Vol­un­teers in the gar­den

How plants travel with­out feet

Ontario Gardener Magazine - - Contents - By Dorothy Dob­bie

Alarge maple dom­i­nates the back gar­den. It vol­un­teered to do this with­out any help from its hu­man host, hid­ing for the first few years of its life among the many canes of a snow­ball vibur­num. By the time its pres­ence was re­al­ized, nei­ther the vibur­num nor the gar­dener had the heart and strength to van­quish it.

Along the foun­da­tion, a bur oak is de­ter­mined to take up res­i­dence. In the front gar­den, a Rus­sian elm has strug­gled with the owner for its very ex­is­tence for years. Many in­cip­i­ent Amur maples have been plucked out by the roots be­fore they can as­sert them­selves.

Vol­un­teers such as these in this gar­den have al­tered its shape and of­ten thwarted the will of the gar­dener.

Trees are not the only plants that vol­un­teer. Lovely peren­ni­als will sud­denly ap­pear with no ap­par­ent source but are more than wel­come nonethe­less. An­nu­als, too, travel in the most charm­ing way, tak­ing up res­i­dence in what ap­pears to be the very best pos­si­ble spot. Of­ten this hap­pens in your own gar­den, where a plant seems to have grown a pair of feet and re­moved it­self to a bet­ter lo­ca­tion with­out your in­ter­ven­tion. Some­times, squir­rels are the gar­den agents. They will of­ten move bulbs so that sud­denly you in­herit a gor­geous new species which shows up like a gar­den mir­a­cle one spring.

Birds are also a big help to the gar­den vol­un­teer. Some birds have a co-op­er­a­tive re­la­tion­ship with plants. Mistle­toe, for ex­am­ple, is cov­ered with a sticky sub­stance. While feed­ing, some of the seeds stick to the bird’s beak. To get rid of them, the bird rubs its beak against a tree (just where the mistle­toe wants to take root). Bird cherry has to pass through a bird’s di­ges­tive sys­tem in or­der to ger­mi­nate. Some­times the bird car­ries seeds in its claws as part of its nest­build­ing ac­tiv­ity. Berries and other fruits are dis­persed through the avian di­ges­tive sys­tem and they gain sus­te­nance from the pro­tec­tive cov­er­ing from the seeds.

Of­ten care­ful and con­cerned gar­den­ers blame man for the in­tro-

duc­tion of non-na­tive species to new lo­ca­tions. But na­ture is pretty good at do­ing this with­out our help. Seeds can be car­ried by wa­ter, on flot­sam and jet­sam in the oceans and along river sys­tems. Co­conuts are par­tic­u­larly good at float­ing long dis­tances to new lo­ca­tions.

Plants and seeds can even be spread by hur­ri­canes and tor­na­does, which have the abil­ity to pick up an­i­mals as well as plant life and de­posit them many miles from their ori­gins. The wind is very good at be­ing an agent for plants, trans­port­ing del­i­cate seeds that are spe­cially de­signed to take ad­van­tage of gentle breezes for their lo­co­mo­tion. Dan­de­lion seeds and maple seeds are two ex­cel­lent ex­am­ples of plants that have adapted to take ad­van­tage of the wind.

Squir­rels are not the only an­i­mal friends of wan­der­ing plants. All sorts of an­i­mals move seeds (burrs), which hitch­hike by catch­ing on fur or pant legs or by pass­ing through di­ges­tive sys­tems.

Some seeds put a large amount of en­ergy into dis­pers­ing them­selves, ex­plod­ing when ripe. Good ex­am­ples in­clude the group of plants called touch-me-not, oth­er­wise known as part of the im­pa­tiens fam­ily. These plants pro­duce seed pods that lit­er­ally blow up when ripe and touched by an an­i­mal or a strong wind. The wild cu­cum­ber is an­other ex­am­ple of this.

Even ants get into the act, and their act even has a name: myrme­chory. About 3,000 plant species use this method of seed dis­per­sal. Plants de­velop seeds with yummy (to ants) seed coat­ings on them. The ants eat the good part, then dis­card the seeds in their ant garbage dumps, which are usu­ally nice, well aer­ated piles of soil, and . . well, you know the rest. Ap­par­ently about one third of seeds, from the aca­cia tree to vi­o­lets, are moved and trans­planted this way! Cer­tain ants eat seeds and dis­perse some of them through their di­ges­tive tracts, too.

In fact, the much-loved rooi­bos or red­bush tea from Africa is avail­able to us be­cause peo­ple dis­cov­ered that the seeds stored by ants in their nests were eas­ier to ger­mi­nate.

Fluc­tu­a­tions in cli­mate can also cause plant mi­gra­tion and the di­a­monds of north­ern Canada are ev­i­dence of a very dif­fer­ent cli­mate in the po­lar re­gion eons ago.

Some plants travel un­der­ground, through their root sys­tems, cloning them­selves and form­ing groves and colonies that can ex­ist for many years. We gar­den­ers call this “suck­er­ing” and we re­sent it al­most as much as the self-sow­ing of maples.

It’s all okay, though. Gar­den­ers vary a great deal in tem­per­a­ment and in tol­er­ance for nat­u­ral or­der. Some wish to pre­side with great author­ity over what grows and thrives within the spa­ces they have cho­sen to con­trol. Oth­ers take a much more lais­sez faire at­ti­tude of live-and-letlive and en­joy the in­tel­li­gent way that vol­un­teers ar­range them­selves for beauty and har­mony in a gar­den.

If you find a vol­un­teer in your gar­den, pluck it or let it be. In this space, you are al­lowed to ex­er­cise the power of choice. And your choices have no at­tached moral­ity.

Maple seeds, called sa­mara, can travel far and wide on the wind, choos­ing their own place to grow.

Cos­mos are ex­cel­lent trav­ellers in the gar­den.

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