The Hidden Flowers of Viola

Violas keep a secret hidden below their foliage. Sometimes they even bury it shallowly in the soil near their roots. I suppose it’s not a secret really, just something out of sight. There isn’t a reason to show it off, after all. Showy flowers are showy for the sole purpose of attracting pollinators. If pollinators are unnecessary, there is no reason for showy flowers, or to even show your flowers at all. That’s the story behind the cleistogamous flowers of violas. They are a secret only because unless you know to look for them, you would have no idea they were there at all.

Cleistogamy means closed marriage, and it describes a self-pollinating flower whose petals remain sealed shut. The opposite of cleistogamy is chasmogamy (open marriage). Most of the flowers we are familiar with are chasmogamous. They open and expose their sex parts in order to allow for cross-pollination (self-pollination can also occur in such flowers). Violas have chasmogamous flowers too. They are the familiar five-petaled flowers raised up on slender stalks above the green foliage. Cross-pollination occurs in these flowers, and seed-bearing fruits are the result. Perhaps as a way to ensure reproduction, violas also produce cleistogamous flowers, buried below their leaves.

an illustration of the cleistogamous flower of Viola sylvatica opened to reveal its sex parts — via wikimedia commons

Flowers are expensive things to make, especially when the goal is to attract pollinators. Colorful petals, nectar, nutritious pollen, and other features that help advertise to potential pollinators all require significant resources. All this effort is worth it when it results in the ample production of viable seeds, but what if it doesn’t? Having a method for self-pollination ensures that reproduction will proceed in the absence of pollinators or in the event that floral visitors don’t get the job done. A downside, of course, is that a seed produced via self-pollination is essentially a clone of the parent plant. There will be no mixing of genes with other individuals. This isn’t necessarily bad, at least in the short term, but it has its downsides. A good strategy is a mixture of both cross- and self-pollination – a strategy that violas employ.

The cleistogamous flowers of violas generally appear in the summer or fall, after the chasmogamous flowers have done their thing. The fruits they form split open when mature and deposit their seeds directly below the parent plant. Some are also carried away by ants and dispersed to new locations. Seeds produced in these hidden flowers are generally superior and more abundant compared to those produced by their showy counterparts. People who find violas to be a troublesome lawn weed – expanding far and wide to the exclusion of turfgrass – have these hidden flowers to blame.

That being said, there is a defense for violas. In the book The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, Tallamy writes: “Plants such as the common blue violet (Viola sororia), long dismissed by gardeners as a weed, can be reconstituted as desirable components of the herbaceous layer when their ecosystem functionality is re-evaluated. Violets are the sole larval food source for fritillary butterflies. Eliminating violets eliminates fritillaries, but finding ways to incorporate violets in garden design supports fritillaries.”

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

In my search for the cleistogamous flowers of viola, I dug up a sweet violet (Viola odorata). I was too late to catch it in bloom, but the product of its flowers – round, purple, fuzzy fruits – were revealed as I uprooted the plant. Some of the fruits were already opening, exposing shiny, light brown seeds with prominent, white elaiosomes, there to tempt ants into aiding in their dispersal. I may have missed getting to see what John Eastman calls “violet’s most important flowers,” but the product of these flowers was certainly worth the effort.

Fruits formed from the cleistogamous flowers of sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Up close and personal with the fruit of a cleistogamous flower

The seeds (elaiosomes included) produced by the cleistogamous flower of sweet violet (Viola odorata)

See Also:

Winter Interest in the Lower Boise Foothills

The Boise Foothills, a hilly landscape largely dominated by shrubs and grasses, are a picturesque setting any time of the year. They are particularly beautiful in the spring when a wide array of spring flowering plants are in bloom, and then again in late summer and early fall when a smaller selection of plants flower. But even when there aren’t flowers to see, plants and other features in the Foothills continue to offer interest. Their beauty may be more subtle and not as immediately striking as certain flowers can be, but they catch the eye nonetheless. Appeal can be found in things like gnarled, dead sagebrush branches, lichen covered rocks, and fading seed heads. Because the lower Boise Foothills in particular have endured a long history of plant introductions, an abundance of weeds and invasive plants residing among the natives also provide interest.

This winter has been another mild one. I was hoping for more snow, less rain, and deeper freezes. Mild, wet conditions make exploring the Foothills difficult and ill-advised. Rather than frozen and/or snow covered, the trails are thick with mud. Walking on them in this state is too destructive. Avoiding trails and walking instead on trail side vegetation is even more destructive, and so Foothills hiking is put on hold until the ground freezes or the trails dry out. This means I haven’t gotten into the Foothills as much as I would like. Still, I managed to get a few photos of some of the interesting things the lower Boise Foothills have to offer during the winter. What follows is a selection of those photos.

snow melting on the fruit of an introduced rose (Rosa sp.)

fading seed heads of hoary tansyaster (Machaeranthera canescens)

samaras of box elder (Acer negundo)

snow on seed heads of yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

gall on introduced rose (Rosa sp.)

sunflower seed heads (Helianthus annuus)

sunflower seed head in the snow (Helianthus annuus)

snow falling in the lower Boise Foothills

fading seed heads of salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

lichen on dead box elder log

seed head of curlycup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)

lichen and moss on rock in the snow

fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

See Also: Weeds and Wildflowers of the Boise Foothills (June 2015)

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The first issue of our new zine, Dispersal Stories, is available now. It’s an ode to traveling plants. You can find it in our Etsy Shop

Ground Beetles as Weed Seed Predators

As diurnal animals, we are generally unaware of the slew of animal activity that occurs during the night. Even if we were to venture out in the dark, we still wouldn’t be able to detect much. Our eyes don’t see well in the dark, and shining a bright light to see what’s going on results in chasing away those creatures that prefer darkness. We just have to trust that their out there, and in the case of ground beetles, if they’re present in our gardens we should consider ourselves lucky.

Ground beetles are in the family Carabidae and are one of the largest groups of beetles in the world with species numbering in the tens of thousands. They are largely nocturnal, so even though they are diverse and relatively abundant, we rarely get to see them. Look under a rock or log during the day, and you might see a few scurry away. Or, if you have outdoor container plants, there may be a few of them hiding out under your pots with the pillbugs. At night, they leave the comfort of their hiding places and go out on the hunt, chasing down grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetle grubs, and other arthropods, as well as slugs and snails. Much of their prey consists of common garden pests, making them an excellent form of biological control. And, as if that weren’t enough, some ground beetles also eat the seeds of common weeds.

Harpalus affinis via wikimedia commons

Depending on the species, a single ground beetle can consume around a dozen seeds per night. In general, they prefer the seeds of grasses, lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), pigweeds (Amaranthus spp.), and various plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). The seeds of these species are small with seed coats that are easily crushed by a beetle’s mandibles. Providing suitable habitat, avoiding insecticides, and minimizing soil disturbance (i.e. reducing or eliminating tillage) are ways that healthy ground beetle populations can be encouraged and maintained. Ground beetles prefer dense vegetation where they can hide during the daytime. Strips of bunchgrasses and herbaceous perennials planted on slightly raised bed (referred to as beetle banks) are ideal because they provide good cover and keep water from puddling up in the beetles’ hiding spots.

The freshness of weed seeds and the time of year they are available may be determining factors in whether or not ground beetles will help control weed populations. A study published in Weed Science (2014), looked at the seed preferences of Harpalus pensylvanicus, a common species of ground beetle that occurs across North America. When given the choice between year old seeds and freshly fallen seeds of giant foxtail (Setaria faberi), the beetles preferred the fresh ones. The study also found that when giant foxtail was shedding the majority of its seeds, the density of beetles was on the decline, meaning that, at least in this particular study, most of the seeds would go uneaten since fewer beetles were around when the majority of the seeds were made available. Creating habitat that extends the ground beetles’ stay is important if the goal is to maximize the number of weed seeds consumed.

Harpalus pensylvanica via wikimedia commons

Of course, the seeds of all weed species are not considered equal when it comes to ground beetle predation. Several studies have sought to determine which species ground beetles prefer, offering seeds of a variety of weeds in both laboratory and field settings and seeing what the beetles go for. Pinning this down is difficult though because there are numerous species of ground beetles, all varying in size and activity. Their abundances vary from year to year and throughout the year, as do their food sources. Since most of them are generalists, they will feed on what is available at the time. A study published in European Journal of Entomology (2003) found a correlation between seed size and body mass – small beetles were consuming small seeds and large beetles were consuming large seeds, relatively speaking.

Another study published in European Journal of Entomology (2014) compared the preferences of ground beetles in the laboratory to those in the field and found that, in both instances, the seeds of field pansy (Viola arvensis) and shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) were the preferred choice. The authors note that both species have lipid-rich seeds (or high “energy content”). Might that be a reason for their preference? Or maybe it’s simply a matter of availability and “the history of individual predators and [their] previous encounters with weed seed.” After all, V. arvensis was “the most abundant seed available on the soil surface” in this particular study.

Pterostichus melanarius via wikimedia commons

A study published in PLOS One (2017), looked at the role that scent might play in seed selection by ground beetles. Three species of beetles were offered the seeds of three different weed species in the mustard family. The seeds of Brassica napus were preferred over the other two by all three beetle species. The beetles were also offered both imbibed and non-imbibed seeds of all three plants. Imbibed simply means that the seeds have taken in water, which “can result in the release of volatile compounds such as ethanol and acetaldehyde.” The researchers wondered if the odors emitted from the imbibed seeds would “affect seed discovery and ultimately, seed consumption.” This seemed to be the case as all three beetle species exhibited a preference for the imbibed seeds.

Clearly, ground beetles are fascinating study subjects, and there is still so much to learn about them and their eating habits. If indeed their presence is limiting the spread of weeds and reducing weed populations, they should be happily invited into our farms and gardens and efforts should be made to provide them with quality habitat. For a bit more about ground beetles, check out this episode of Boise Biophilia.

Further Reading:

A Few Snags Near Ketchum and Stanley

A couple of weeks ago, Sierra and I were in Ketchum, Idaho taking a much needed mid-October vacation. The weather was great, and the fall color was incredible, so heading out on multiple hikes was a no-brainer. On our hikes, I found myself increasingly drawn to all of the snags. Forested areas like those found in the Sawtooth National Forest are bound to have a significant amount of standing dead trees. After all, trees don’t live forever; just like any other living being, they die – some of old age, some of disease or lightning strike or any number of other reasons. But death for a tree does not spell the end of its life giving powers. In the case of snags, it’s really just the beginning.

Death might come quick for a tree, but its rate of decomposition is slow. Fungi move in to begin the process and are joined by myriad insects, mosses, lichens, and bacteria. The insects provide food for birds, like woodpeckers and sapsuckers who hammer out holes in the standing trunk. As primary cavity nesters, they also nest in some of these holes. Secondary cavity nesters make a home in these holes as well. This includes a whole suite of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Without the habitat provided by snags, many of these animals would disappear from the forest.

Eventually snags fall, and as the rotting continues, so does the dead tree’s contribution to new life. It’s at this point that snags become nurse logs or nurse stumps, providing habitat and nutrients for all sorts of plants, fungi, and other organisms.

Unfortunately I can’t bring a you a complete representation of the many snags of Sawtooth National Forest. You’ll have to visit sometime to see them all for yourself. Instead, what follows is a small sampling of a few of the snags we saw near Ketchum and Stanley.

new cavities in new snag

old cavities in old snag

knobby snag with lichens

lone snag on hillside

double-trunked snag

fallen snag

snags are more alive than you might think

just look at those cavities

For more snag and nurse log fun, check out the following episodes of Boise Biophilia:

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This will be the last post for a few weeks as I will be taking a break to finish working on a related project. I hope to be back sometime in December with more posts, as well as the unveiling of what I have been working on. In the meantime, you can stay updated by following Awkward Botany on Twitter or Facebook.

Eating Weeds: Chicory

Over the course of human history, plant species once esteemed or considered useful have been recategorized into something less desirable. For one reason or another, plants fall out of favor or wear out their welcome, and, in come cases, are found to be downright obnoxious, ultimately losing their place in our yards and gardens. The particularly troublesome ones are branded as weeds, and put on our “do not plant” lists. These plants are not only unfavored, they’re despised. But being distinguished as a weed doesn’t necessary negate a plant’s usefulness. It’s likely that the plant still has some redeeming characteristics. We’ve just chosen instead to pay more attention its less redeeming ones.

Chicory is a good example of a plant like this. At one point in time, Cichorium intybus had a more prominent place in our gardens, right alongside dandelions in fact. European colonizers first introduced chicory to North America in the late 1700’s. Its leaves were harvested for use as a salad green and its roots were used to make a coffee additive or substitute. Before that, cultivation of chicory for these and other purposes had been going on across Europe for thousands of years, and it still goes on today to a certain extent. Along with other chicory varieties, a red-leafed form known as radicchio and a close cousin known as endive (Chicorium endivia) are grown as specialty crops, occassionally finding their way into our fanciest of salads.

Radicchio di Chioggia (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum) is a cultivated variety of chicory. (via wikimedia commons)

Chicory’s tough, adaptable nature and proclivity to escape cultivation have helped it become widespread, making itself at home in natural areas as well as urban and rural settings. Its perennial life history helps make it a fixture in the landscape. It sends down a long, sturdy taproot and settles in for the long haul. It tolerates dry, compacted soils with poor fertility and doesn’t shy away from roadside soils frequently scoured with salts. It’s as though it was designed to be a city weed.

Unlike many other perennial weeds, chicory doesn’t spread vegetatively. It starts its life as a seed, blown in from a nearby plant. After sprouting, it forms a dandelion-esque rosette of leaves during its first year. Wiry, branched stems rise up from the rosette in following years, reaching heights of anywhere from about a foot to 5 or 6 feet. When broken, leaves, stems, and roots ooze a milky sap. Abundant flowers form along the gangly stems. Like other plants in the aster family, each flower head is composed of multiple flowers. Chicory flower heads are all ray flowers, lacking the disc flowers found in the center of other plants in this family. The petals are a brilliant blue – sometimes pink or white. Individual flowers last less than a day and are largely pollinated by bees. The fruits lack the large pappus found on dandelions and other close relatives, but the seeds are still dispersed readily with the help of wind, animals, and human activity.

chicory (Cichorium intybus) via wikimedia commons

The most commonly consumed portions of chicory are its leaves and roots. Its flowers and flower buds are also edible. Young leaves and blanched leaves are favored because they are the least bitter. Excluding the leaves from light by burying or covering them up keeps them pale and reduces their bitter flavor. This is standard practice in the commercial production of certain chicory varieties. The taproots of chicory are dried, roasted, and ground for use as a coffee substitute. They are also harvested commercially for use as a natural sweetener due to their high concentration of inulin.

my puny chicory root

I harvested a single puny chicory root in order to make tea. On my bike ride to work there is a small, sad patch of chicory growing in the shade of large trees along the bike path. I was only able to pull one plant up by the roots. The others snapped off at the base. So, I took my tiny root, dried and roasted it in the oven, and ground it up in a coffee grinder. I followed instructions for roasting found on this website, but there are many other sources out there. I had just enough to make one small cup of tea, which reminded me of dandelion root teas I have had. Sierra found it to be very bitter, and I agreed but still enjoyed it. I figure that wild plants, especially those growing in stressful conditions like mine was, are likely to be more bitter and strong tasting compared to coddled, cultivated ones found in a garden.

roasted chicory root

roasted and ground chicory root

When I find a larger patch of feral chicory, I hope to try one of several recipes included in Luigi Ballerini’s book, A Feast of Weeds, as well as other recipes out there. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Are you curious to know how chicory became such a successful weed in North America? Check out this report in Ecology and Evolution to learn about the genetic explanation behind chicory’s success.

Seed Dispersal by Way of Tree Climbing Goats

Goats are surprisingly good climbers. Given the opportunity, they’ll climb just about anything, including each other. So what’s stopping them from climbing a tree, especially if there is something up there they can eat? And so they do. Tree climbing goats are such a fascinating sight, they even have their own calendar. But the story doesn’t end there. The goats find food in the trees, entertaining humans as they go; meanwhile, the trees have a reliable partner in the goats, who inadvertently help disperse the tree’s seeds.

In general, goats don’t need to climb trees to find food. Goats aren’t known to be picky eaters, and there is usually plenty for them to eat at ground level. However, in arid climates where food can become limited, ascending trees to eat foliage and fruits is a matter of survival. This is the case in southwestern Morocco, where goats can be found in the tops of argan trees every autumn gorging on the fruits of this desert tree.

goats in Argania spinosa via wikimedia commons

Argan (Argania spinosa) is a relatively short tree with a sprawling canopy and thorny branches. It is the only species in its genus and is endemic to parts of Morocco and neighboring Algeria. The tree is economically important to the area due to the oil-rich seeds found within its bitter fruits. Argan oil has a variety of culinary uses and is also used medicinally and in cosmetics. To get to the oil, goats are often employed in harvesting the fruits. The goats retrieve the fruits from the tops of the trees and consume their fleshy outer layer. The hard, seed-containing pits are expelled, collected, and cracked open to get to the seeds.

This is where a team of researchers from Europe come in. There has been some confusion as to how the pits are expelled, with some reports claiming that they pass through the goats digestive track and are deposited in their manure. This is a common way for the seeds of many other plant species to be dispersed, and is carried out not only by goats and other ruminants, but also by a wide variety of mammals, as well as birds and even reptiles. However, considering the average size of the pits (22 mm long x 15 mm wide), the researchers thought this to be unlikely.

fruits of Argania spinosa via wikimedia commons

Others reported that the seeds were spat out in the goats’ cud while they ruminated. Goats, like other ruminants, have stomachs composed of multiple compartments, the first of which being the rumen. Partially digested food, known as cud, is sent back into the mouth from the rumen for further chewing and may be spat out or swallowed again. Goats are known to ruminate in the same location that they defecate, which results in confusion as to when and how certain seeds, like those of the argan tree, are deposited.

By feeding various fruits to a group of goats, the researchers were able to test the hypothesis that seeds could be regurgitated and spat from the cud and that this is a viable method of seed dispersal. The researchers reported that larger seeds were more commonly spat out than smaller seeds, but that “almost any seed could be ejected during, mastication, spat from the cud, digested, or defecated.” The viability of spat out seeds was tested, and over 70% of them were found to be viable.

pits and seeds of Argania spinosa via wikimedia commons

This discovery suggests that seed dispersal via spitting by ruminants could be a common occurrence – possibly far more common than previously considered. The researchers postulate that studies that have only considered seeds dispersed in manure “may have underestimated an important fraction of the total number of dispersed seeds” and that the seeds spat from the cud likely represent different species from those commonly dispersed in dung. In addition, the seeds of some species don’t survive the digestive tract of ruminants, so “spitting from the cud may represent their only, or at least their main, dispersal mechanism.”

This study surrounding the argan trees was followed up by the same group of researchers with a literature review that was published last month. The review looked into all available studies that mentioned seed dispersal via regurgitation by ruminants. While they considered over 1000 papers, only 40 published studies were found to be relevant for the review. From these studies, they determined that the seeds of 48 plant species (representing 21 different families) are dispersed by being spat from a ruminant’s cud, and that most of these plant species are trees and shrubs whose fruits contain large seeds. Also of note is that ruminants across the globe are doing this – representatives from 18 different genera were mentioned in the studies.

ruminating goat via wikimedia commons

The researchers conclude that this is a “neglected” mechanism of seed dispersal. It’s difficult to observe, and in many cases it hasn’t even been considered. Like so many other animals, ruminants can disperse seeds in a variety of ways. Seeds can attach to their fur and be transported wherever they go. They can pass through their digestive track and end up in their dung, potentially far from where they were first consumed. And, as presented here, they can be spat out during rumination. Investigations involving all of these mechanisms and the different plant species involved will allow us to see, in a much clearer way, the role that ruminants play in the dispersal of seeds.

Using Weeds: Soapwort

Over the past year or so I have written about several edible weeds in an effort to highlight useful weeds. However, weeds don’t have to be edible to be useful. In fact, many weeds are most certainly not edible, but that doesn’t mean they are of no use to humans. Soapwort, for example, is poisonous, and while it does have a history of being used internally as medicine, ingesting it is not advised and should only be done under the direction of a doctor. A much less risky activity would be to make soap out of it.

soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Saponaria officinalis, commonly known as bouncing bet, hedge pink, fuller’s herb, scourwort, and soapweed or soapwort, is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe. It has been planted widely in flower beds and herb gardens outside of its native range, desired both for its beauty and utility. Capitalizing on our appreciation for it, soapwort has expanded beyond our garden borders and into natural areas, as well as vacant lots, roadsides, and other neglected spaces. Even in a garden setting it can be a bit of a bully, especially if ignored for a season or two.

The stems of soapwort grow to about two feet tall, are unbranched, and sometimes tinged with pink, purple, or red. The leaves are oblong and oppositely-arranged, and their bases form prominent collars around the stems. Showy clusters of flowers are found atop the stems throughout the summer. Like other flowers in the pink family (Caryophyllaceae), they are cigar-shaped at the base and opened wide at the end, showing off 5 distinct petals with notches at their tips. The petals of soapwort flowers bend backwards, with their sex parts protruding outwards. In his description of the flowers, John Eastman remarks in The Book of Field and Roadside that “the reflexed petals surrounding the sexual organs give the impression of flagrant thrust; this is a gaudy, unshy flower.”

collared stem of soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

The fragrant flowers are pink to white in color. They open in the evening and remain open for a few short days. In an individual flower, pollen matures and is mostly shed before the stigma is ready to accept it. This helps reduce the chance of self-pollination. Cross pollination occurs with the assistance of moths who visit the flowers at night, as well as bees and other flower-visiting insects that come along during the daytime. Soapwort fruits are oval capsules containing as many as 500 kidney-shaped seeds. Seeds aren’t essential to the plants spread though, as much of its colonization occurs via vigorous rhizomes.

In fact, vegetative reproduction is the means by which soapwort forms such expansive, thick patches. It also helps that it’s poisonous. The saponins – its soap making compounds – that it produces in its roots, shoots, and leaves deter most insects and other animals from eating it. It has a reputation for poisoning horses, cows, and other livestock, and so is unwelcome in pastures and rangelands. Saponins are also poisonous to fish, so growing soapwort near fish ponds is not advised.

soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Soapwort occurs in a variety of soils including sandy, dry, and rocky sites and is surprisingly drough-tolerant, fine qualities to have when colonizing neglected sites. While most other organisms ignore soapwort, it has a friend in humans. Eastman sums this up well: “Soapwort’s most important associate – as is true of most plants we label weeds – is undoubtedly humankind, without whose helpful interventions the plant would surely be much rarer than it is.”

I made a soapy liquid out of soapwort by following a recipe that can be found on various blogs and websites by searching “saponaria soap recipe.” Basically it’s a cup of fresh leaves and stems along with a cup of dried leaves and stems added to a quart of distilled water brought to a boil. After simmering for 15 minutes and then allowing it to cool, strain the mixture through cheese cloth, and it’s ready to go.

This gentle but effective soap can be used for cleaning countertops and other surfaces, as well as dishes, fabrics, and skin. Several sources say it is particularly useful for cleaning delicate fabrics. Sierra and I both found it to have a cooked cabbage or spinach scent to it. This can be masked by adding a few drops of essential oil. Despite its odd aroma, both Sierra and I were impressed by its cleansing power and plan to use it more often.

dried leaves of soapwort

soapwort soap

The Flight of the Dandelion

The common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) comes with a collection of traits that make it a very successful weed. Nearly everything about it screams success, from its asexually produced seeds to its ability to resprout from a root fragment. Evolution has been kind to this plant, and up until the recent chemical warfare we’ve subjected it to, humans have treated it pretty well too (both intentionally and unintentionally).

One feature that has served the dandelion particularly well is its wind-dispersed seeds. Dandelions have a highly-evolved pappus – a parachute-like bristle of hairs attached to its fruit by a thin stalk. The slightest breath or puff of wind will send this apparatus flying. Once airborne, a dandelion’s seed can travel up to a kilometer or more away from its mother plant, thereby expanding its territory with ease.

Such a low-growing plant achieving this kind of distance is impressive. Even more impressive is that it manages to do this with a pappus that is 90% empty space. Would you leap from a plane with only 10% of a parachute?

Dandelion flight was investigated by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who used a wind tunnel along with long-exposure photography and high-speed imaging to observe the floating pappus. Their research was presented in a letter published in an issue of Nature in October 2018. Upon close examination, they observed a stable air bubble floating above the pappus as it flew. This ring-shaped air bubble – or vortex – which is unattached to the pappus is known as a separated vortex ring. While this type of vortex ring had been considered theoretically, this marked the first time one had been observed in nature.

Seeing this type of air bubble associated with the dandelion’s pappus intrigued the researchers. About a 100 filaments make up the parachute portion of the pappus. They are arranged around the stalk, leaving heaps of blank space in between. The air bubble observed was not what was expected for such a porous object. However, the researchers found that the filaments were interacting with each other in flight, reducing the porosity of the pappus. In their words, “Neighboring filaments interact strongly with one another because of the thick boundary layer around each filament, which causes a considerable reduction in air flow through the pappus.”

The pappus acts as a circular disk even though it is not one, and its limited porosity allows just enough air movement through the filaments that it maintains this unique vortex. “This suggests,” the researchers write, “that evolution has tuned the pappus porosity to eliminate vortex shedding as the seed flies.” Fine-tuned porosity and the resultant unattached air bubble stabilizes the floating fruit “into an equilibrium orientation that minimizes [its] terminal velocity, allowing [it] to make maximal use of updrafts.” The result is stable, long distance flight.

Wind-dispersed seeds come in two main forms: winged and plumed. Winged seeds are common in trees and large shrubs. They benefit from the height of the tree which allows them to attain stable flight. While such seeds have the ability to travel long distances, their success is limited on shorter plants. In this case, plumed seeds, like those of the dandelion, are the way to go. As the researchers demonstrated, successful flight can be achieved by bristles in place of wings. The tiny seeds of dandelions seen floating by on a summer breeze are not tumbling through the air haphazardly; rather, they are flying steadily, on their way to spoil the dreams of a perfect lawn.

Further Reading (and Watching):

Investigating the Soil Seed Bank

Near the top of the world, deep inside a snow-covered mountain located on a Norwegian island, a vault houses nearly a million packets of seeds sent in from around the world. The purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is to maintain collections of crop seeds to ensure that these important species and varieties are not lost to neglect or catastrophe. In this way, our food supply is made more secure, buffered against the unpredictability of the future. Seed banks like this can be found around the world and are essential resources for plant conservation. While some, like Svalbard, are in the business of preserving crop species, others, like the Millennium Seed Bank, are focused on preserving seeds of plants found in the wild.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault via wikimedida commons

Outside of human-built seed banks, many plants maintain their own seed banks in the soil where they grow. This is the soil seed bank, a term that refers to either a collection of seeds from numerous plant species or, simply, the seeds of a single species. All seed bearing plants pass through a period as a seed waiting for the chance to germinate. Some do this quickly, as soon as the opportunity arises, while others wait, sometimes for many years, before germinating. Plants whose seeds germinate quickly, generally do not maintain a seed bank. However, seeds that don’t germinate right away and become incorporated in the soil make up what is known as a persistent soil seed bank.

A seed is a tiny plant encased in a protective layer. Germination is not the birth of a plant; rather, the plant was born when the seed was formed. The dispersal of seeds is both a spatial and temporal phenomenon. First the seed gets to where it’s going via wind, water, gravity, animal assistance, or some other means. Then it waits for a good opportunity to sprout. A seed lying in wait in the soil seed bank is an example of dispersal through time. Years can pass before the seed germinates, and when it does, the plant joins the above ground plant community.

Because seeds are living plants, seeds found in the soil seed bank are members of a plant community, even though they are virtually invisible and hard to account for. Often, the above ground plant community does not represent the population of seeds found in the soil below. Conversely, seeds in a seed bank may not be representative of the plants growing above them. This is because, as mentioned earlier, not all plant species maintain soil seed banks, and those that do have differences in how long their seeds remain viable. Depending on which stage of ecological succession the plant community is in, the collection of seeds below and the plants growing above can look quite different.

Soil seed banks are difficult to study. The only way to know what is truly there is to dig up the soil and either extract all the seeds or encourage them to germinate. Thanks to ecologists like Ken Thompson, who have studied seed banks extensively for many years, there is still a lot we can say about them. First, for the seeds of a plant to persist in the soil, they must become incorporated. Few seeds can bury themselves, so those with traits that make it easy for them to slip down through the soil will have a greater chance of being buried. Thompson’s studies have shown that “persistent seeds tend to be small and compact, while short-lived seeds are normally larger and either flattened or elongate.” Persistent seeds generally weigh less than 3 milligrams and tend to lack appendages like awns that can prevent them from working their way into the soil.

The seeds of moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria) are tiny and compact and known to persist in the soil for decades as revealed in Dr. Beal’s seed viability experiment. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Slipping into cracks in the soil is a major way seeds move through the soil profile, but it isn’t the only way. In a study published in New Phytologist, Thompson suggests that “the association between small seeds and possession of a seed bank owes much to the activities of earthworms,” who ingest seeds at the surface and deposit them underground. Later, they may even bring them back up the same way. Ants also play a role in seed burial, as well as humans and their various activities. Some seeds, like those of Avena fatua and Erodium spp., have specialized appendages that actually help work the seeds into the soil.

Not remaining on the soil surface keeps seeds from either germinating, being eaten, or being transported away to another site. Avoiding these things, they become part of the soil seed bank. But burial is only part of the story. In an article published in Functional Ecology, Thompson et al. state that burial is “an essential prelude to persistence,” but other factors like “germination requirements, dormancy mechanisms, and resistance to pathogens also contribute to persistence.” If a buried seed rots away or germinates too early, its days as a member of the soil seed bank are cut short.

The seeds of redstem filare (Erodium circutarium) have long awns that start out straight, then coil up, straighten out, and coil up again with changes in humidity. This action helps drill the seeds into the soil. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Soil seed banks can be found wherever plants are found – from natural areas to agricultural fields, and even in our own backyards. Thompson and others carried out a study of the soil seed banks of backyard gardens in Sheffield, UK. They collected 6 soil cores each (down to 10 centimeters deep) from 56 different gardens, and grew out the seeds found in each core to identify them. Most of the seeds recovered were from species known to have persistent seed banks, and to no surprise, the seed banks were dominated by short-lived, weedy species. The seeds were also found to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the soil cores. On this note, Thompson et al. remarked that due to “the highly disturbed nature of most gardens, regular cultivation probably ensures that seeds rapidly become distributed throughout the top 10 centimeters of soil.”

Like the seed banks we build to preserve plant species for the future, soil seed banks are an essential long-term survival strategy for many plant species. They are also an important consideration when it comes to managing weeds, which is something we will get into in a future post.

Tiny Plants: Idahoa

This is a post I wrote three years ago as a guest writer for a blog called Closet Botanist. That blog has since dissolved, hence the re-post.

This year, we returned to the location in the Boise Foothills where I encountered the plant that inspired this post. I found what might be seedlings of the tiny plant. If that’s the case, the phenology is a bit delayed compared to three years ago. I’ll check again in a week or so. Until then, meet Idahoa.

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I have taken a real liking to tiny plants. So many of the plants we regularly interact with are relatively big. Large trees loom above us. Tall shrubs greet us at eye level. Flowering perennials come up around our knees or higher. But how often do we get down low and observe the plants that hug the ground or that reach just a few centimeters above it? Turf grass is ubiquitous and groundcovers are common, but among such low growing plants (or plants kept low), even more diminutive species lurk.

It was a hunt for a tiny plant that sent me down a certain trail in the Boise Foothills earlier this spring. Listening to a talk by a local botanist at an Idaho Native Plant Society meeting, I learned about Idahoa scapigera. A genus named after Idaho!? I was immediately intrigued. Polecat Gulch was the place to see it, so off I went.

Commonly known as oldstem idahoa, flatpod, or Scapose scalepod, Idahoa scapigera is the only species in its genus. It is an annual plant in the mustard family, which means it is related to other small, annual mustard species like Draba verna. It is native to far western North America and is distributed from British Columbia down to California and east into Montana. It occurs in a variety of habitat types found in meadows, mountains, and foothills.

Idahoa scapigera is truly tiny. Before it flowers, it forms a basal rosette of leaves that max out at about 3 centimeters long. Next it sends up several skinny flower stalks that reach maybe 10 centimeters high (some are much shorter). One single flower is born atop each stalk. Its petite petals are white and are cupped by red to purple sepals. Its fruit is a flat round or oblong disk held vertically as though it is ready to give neighboring fruits a high five. Happening upon a patch of these plants in fruit is a real joy.

Which brings me to my hunt. It was the morning of March 20th (the first day of Spring) when I headed down the Polecat Gulch trail in search of Idahoa, among other things. The trail forms a loop around the gulch and is about 6 miles long with options for shortening the loop by taking trails that cut through the middle. I have yet to make it all the way around. Stopping every 10 yards to look at plants, insects, and other things makes for slow hiking.

I was about a half mile – 1 hour or more – into the hike when Idahoa entered my view. A group of them were growing on the upslope side of the trail, greeting me just below waist level. Many of them had already finished flowering and had fresh green fruits topping their thin stalks. At this location they are a late winter/early spring ephemeral. I made a mental note of the site and decided to return when the fruits had matured. Next year, I will head out earlier in hopes of catching more of them in flower.

On the way to Idahoa, I noted numerous other small, green things growing in the sandy soil. It turns out there are countless other tiny plants to see and explore. It got me thinking about all the small things that go unnoticed right underneath our feet or outside of our view. I resolved to move slower and get down lower to observe the wonders I’ve been overlooking all this time.

Further Reading: