If you hear someone saying (or singing) something about every rose having its thorn, it’s okay to just let it go.

So why don’t roses have thorns? And what even is a prickle anyway?

Plants have a way of modifying various body parts to form a variety of features that look like something totally new and different. When the development of these features are observed at a cellular level, we find that what once may have grown into something familiar, like a stem, is now something less familiar, like a thorn. A thorn, then, is a modified stem. Stem tissue was used by the plant to form a hardened spike. Thorns help protect a plant from being eaten, so going through the trouble of producing this feature is a benefit to the plant.

thorns of hawthorn (Crataegus sp.)

Spines and prickles are similar features to thorns and serve a similar purpose, but they have different origins. Spines are modified leaf or stipule tissue (the spines on a cactus are actually modified leaves). Prickles are outgrowths of the epidermis or bark. In plants, epidermis is a single, outer layer of cells that covers all of the organs (i.e. leaves, roots, flowers, stems). Outgrowths on this layer are common and often appear as little hairs. The technical term for these hairs or hair-like structures is trichomes.

the stems of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are covered in dense trichomes

Prickles are much like trichomes, but there are usually less of them and they are hardened and pointy. They can be sharp like a thorn or spine and so are often confused for them. (Spines are also confused for thorns, as is the case with Euphorbia milii, whose common name is crown of thorns but whose “thorns” are actually spines.) As stated above, their cellular origin is different, and unlike thorns and spines, prickles don’t have vascular tissue, which is the internal tissue that transports water and nutrients throughout all parts of the plant. In general, prickles can be easily broken off, as they are often weakly attached to the epidermis.

Prickles are most commonly observed on roses and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Prickles on roses are commonly called thorns, and that’s okay. Thorn is perhaps a more poetic word and easier to relate to. But really, I’m torn and forlorn that they aren’t thorns. It puts me in a pickle trying to rhyme words with prickle.


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Winter Trees and Shrubs: Tulip Tree

At first glance, a tulip and a tulip tree couldn’t be more different. One is a bulb that puts out fleshy, green leaves in the spring, topped with colorful, cup-shaped flowers, barely reaching a foot or so tall. The other is a massive, deciduous tree with a broad, straight trunk that can grow to nearly 200 feet tall. But if you can get a look at the flowers, seed heads, and even the leaves of this enormous tree, you might see a resemblance – at least in the shape of these features – to one of our most popular spring flowering geophytes.

Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is distributed across the eastern United States and has been planted widely outside of its native range. Also commonly known as tulip poplar, yellow poplar, and whitewood, it is a member of the magnolia family and is one of two species in its genus (the other being Liriodendron chinense – a tree found mainly in China). Many (if not most) deciduous trees of North America have small, inconspicuous flowers, but tulip trees – like its close relatives, the magnolias – have relatively large, showy flowers. The trouble is actually getting to see them since, at least on mature trees, they are borne in a canopy that is considerably taller than the average human.

Tulip tree flowers are cup-shaped, yellow-green and orange, with a series of prominent stamens surrounding the carpels which are attached to a long, slender receptacle giving it a cone-shaped appearance. As the flower matures into fruits, the tulip shape of the inflorescence is maintained as the seeds with their wing-like appendages form a tight, cone-like cluster that opens as the seeds reach maturity. The wings aid in dispersal as the seeds fall from the “cone” throughout the winter.

seed head of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

The four-lobed leaves of tulip trees also form a vague tulip shape. They are alternately arranged, bright green, and up to five or six inches long and wide, turning yellow in the fall. Two prominent, oval-shaped stipules surround the stem at the base of the petiole of each leaf. These stipules come into play when identifying the leafless twigs of tulip trees during the winter months.

leaf of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in late summer

The winter twigs of tulip trees are easily recognizable thanks to their duck bill shaped buds which are made up of two wine-red, violet, or greenish bud scales. The terminal buds are considerably larger and longer than the lateral buds, some of which are on little stalks. The twigs are smooth, olive-brown or red-brown, with just a few, scattered, white lenticels. Leaf scars are rounded with a dozen or so bundle scars that are either scattered or form an irregular ellipse. Pronounced stipule scars encircle the twig at the location of each leaf scar. Twigs can be cut lengthwise to reveal pale white pith that is separated by a series of diaphragms.

winter twig of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
top right: the chambered pith of black walnut (Juglans nigra); bottom left: diaphragmed pith of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

The bark of tulip trees can be easily confused with that of ash trees. Young bark is smooth and ash-gray to grayish green with pale, vertical cracks. As the tree matures, the cracks develop into furrows with flat-topped ridges. The ridges grow taller and more peaked, and the furrows grow deeper as the tree reaches maturity. In the book Winter Botany, William Trelease compares the mature bark of tulip trees to a series of parallel mountain ranges with deep gullies on either side.

maturing bark of tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Perhaps even as tulips are blooming, the buds of tulip trees break to reveal their tulip-shaped, stipule bearing leaves. This makes for an interesting show. In The Book of Forest and Thicket, John Eastman describes it this way: “from terminal buds shaped like duck bills, successions of bills within bills uncurl and unfold, revealing a marvel of leaf packaging.”

More Winter Trees and Shrubs:


The photos of tulip tree were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Drought Tolerant Plants: Blue Flax

“Lewis’s prairie flax is a pretty garden ornamental suited to hot, dry sites. Each morning delicate sky blue flowers open on slender arching stems, only to fall off in the afternoon and be replaced by others the next morning. In spite of its fragile appearance, it is quite sturdy and may put out a second flush of blossoms on new growth in late summer.”Common to the This Country: Botanical Discoveries of Lewis and Clark by Susan H. Munger


When selecting plants for a waterwise garden, it is imperative that at least a portion of the plants are easy to grow and maintain and are adapted to a wide variety of conditions. This will ensure a more successful garden, both functionally and aesthetically. Luckily, there are a number of drought-tolerant plants that pretty much anyone can grow without too much trouble. Blue flax, in my opinion, is one such plant.

You may be familiar with flax as a culinary plant, known for its edible seeds which are used to make flour (i.e. meal) and oil. Or perhaps you’ve used linseed oil, a product of flax seeds, to protect wooden, outdoor furniture or in other wood finishing projects. You may also think of linen when you think of flax; and you should, because linen is a textile made from the fibrous stems of the flax plant. All of these products generally come from a domesticated, annual flax known as Linum usitatissimum – a species that has been of benefit to humans for millenia. Various species of flax have also been planted for erosion control, fire breaks, forage for livestock, and in pollinator-friendly gardens. Flax seeds, a common ingredient in bird seed mixes, provide food for birds and other small animals. All this to say, humans and flax share a long history together, and it deserves a place in your garden.

The flax species profiled here is actually two species: Linum lewisii and Linum perenne. That’s because these two species look nearly identical and are both used as garden ornamentals and in wildflower seed mixes. They are also both known as blue flax, among myriad other common names. Due to their similiarity, L. lewisii is considered by some to be a subspecies of L. perenne.

Linum lewisii is found across western North America and received its name after being collected by a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The plant collection was brought back from the expedition and determined to be new to western science. It was described and named by Frederick Pursh. Linum perenne is a European species which was introduced to North America as an ornamental and has since become widely naturalized. In 1980, a naturalized selection of L. perenne was released for use in restoration plantings under the cultivar name ‘Appar’ with the understanding that it was L. lewisii. A genetic study later revealed that the cultivar was instead L. perenne. The study also provided evidence that “North American Lewis flax and European perennial blue flax are reproductively isolated,” suggesting that they are indeed two separate species.

Despite being separate species, telling them apart can be a challenge. Blue flax plants grow from a taproot and woody base and are multistemmed, reaching two to three feet tall. The stems are thin yet stringy, wiry, and not easily torn, which helps explain why flax is such a good plant for making textiles. Short, slender leaves are alternately arranged along the length of the stems, while flower buds form at the ends of stems in loose clusters. Flowers bloom early in the day and are spent by the afternoon. They are 5-petaled, saucer-shaped, and a shade of blue – from whitish blue to deep blue – depending on the plant. Small, round, 10-chambered seed capsules form in the place of flowers, each chamber housing one or two flat, shiny, dark brown seeds. Flowers bloom daily in succession up towards the ends of stems even as the fruits of spent flowers lower on the stalk mature.

seed capsules of blue flax

A close look at their flower parts is really the only way you might be able to tell these two species apart. Blue flax flowers have five stamens topped with white anthers and five styles topped with little, yellow stigmas. The flowers of L. lewisii are homostlyous, which means their styles are all the same length and are generally taller than or about the same height as the stamens. The flowers of L. perenne are heterostylous, which means their flowers can either have styles that are much longer than their stamens or stamens that are much longer than their styles. Each plant in a population of L. perenne has either all long-styled flowers or all short-styled flowers. In a mixed population of L. perenne and L. lewisii, separating the long-styled L. perenne plants from the L. lewisii plants presents a challenge (at least for me).

long-styled blue flax flower
short-styled blue flax flower

Due to the similarity of these two species, it’s easy to see how the plants or seeds of blue flax could easily be mislabeled and sold as one species even though they are the other species. This could be a problem in a restoration planting where seed source and identity is critical, but in your garden, it’s really no big deal. Both species are great for waterwise and pollinator gardens. They are equally beautiful and easy to grow and care for. If nothing else, perhaps the challenge in identifying them will encourage you to take a closer look at your flowers and familiarize yourself with their tinier parts – an act all of us amateur botanists could stand to do more often.

The photos in this post were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

More Drought Tolerant Plants Posts:

Dispersal by Bulbils – A Bulbous Bluegrass Story

The main way that a plant gets from place to place is in the form of a seed. As seeds, plants have the ability to travel miles from home, especially with the assistance of outside forces like wind, water, and animals. They could also simply drop to the ground at the base of their parent plant and stay there. The possibilities are endless, really.

But what about plants that don’t even bother making seeds? How do they get around? In the case of bulbous bluegrass, miniature bulbs produced in place of flowers function exactly like seeds. They are formed in the same location as seeds, reach maturity and drop from the plant just like seed-bearing fruits, and are then dispersed in the same ways that seeds are. They even experience a period of dormancy similar to seeds, in that they lie in wait for months or years until the right environmental conditions “tell” them to sprout. And so, bulbils are basically seeds, but different.

bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa)

Bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa) is a Eurasian native but is widely distributed outside of its native range having been repeatedly spread around by humans both intentionally and accidentally. It’s a short-lived, perennial grass that can reach up to 2 feet tall but is often considerably shorter. Its leaves are similar to other bluegrasses – narrow, flat or slightly rolled, with boat-shaped tips and membranous ligules – yet the plants are easy to distinguish thanks to their bulbous bases and the bulbils that form in their flower heads. Their bulbous bases are actually true bulbs, and bulbous bluegrass is said to be the only grass species that has this trait. Just like other bulb-producing plants, the production of these basal bulbs is one way that bulbous bluegrass propagates itself.

basal bulbs of bulbous bluegrass

Bulbous bluegrass is also propagated by seeds and bulbils. Seeds form, like any other plant species, in the ovary of a pollinated flower. But sometimes bulbous bluegrass doesn’t make flowers, and instead modifies its flower parts to form bulbils in their place. Bulbils are essentially tiny, immature plants that, once separated from their parent plant, can form roots and grow into a full size plant. The drawback is that, unlike with most seeds, no sexual recombination has occurred, and so bulbils are essentially clones of a single parent.

The bulbils of bulbous bluegrass sit atop the glumes (bracts) of a spikelet, which would otherwise consist of multiple florets. They have dark purple bases and long, slender, grass-like tips. Bulbils are a type of pseudovivipary, in that they are little plantlets attached to a parent plant. True vivipary occurs when a seed germinates inside of a fruit while still attached to its parent.

Like seeds, bulbils are small packets of starch and fat, and so they are sought ought by small mammals and birds as a source of food. Ants and small rodents are said to collect and cache the bulbils, which is one way they get dispersed. Otherwise, the bulbils rely mostly on wind to get around. They then lie dormant for as long as 2 or 3 years, awaiting the ideal time to take root.

bulbils of bulbous bluegrass

Bulbous bluegrass was accidentally brought to North America as a contaminant in alfalfa and clover seed. It was also intentionally planted as early as 1907 and has been evaluated repeatedly by the USDA and other organizations for use as a forage crop or turfgrass. It has been used in restoration to stabilize soils and reduce erosion. Despite numerous trials, it has consistently underperformed mainly due to its short growth cycle and long dormancy period. It is one of the first grasses to green up in the spring, but by the start of summer it has often gone completely dormant, limiting its value as forage and making for a pretty pathetic turfgrass. Otherwise, it’s pretty good at propagating itself and persisting in locations where it hasn’t been invited and is now mostly considered a weed – a noxious one at that according to some states. Due to its preference for dry climates, it is found most commonly in western North America.

In its native range, bulbous bluegrass frequently reproduces sexually. In North America, however, sexual reproduction is rare, and bulbils are the most common method of reproduction. Prolific asexual reproduction suggests that bulbous bluegress populations in North America should have low genetic diversity. Researchers set out to examine this by comparing populations found in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Their results, published in Northwest Science (1997), showed a surprising amount of genetic variation within and among populations. They concluded that multiple introductions, some sexual reproduction, and the autopolyploidy nature of the species help explain this high level of diversity.

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Interested in learning more about how plants get around? Check out the first issue of our new zine Dispersal Stories.

Pine Cones and the Fibonacci Sequence

While we’re on the topic of pine cones, have you ever considered their scales and the spirals they form? Nature is replete with spirals, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they are found in pine cones. The more interesting thing is that the number of spirals found on pine cones are almost always Fibonacci numbers. But maybe that’s not that surprising either, as Fibonacci numbers are also pretty common in nature.

Add 1 plus 1 and you get 2. Add 2 plus 1 and you get 3. 3 + 2 = 5, 5 + 3 = 8, and 8 + 5 = 13. One, two, three, five, eight, and thirteen are Fibonacci numbers. Continue adding the sum to the number that came before it, and that’s the Fibonacci Sequence. The ratio of two neighboring Fibonacci numbers is an approximation of the golden ratio (e.g. 8/5 = 1.6). This is commonly represented by drawing a series of squares on graph paper and then drawing a spiral across the squares. Each square drawn is larger than the last in accordance with the Fibonacci sequence, and the spiral drawn through the squares is a logarithmic spiral.

So, what does this have to do with pine cones? Well if you count the number of spirals that are going to the right, then count the number of spirals going to the left, you usually end up with two adjacent numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Most often it’s either 5 and 8 or 8 and 13. You can find this same pattern in lots of other plant parts, including the aggregate fruits of pineapples, the disc flowers of sunflowers (and other plants in the aster family), the bracts of artichoke flowers, florets on a cauliflower, and leaf arrangements of all sorts of other plants.

The arrangement of leaves is called phyllotaxis, and when the leaves on a stem form a spiral pattern it’s called a phyllotactic spiral. The benefit the plant receives from having its leaves grow in a spiral formation down the length of its stem is actually quite simple – it keeps them from shading each other out and thereby maximizes their exposure to the sun. If you measure the angle between each leaf, the angle should be the same between each adjacent leaf on the stem. In order for the number of spirals to be a Fibonacci number, the leaves have to be oriented at a specific angle from each other. But this isn’t always the case. Depending on the angle, the number of spirals could be part of some other number sequence, like Lucas numbers perhaps.

While the specifics of plant growth can be quite complex, the reason for the patterns that result is actually quite simple. As plants grow new parts, they are put in a spot where there is room for them to grow, which is at some angle from the part that grew before it. Once that angle is “chosen,” it generally doesn’t change, and as more plant parts grow, a spiral forms (or no spiral forms at all, depending on the pattern of growth). If plant parts are oriented at a specific angle (~ 137.5o), the numbers of spirals end up being Fibonacci numbers. For a more thorough and entertaining explanation of all this, check out this three part video series from Khan Academy. It’s well worth the watch.

And now an example:

Count the number of right-hand spirals on this ponderosa pine cone. There are 8. That’s a Fibonacci number!

Count the number of left-hand spirals on this ponderosa pine cone. To make it easier to count, you can start or end with the top left spiral that has alternating red and green scales. There are 13. That’s another Fibonacci number!

And now your mission, should you choose to accept, is to find a pine cone (or some other conifer cone) in which the number of right and left-hand spirals are not Fibonacci numbers. They’re definitely out there, so let me know what you find in the comment section below.

Further Reading:

Inside of a Seed: Two Monocots

“Seeds are travelers in space and time – small packages of DNA, protein, and starch that can move over long distances and remain viable for hundreds of years. These packages have everything they need not only to survive, but also to grow into a plant when they encounter the right conditions.”      The Book of Seeds by Paul Smith

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As illustrated in last week’s post, the mature seeds of dicots – depending on the species – can be either with or without endosperm (a starchy food packet that feeds a growing seedling upon germination). Seeds without endosperm store these essential sugars in their cotyledons. Monocotyledons (or monocots, for short) are a group of flowering plants (i.e. angiosperms) whose seedlings are composed of a single cotyledon. With the exception of orchids, the seeds of monocots always contain endosperm.

The first of two examples of monocot seeds is the common onion (Allium cepa). The embryo in this seed sits curled up, surrounded by endosperm inside of a durable seed coat.

If you have ever sown onion seeds, you have watched as the single, grass-like cotyledon emerges from the soil. The seed coat often remains attached to the tip of the cotyledon like a little helmet as it stretches out towards the sky. Soon the first true leaf appears, pushing out from the base of the cotyledon. The source of this first leaf is the plumule hidden within the cotyledon.

The fruit of plants in the grass family – including cereal grains like wheat, oats, barley, rice, and corn – is called a caryopsis. In this type of fruit, the fruit wall (or pericarp) is fused to the seed coat, making the fruit indistinguishable from the seed. The embryos in these seeds are highly developed, with a few more discernible parts. A simplified diagram of a corn seed (Zea mays) is shown below. Each kernel of corn on a cob is a caryopsis. These relatively large seeds are great for demonstrating the anatomy of seeds in the grass family.

In these seeds there is an additional layer of endosperm called aleurone, which is rich in protein and composed of living cells. The cells of the adjacent endosperm are not alive and are composed of starch. The embryo consists of several parts, including the cotyledon (which, in the grass family, is also called a scuttelum), coleoptile, plumule, radicle, and coleorhiza. The coleoptile is a sheath that protects the emerging shoot as it pushes up through the soil. The plumule is the growing point for the first shoots and leaves, and the radicle is the beginning of the root system. The emerging root is protected by a root cap called a calyptra and a sheath called a coleorhiza.

Germination begins with the coleorhiza pushing through the pericarp. It is quickly followed by the radicle growing through the coleorhiza. As the embryo emerges, a signal is sent to the endosperm to start feeding the growing baby corn plant, giving it a head start until it can make its own food via photosynthesis.

corn seeds (Zea mays)

Up Next: We’ll take an inside look at the seeds of gymnosperms.

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Inside of a Seed: Two Dicots

“A seed is a living thing that embodies roots, stems, leaves, and fruit in an embryonic state and retains the ability to convert the sun’s energy into a source of food.” — Seedtime by Scott Chaskey

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Few things are more miraculous than seeds. Within them is a living plant in embryonic form. Under the right conditions, these tiny objects expand, pushing out the beginnings of the most minuscule weed to the most humongous tree. Looking at these otherwise unassuming specks, you would hardly guess that they held such potential.

Housed in a seed is the genetic material necessary for growth and reproduction, along with some stored sugars to get the plant started. All of this is enclosed in a protective case. It is a rare moment in a plant’s life – a time when it isn’t rooted in place and can, for a brief period, move around. With the help of agents like wind, water, and animals it can travel anywhere in the world, venturing as far as inches or miles from its parent plant. As long as it finds a suitable place to grow, its voyage is not in vain.

Seeds are the result of sexual reproduction in plants (with rare exceptions, which we will cover in a future post). After pollination, a pollen grain sends three haploid cells into the ovule of a flower. These cells unite with the haploid cells found within. One germ cell from the pollen grain goes to the formation of an embryo, while the other two cells help form endosperm, the food source for the developing embryo. The wall of the ovule becomes the outer layer of the seed, known as the seed coat or testa. The seed matures as the fruit it is nested in ripens. Eventually, the fetal plant within the seed is ready to find a new home.

Seed heads of rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) – the fuzzy pappus attached to the fruits allows seeds to float in the breeze and travel away from their parent plant.

As with so many things in biology, there is no single type of seed. When it comes to seed anatomy, most seeds consist of the same basic components, but each species of plant has its own unique seed. In fact, a well-trained taxonomist can identify plants simply by observing their seeds. With such a wide variety of seeds, it is difficult to organize them into discrete categories, but we still try. What follows is an introduction to two types of seeds – endospermic and non-endospermic – using two basic examples.

The first thing you should know about these two examples is that both species are dicotyledons (or dicots, for short). This means that when the baby plant emerges, it has two cotyledons, which are also called embryonic leaves because they look like little leaves. All flowering plants have been divided into two groups based on the number of cotyledons they have, the second group being the monocotolydons (or monocots) which have only one cotyledon. This is an old-fashioned way to classify plants, but it is still useful in some instances.

Endospermic Seeds

The seeds of the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) are endospermic seeds. This means that they retain the endosperm that was formed when two pollen grain cells joined up with the haploid cell in the ovule. The endosperm will help feed the growing embryo as it germinates. The two cotyledons are visible within the seed, but they are thin and broad, leaving plenty of space in the seed for the endosperm. The cotyledons are part of the embryo and are attached to the radicle, which is the embryonic root. The radicle is the first thing to emerge from the seed upon germination. The area between the radicle and the cotyledon is known as the hypocotyl. It becomes the stem of the germinating seedling.

An elaisome is attached to the outside of the seed coat of castor bean seeds. This fleshy, nutrient-rich appendage is particularly attractive to ants. They carry the seeds back to their colony and feed the elaisome to their young. The seeds, however, remain unconsumed. In this way, the ants aid in the seeds’ dispersal.

seeds of castor beans (Ricinus communis)

Non-endospermic Seeds

The seeds of plants in the bean family (Fabaceae) are non-endospermic seeds. This means that as the embryo develops, it uses up the majority of the endosperm within the seed. The food necessary for the seedling to get its start is all stored in its cotyledons. The common pea (Pisum sativum) is a good example of this. The embryo – which consists of the cotyledons, plumula (or plumule), hypocotyl, and radicle – takes up all available space inside of the seed coat. After germination, as the seedling develops, the plumule appears above the cotyledons and is the growing point for the first true leaves and stems.

seeds of the common pea (Pisum sativum)

In future posts, we will look at a few other types of seeds, as well as discuss various other seed-related topics. If you have a story to share about seeds, please do so in the comment section below.

Weeds and Winter Interest

In climates where winter sucks the garden inside itself and into quiet dormancy, it is often dead stalks and seed heads that provide the most visual interest. They also become, in some respects, a reminder of a garden that once was and what will be again.” — Gayla Trail, Grow Curious

If, like me, it is during the growing season that you really thrive, winters can be brutal. Color has practically been stripped from the landscape. Death and slumber abound. Nights are long and days are cold. It’s a lengthy wait until spring returns. Yet, my love of plants does not rest. And so, I look for beauty in a frozen landscape.

In evergreens, it is obvious. They maintain their color year-round. Large bunchgrasses, shrubs and trees with interesting bark or branching habits, dried fruits and unique seed heads – all of these things are easy to spot and visually interesting.

Beyond that, there are things that we are not accustomed to finding beauty in. Such things require a keen eye, close observation, and the cultivation of greater understanding and appreciation. For most people, weeds fall into this category. What is there to love or find beautiful?

I am of the opinion that there is plenty there to intrigue us. From their spent flowers to their seed heads and dried-up leaves, they can be just as interesting as the plants we deem more desirable. The winter-long green of winter annuals alone is evidence enough. So, here is my attempt to redeem some of these plants by nominating them as candidates for winter interest.

common mallow (Malva neglecta)

field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Russian thistle (Kali tragus, syn. Salsola tragus)

Russian thistle (Kali tragus, syn. Salsola tragus)

redstem filaree (Erodium cicutarium)

curly dock (Rumex crispus)

curly dock (Rumex crispus)

prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola)

salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

wood avens (Geum urbanum)

yellow evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)

annual honesty, a.k.a. money plant (Lunaria annua)

white clover (Trifolium repens)

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A friendly reminder: Refrain from being overly ambitious with your fall cleanup and, instead, leave certain plants in place. This not only provides winter interest but can also be beneficial to the wild creatures we share space with.