Much more to seeds than meets the eye

Posted: Wednesday, August 23, 2000

Seeds serve to pass along the plants genes, colonize more territory, replace aging or senescent individuals of the colony, or to serve as the currency with which they pay their animal servants. They contain all that is needed to carry the species to new territories, or to survive devastation and disaster in the current home.

The abilities of seeds to endure hardships and survive the passage of hundreds of years and still germinate and grow are well documented. Seeds of a Lotus were successfully grown after being removed from an Egyptian burial vessel that had been underground for 2,000 years. Long-extinct varieties of grain have been resuscitated from the funereal offerings of Mediterranean kings and viable plants have been grown from seed exposed to the thermonuclear blasts.

Hardy, compact and incredibly elegant to see, the seeds of the world's plants are treasures beyond expression. They have been traded, stolen or given as gifts, carried as good luck charms, crushed for color, eaten and worn as ornaments. They can be chewed for flavoring or for medicinal effects, used in musical instruments, exchanged as money, bartered or sold and, more often than not, planted.

Our local seed cycle is rising to the crest of the wave right now; Fireweed, Devils Club, Indian Paintbrush, Beach Wildrye, Bluestem, Meadow Barley and hundreds more are ripening. They swell with stored sugars and energy, glow with promise and beckon to harvesters and predators to come and get them. Just as the incredible swarms of insects draw bug-eating birds from the whole world, the grasslands and shoreline marshes draw the seed-eaters to their bounty.

We see the busy creatures filling themselves with the produce of the wetlands, laying up stores for the next weather cycle. This is only part of the story. Most of the seed-eaters are too small for our casual observations; they are burrowing into the clusters of seeds, tunneling into the rich interiors of the heads, filling themselves and then eating more. Insects, caterpillars, worms, mites and a myriad of tiny creatures look at the seed riches of the local flora as their sustenance.

Berries and all those berrylike fruits that we see on the shrubs and trees are also seed distribution routes. Any seed from a fruit that gets eaten will find its entry into the world well-supplied with nutrients in the form of animal wastes. Birds, deer, bears, porcupines, marmots and kids all graze on the fruits, passing the seeds on with their blessings. Dogwoods, crabapples, Highbush Cranberries, blueberries, elderberries, salmonberries and every other type of fruit are grist for this mill, with the possible exception of Baneberry.

Take any of the popular hikes, from the Dike rail to the Equestrian Loop, and you will be overwhelmed with the abundance of seed, be it encased in these fruits or waving nakedly on the grasses and sedges. Wild Irises, Alaskan Cotton, Sitka Sedge, or Rattlebox, Chocolate Lilly, Lupine, Showy Aster or Ox-Eye Daisy, all are beginning to show ripe seed. The seed can be collected so that you can have the wild Alaskan garden in your own home.

I collect seed every year; grass seed for wildlife habitat restoration, Sedges and forbs for erosion control and wetland restoration, alder and cottonwood for bankside stabilization work and wildflowers for recreating the natural beauty in smaller, less lucky places. For almost 20 years school age kids have been picking bunchberry, Lowbush Cranberry and Wild Crabapple fruits for me, many have paid for their school clothes every year. Some now take groups of younger kids out and they all pick all day.

Alaskan seed has made its way to other places too; the forests of Iceland are all derived from seed gathered in Southeast Alaska, and they have made an industry, growing Alaskan plants to revegetate their island. All around the older neighborhoods of Douglas and Juneau are Icelandic Birch trees sent as thank yous from the Icelanders.

The Creeping Dogwood or bunchberry seed that the school kids gathered has made its way to Germany via the Dutch, and the fact that it comes from Alaska is not missed. The need for hardy plants able to grow under tough inhospitable conditions has made Southeast Alaskan seed desirable. It really is a treasure growing out there.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions may be sent to

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