Today really felt like Fall, so I took a hike through the Nature Preserve to look for the Fruit of the Forest. Most of the plants we now have are angiosperms, or flowering plants that then bear seeds. The variety of ways plants use to make and distribute seeds is absolutely mind-boggling. Each plant grows the seed, then puts it in some kind of protective coating, and finds a way to distribute it and grow new little trees.
The beautiful pink blossoms of the redbud tree and the white dogwoods usually come at the same time during the spring, and often, that’s the only part of the tree’s lifecycle that we pay any attention to. In the fall, we see their seeds – bright red berries for the dogwood, and brown seed pods on the redbud.
Many trees and shrubs bear red berries, and I must think that the red color makes them more attractive to birds and animals who eat them and then distribute the seeds. Plants don’t care if they are native or non-native. They just want to grow and reproduce. And sometimes, the non-native plants seem to out produce the native plants. We seem to have more bush honeysuckle and autumn olive in the preserve than the plants we want to see growing. Survival is survival to the plants.
Seed pods are a common way to protect your seeds. The Kentucky Coffee Tree grows large pods with only a few seeds in each. The fruit of Kentucky coffee tree is a typical legume pod, but the flowers are not the typical pea-like form most people associate with legumes. There is some evidence to indicate that the Kentucky coffee tree was introduced into Kentucky by Native Americans, who used pulp from its wood to treat insanity. A tea made from leaves and pulp was used as a laxative. The seeds of Kentucky coffee tree were used by early settlers as a substitute for coffee.
As the American chestnut struggles with disease, the blight-resistant Chinese chestnut is quickly gaining popularity. The sweet-tasting nuts are often roasted for holiday eating and have been made famous in turkey stuffing recipes across the country. It yields a ripened nut crop mid/late September through October. A prickly 2–3½” seed husk encloses 1-4 nuts. The nuts are large, meaty, crisp, and sweet, although less sweet than American chestnuts. Don’t pick up the husk in your bare hands – they are very prickly. Squirrels don’t seem to have any trouble breaking the husk open with their mouths though.
The American Sycamore bark— a “camouflage” pattern of peeling patches, like tan, gray and brown puzzle pieces—eventually turns to a smooth white on the mature trunk and branches. Fruit of sycamore are brown, woody balls that can be seen on the tree starting from October. They remain on the tree during the winter. Fully ripe fruit splits to release seed. Seeds of sycamore are arranged in V-shaped pairs and equipped with wings that facilitate dispersal by wind. One tree produces up to 10,000 seed per season. Sycamore seed are known as “helicopters” because of their wings that rotate similar to helicopter’s propeller on a wind.
Don’t confuse the sycamore balls with the sweet gum balls. When I was a girl, we would dip the prickly gum balls into glue and cover them with glitter to make terrific Christmas tree decorations!
The eastern red cedar produces rounded fruit that is gray or bluish-green in color and about ¼” in diameter. This fruit resembles a berry but is actually a cone made of fused cone scales. Eastern redcedar twigs and foliage are eaten by browsers while the fruit is eaten most extensively by cedar waxwings. Smash one between your fingers and you will notice a pungent odor as well as finding one to four seeds inside. Does this smell like something you would like to eat? If you see any birds eating these berries, you will notice that they don’t exactly savor the sauce, but just gobble the little treats down. The seeds pass on through the bird’s gut unharmed and are “planted” elsewhere as they move about. This is a typical method that plants use to scatter their seeds. However, red cedars are either male trees or female trees, so don’t be surprised if there are no berries on an individual tree.
Many black walnuts grow at the Nature Preserve. When surrounded by other trees in the forest, black walnut grows straight and tall with few, if any, lower branches. When planted in the open, the tree will branch out closer to the ground, developing a spreading shape that makes it easier to harvest its sweet, round, two- to three-inch nuts. The settlers snacked on the nutritious nuts out of hand, added them to soups and stews, and ground them into meal for baking; the hard shells provided a perfect package for storing the nuts over winter. Unfortunately, the black walnut does have a dark side. Its roots, which may extend 50 feet or more from the trunk, exude a natural herbicide known as juglone that prevents many plants from growing within their reach. The fruit of Black Walnut is composed of an inner kernel, surrounded by a hard corrugated round shell composed of two fused halves. This in turn is surrounded by a thick outer husk that is green when immature, and yellow-black when ripe. If ripe fruits are picked up, a brown-black dye will easily seep from the moist husk into the skin of your hand, rendering them stained for a couple of days.
As well as the belief in the good fortune of its storied seed, the buckeye has been held to cure rheumatism and other, more minor ailments. Pioneering farm families also made soap from the kernels of buckeye seeds, and many a child’s cradle was carved from the wood of this tree. Before the advent of synthetic materials, buckeye wood was used to make artificial limbs. Though native to rich woodland areas in Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida, it is winter hardy throughout .
The Beech produces a nut known as beechnut or mast. It appears in pairs, located in the spiny husk divided in few lobes. Beechnut contains high level of tannic acid which creates bitter taste of the fruit. Beechnut was used as food for the cattle in the past. Many forest mammals and birds consume beechnuts as a regular part of their diet. If the mast production is low, the animals that depend on it will suffer during the winter.