Spreading seed - so much more than just a gross euphemism found in 1970s sex education videos. Below are some of our favourite examples from the myriad, incredible ways that different plants have evolved to ensure their survival.
Ballistic Dispersal: The Joel Schumachers Of The Plant World
Californian poppies, pansies, other plants that manage to fling ripe seeds in all directions… presumably they only exist to engage the attention of bored ten year old boys in science lessons, right? WRONG. They are of course an incredibly sensible and legitimately impressive way to ensure the survival of their species (you can see the action movie tagline already can’t you?).
The daddy amongst these guys - the Con Air if you will - is the sandbox tree, which features exploding pumpkin-shaped seeds that omit a loud bang upon dispersal (said to sound like a hand grenade by many in the presumably excitement-starved world of botany).
According to some loser on IMDB, Transformers 2 had over 500 explosions. Imagine how many the entire world’s worth of sandbox trees have to their name? Don’t worry Michael Bay, I’m already writing the script.
Animal Dispersal: The enduring nightmare of the fig wasp life cycle
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At the risk of putting you off your fancy salads and favourite desserts, the continued existence of fig trees is reliant on a unique relationship with that least palatable of insects: the wasp. Figs aren’t actually a fruit - they’re what’s known as an inflorescence, with a complex array of flowers and seeds in need of a uniquely honed pollinator… that’s where the queen of the fig wasp comes in. Burrowing through the smallest of cavities in order to find a suitable chamber for egg-laying, she simultaneously sprinkles pollen from other figs as she goes: essentially fertilising the fig’s ‘ovaries’.
It’s already gross I know, but its about to get worse (though it is a genuinely fascinating example of coevolution and I say that as someone who hates creepy crawlies).
The male and female offspring of the queen wasp then mate with each other immediately. While the females collect pollen, the wingless males burrow an escape route for the females that they themselves will never make. The female wasps then take flight, off to become queens in their own right and pollinating further figs in the process.
Wind Dispersal: Propeller Heads
After the nightmare of the fig wasps, let’s salute the gentle delights of the winged dispersers. Maple, ash and sycamore are just some of the trees that produce seeds with aerodynamic, ‘winged’ structures.
I strongly associate the sycamore seeds with long summer days spent in parks as an introverted, bookworm-kid deprived of solitary indoor activities, forced to endure the great outdoors of a boringly landscaped urban park. There I would stand beneath the trees as my peers ran wild on the climbing frames, lost in the fluttering envelope of delicate seeds as they span pleasingly to the ground (this was before I embraced football in year 5 and became a total lad, obviously).
Water Dispersal: Floating Coconuts
Plants and trees that grow on tropical beaches often use the ocean as a means of seed dispersal - the coconut is amongst those vessels that take to the water in search of new life. It’s funny, I’d never really considered the practical applications of the coconut’s instantly recognisable makeup before, beyond its obvious use as a comedic tool for dropping on characters’ heads in vaguely questionable fish out of water movies from the past. Turns out that the large, fibre-filled fruits are able to survive for long periods of times afloat the water, thanks to the air pockets that aid buoyancy.
Next time you’re negotiating a hangover with the help of a coconut water, or splashing its milk around a wok in a valiant attempt to conjure curry just think: that coconut could have crossed OCEANS. Or more likely just bobbed around amongst a load of wasted gap year kids in neon face paint dancing knee-deep to terrible commercial dance music, but still.
Floating coconut from artforconservation. org