Nature Column 10.16

On a recent foray to a fading wildflower patch I was mesmerized by all the different seed pods and casings to be found within a few feet of each other. I picked a few to put in my pocket to sketch and paint later and continued my wanderings to see what I could see.

It was a lovely day with plenty of sunshine, but also plenty of wind. Tufts of tiny white feathery parachutes sailed through the air, given a boost by the breeziness of the day. These were seeds of milkweed, thistles and other flowers, drifting through the air with no chosen destination, just an extended plan of sorts, for new places to grow and continued survival.

Over the years this area has changed a lot. We might think of plants as stuck in the mud, stay-at-home types, but many plants move about, or walk, as a botanist friend of mine once described it. A plant that grew in one place one year can easily sprout up somewhere different the next. It all depends on how the seeds fall.

When I got home I spread the seed pods and seed heads out on my studio table. The drifty types either stuck to my hand or drifted away. Some seeds stayed in my pocket, reluctant to be pulled out of a warm and comfy place until I turned the pocket inside out to retrieve them.

As a child I thought plants were boring as heck. They didn’t move or make noise or do anything cute. Give me a snake or a toad or a bunny any day. I knew plants were important; they just didn’t excite me. My mother spent hours in her garden every week and tried to engage me, but I was much more interested in the worms, birds and naughty chipmunks that taunted her daily. I did learn how to tell a few weeds from the flowers she wanted to keep, but even then I was confused about good plants and bad plants. Didn’t they all have flowers?

Years passed, and I found myself becoming intrigued by plants. Their survival skills can’t be beat. They have adaptations for all sorts of outrageous habitats. They can break apart rocks and grow up through concrete. They trade off oxygen for carbon dioxide with us minute by minute and give us water and shade, fuel and building materials. They don’t talk much, but they have much to teach us. They are much stronger than they appear, a skill that comes in handy.

As our time stuck at home dragged on I found myself planting seeds and nurturing them in all available windowsills. I’ve always grown tomatoes and some flowers from seed, but this year I grew even more, eager to get outside and watch my garden grow. I am, after all, that contrary Mary. I have very little space in my yard, but my seeds didn’t know that. They grew like the heroes I knew they would be. I sighed as I set them out. I found spots between other plants. I planted more seeds outdoors. Morning glories, nasturtiums, zinnias and cosmos all had their places.

We enlarged the vegetable garden and built a new fence. I got tough with some of the so-called weeds that had taken over parts of my yard. Queen Anne’s lace and evening primrose are lovely, but I didn’t need hundreds of each. I let some of them grow in a spot I left wild along with pokeweed, curly dock and butter-and-eggs. There is some red clover there and lady’s thumb, all plants others call weeds, but that birds, butterflies and other animals call food. The summer was long and hot. Tomatoes were superstars, and many of my other herbs and veggies did well, too. There was bee balm and mint, sunflowers and coneflowers, lavender and tansy, basil and bush beans.

Whenever I went out walking I found myself musing over berries and fruits growing wild all around me. I watched seed pods form and develop over weeks, and I waited for milkweed pods to split and share their wealth with the land around them. I watched goldfinches eat the seeds of my coneflowers gone by as the squirrels carried off the last of the sunflower heads.

As I sat down to draw and paint my collection of seeds, a small explosion caught my attention. One of the small pods had split open, expelling the seeds with impressive force. Some hit the opposite wall, 12 feet away.

Seeds are amazing survivors. They withstand all sorts of weather conditions. Some can survive being eaten and then pooped out. They can go dormant for long or short periods of time. Many types of seeds can go without water or food for extended lengths of time. They carry their entire future within them. They root themselves where they are planted. Some will thrive and some will perish, but all will ultimately provide food, their lives vindicated, no matter how long or short.

The last few months have been tough in many ways, but, to be honest, the time I’ve spent with seeds and plants feels nourishing and rewarding.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.

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