As I was juicing some fragrant apples left for us by the visiting black bears, I held some of the shiny mahogany-colored apple seeds in my hands. I recalled the kids’ entertaining themselves by stringing seeds for necklaces after using my super heavy, old Champion juicer back in the day. Simple pleasures.
The apple seeds also brought to mind the diverse ways nature has of distributing seeds. Seed dispersal is unique to each species. Some seeds are equipped with ‘wings’ shaped to make use of the wind with specialized hair-like structures, while other seeds are like feathers floating away to greener pastures. Poplar and willow disperse seeds in cloud-like froths of ‘fur’ that enable the seeds to glide away in a breeze, or even float upon water for days in order to disperse themselves. Of course, dandelion seeds disperse via miniature seed parachutes.
In Seeds- Time Capsules of Life by Bob Kesseler and Wolfgang Stuppy describe the impressive seed dispersal method of some types of owl’s clover. This unique plant’s seeds are designed with an astonishing honeycomb-like structure that is nature’s way of engineering for seed stability while reducing the weight of the seed. The design also permits the seed to ‘catch’ onto vegetation in order for germination to take place. Picture the mighty oak emerging from the small, unassuming acorn when a tremendous tap root emerges and anchors it to Earth. The microscopic landscape of its underground toil involves all of its miraculous parts: cell, cytoplasm, and cotyledons those embryonic seed leaves that await their job.
The initial science that makes life in all of its shapes and forms is invisible to the naked eye. Although I can appreciate the beauty and mystery that unfolds all about me on a daily basis, the common currency of scientific description that informs these life processes can sometimes present roadblocks in the highway of my understanding those complexities. But give me an ‘A’ for effort.
For example, when studying a seemingly simple plant structure in order to understand the elements that set forth its growth and genetic control over time, plant biologist, in his book Seed to Seed: The Secret Life of Plants, by Nicholas Harberd follows a miniscule weed that grows wild in a country churchyard and discloses his research done concurrently in his lab to study the plants’ genetics. The intricate process requires that the plant’s DNA has to be separated from the other components making up the plant. His process includes crushing seedlings in liquid nitrogen, next, incubating what then becomes an extract using enzymes so that its proteins are digested to then reveal the plant’s DNA! Queue Johann Strauss and the theme song from the movie 2001 A Space Oddyessy as the DNA’s informational structure reveals its hidden organization of genes!
As I walk a winter path lined with skeletal remnants of grasses and wild sunflowers, I envision the same spot fast-forwarded to spring and summer months when plump and verdant growth is in evidence. In order for these hardy plants to survive the blasts of cold winds, frost, and snow, these ‘intelligent’ plants needed to go dormant or drop seeds into the soil below during the falling temperatures. Somehow, they ‘knew’ to activate genes that miraculously protect them from freezing to death. Some plants have the ability to convert the damaging effects of freezing water by lowering the freezing point of water within their plant cells. All of this connectivity – the plants to the weather and the nature of plants that allows the plant to change within the circle of time and process, serves to electrify me into knowing that, although I don’t possess the brain of a biologist, I appreciate understanding how much I don’t – and maybe never – will know about biology.
There is a kind of magic that is kindled by nature that, in all of my clumsy exuberance, forces me to concentrate on a single aspect of our wide universe in order to glimpse behind the curtain. Then I am privileged to catch some of the difficult-to-grasp workings of our world. Catch it if you can- the seasonal slant of the sun, the world’s wispy, fragile process of decomposition, and all of the myriad, fervent undercurrents running through the natural world.