Seeds, Up Close and Personal

Seeds. They’re everywhere.  Chances are you’ve probably eaten some today already.  I had a number of them on the outside of my bagel (which was made from ground up seeds) and ground up a bunch to make my coffee.  Most of the seeds we encounter as food have been bred to be bigger and tastier for our human appetites.  The seeds on non-domesticated plants, i.e. native wildflowers, have evolved their own special adaptations to appeal to the animals that consume and spread them.  They also have other interesting features that aid in their dispersal and germination so they can become new little plants.  The trouble is most of them are really small, and its hard to see those features.  Fortunately we have a microscope at the farm.  After many hours of the often mind-numbing task of removing the seeds from their capsules and screening out all the associated detritus I decided to take a break yesterday and look at some of my cleaned seeds a little closer.  Fortunately I was able to get my camera to focus through 2 extra lenses and was able to get a nice set of photos.

IMG_5446A familiar looking seed from the Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) as it resembles the big fat sunflower seeds you see in the grocery store from it’s cousin Helianthus annus.  IMG_5449

Another familiar looking seed from the bean family (Fabaceae), these are from Wild White Indigo (Baptisia alba). You can see the tiny umbilicus on the one where it was attached to the seed pod.IMG_5454

This seed and pod are from American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata). It looks like a tiny brain to me. IMG_5453

False Aloe (Manfreda virginica) seeds look very similar to the seeds of their cousin, Yucca, but just a bit smaller.IMG_5452

Swamp Hibiscus (Hibiscus grandiflorus) surprised me with these stripes. I was immediately reminded of clam shells and how they form by adding layer upon layer.IMG_5450

Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) is one of the few cylindrical seeds I’ve ever seen. They form stacked end to end in a tubular capsule.


By far the biggest seed I looked at, Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)  might have broken the 1 cm barrier.  I have planted plenty of these seeds, but I had never noticed the tiny hairs.  They just look smooth to the naked eye.


Like a crazy toy troll, these Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginianum) seeds have some wild hair. The mass of seeds looks like a puff of cotton on the plant, but here you can see the individual wiry hairs that encase the seed and help it float away on the breeze.  IMG_5439

I accidentally crushed one of these Skullcap (Scutellaria nervosa) seeds while I was moving it with tweezers.  The previous seeds were small, but these are tiny. I zoomed in another quarter turn on the microscope to take this. They look like perfect little spheres to the naked eye, but zoom in and they are anything but smooth. IMG_5441

Another one with hair, but this one has a comb.  These Blue Mistflower (Conclinum coelestrum) seeds also have hairs that are meant to catch the breeze and pull them along like an upturned umbrella. I was confused as to what that blurry violet stuff was, but then I realized that it’s the flowers! Each of those tiny flowers has a tube going down to an ovary.  When pollen is transferred to the flower, it is transported down the tube and a seed forms. Every single one of those tiny little flowers was visited by a pollinator to make every single one of these tiny little seeds.


And speaking of pollinators, the ones who made all of these seeds possible, here is a bee.  I’m not sure how she died (possibly all that arctic air), but she was on the porch and I suppose can live on in a blog post.  All the little hairs coming out of the compound eye were very interesting to me.  You can really see how pollen would get stuck to all those hairs.

There are plenty of seed heads out there right now.  Break one open and look closely at what’s inside.  Get out your hand lens or a magnifying glass.  Thank a pollinator and then cast the seeds to the wind.

The Life and Times of the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus)












One of the most rewarding aspects of planting a pollinator/wildlife garden is watching the life cycle of caterpillars and the resulting butterflies play out in your backyard. I was lucky enough to bear witness to such a process involving the Spicebush Swallowtail over the past  6-8 months, and, fortunately for you, I had my camera handy for most of it!

A quick refresher lesson in butterfly life cycles:  Adult butterflies feed on the nectar of a variety of plants to gain the energy to search for a mate. Once they mate the females lay eggs on a suitable host plant.  This relationship is one of the most fascinating parts of the process. Some butterflies will lay eggs on a variety of plants, usually limited to a specific plant family, such as Rosaceae (Rose Family).  This means that the caterpillars that hatch from the eggs could feed on the leaf of a rose, an apple tree, a hawthorn, a plum tree, or a strawberry plant and be perfectly happy and healthy.  Other butterflies will only lay eggs on specific plants such as the famous Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), which lays eggs on, and whose caterpillars eat only Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.).  

The female, after mating with a male, will seek out an appropriate host plant on which to lay her eggs.  She uses her compound eyes to locate plants and then lands on a leaf and drums on it with her forelegs.  Specialized chemical receptors in the forelegs can sense/taste/smell the leaf and its chemical exhalations and confirm or deny the host-worthiness of the plant.  Spicebush Swallowtails lay eggs exclusively on plants in the Lauraceae family (Magnolia Order), which includes Spicebush (Lindera bezoin); Sassafras (Sassafras albidum); Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana); and Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera). 

Once the eggs hatch the caterpillars emerge and begin to eat, and eat, and eat the leaves of the host plant until they are large enough to shed a skin.  They do this four or five times, and each new skin is called an ‘instar.’  Once they have grown sufficiently and stored enough leaf energy to pupate they shed one last skin and what emerges is a chrysalis in which the transformation to a butterfly is completed. Before the last skin shed the caterpillar anchors itself to a leaf, twig, brick, pot, or other stable surface with silk wires, and the hardened chrysalis hangs by these delicate wires for the duration of the transformation.  The adult butterfly emerges to feed on the nectar of flowers and find a mate and the whole process starts over. 

So, let’s rewind back to September of last year.  I’m in the nursery and I see some leaf damage to the Spicebushes (Lindera bezoin) and start hunting for the culprit. 


This is one of the earlier stages of the caterpillar, in which it is camouflaged to look like bird droppings. The Spicebush Swallowtail’s entire life cycle is marked by camouflage and visual deception.


This little guy spends the days in a rolled up leaf to hide from birds and other predators and comes out at night to feed on the leaves of the plant.  The leaf rolling mechanism is one of those amazing feats of natural engineering that’s also so simple that it leaves you speechless.


 The caterpillar attaches threads of silk to the leaf on either side of the leaf mid-vein and as the silk dries it pulls the leaf around the caterpillar.  When I let go of the leaf edges it instantly wrapped back up.

 That was the initial contact. in the coming weeks I noticed several more caterpillars, and then I saw one that had made it to the next stage, or instar, in which it’s meant to resemble a snake.


 The body swells at the end and the “eyes” (which are just skin coloration, the actual eyes are further down the head) become more prominent.


It does look like a snake’s head at least.  Still hiding in that leaf.

I didn’t get a picture of the next phase, in which the caterpillar gets even bigger and turns a yellowish-orange color before anchoring itself to something and shedding its final skin to emerge as a chrysalis.  I did find several of those a few weeks later.


Here is one right on the Spicebush.  I also found them on neighboring plants, and some were even in between the pots that hold the plants.  Look at the industrious use of the two silk lines and the anchored base to hold it upright and steady.


It was pretty cool to see just how many little future butterflies our population of Spicebushes were supporting.  We had about 60 one year old plants in the nursery, which would probably have the equivalent number of leaves as two or three fully grown plants. I  didn’t get to see any of these hatch, but I did find a few empty ones later.

So, the winter came, and the plants lost their remaining leaves, and the food source was gone. About a month ago the Spicebush broke dormancy and began putting out new leaves.  One month is about the time required for a caterpillar to go from egg to butterfly. Just the other day I was in the greenhouse when I spotted a young, probably newly hatched, butterfly on some phlox.


It stayed there until I startled it about 2 hours later, and it moved toward the wall where I was able to get a great shot of it flexing.


  I still thought it was a Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) but that’s partially because that’s what it wants you to think.  Especially if you are a bird.  Pipevine swallowtails feed on Aristilochia species and, much like the Monarchs and milkweed, that makes them taste bad/toxic as caterpillars and even as adults.  Birds learn not to eat the foul tasting butterflies that are also black with white, orange and blue markings, and these guys get a free pass by association.


This picture is why I was able to definitively ID it as a Spicebush Swallowtail. It’s still lacking the white spots on the very outer tips of its wings, which I thought suggested it was still very young.  That and the larger than normal abdomen along with the time of year.  

Here’s a few of the links I used to learn all this stuff:


Trees Atlanta Sale Preview

As you may have read on our events calendar, facebook, twitter, etc. we are providing some of the plants for Trees Atlanta’s 1st Annual Native Perennial Wildflower Sale.  Just to be clear: they’re selling perennials and this will be a recurring yearly event.

We have had their plants in the greenhouse for a few months now to get them to break winter dormancy a little early so they’ll be all leafed out in time for the sale April 6th.  Here’s a few shots of the sorts of plants you can buy at their sale.

 The Red Columbine (Acquilegia canadensis) have already started to bloom!

 The Celadine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) have also started blooming, but that’s normal even outside the greenhouse.  The ones in my backyard look very similar.

 The Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) are the main impetus for speeding up the plants’ spring awakening.  They are notoriously hard to grow in pots and the roots tend to rot over the winter if left out in the rain, so we wanted to make sure we had good strong viable plants.   Looks like they made it.

 The False Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis)  has leafed out very nicely in the past few weeks.  The foliage is a striking blue-green hue that looks great in bright sun.

 The (sadly) rare and threatened Georgia Aster (Stmphyotrichum georgianum) never lost it’s leaves.  It’s one tough plant.

 The Narrowleaf Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) is starting to demonstrate its ability to grow very large and spread rapidly.  It’s a great plant if you’ve got a lot of area you’d like bathed in bright flowers and bees.  It might just take over smaller gardens, so plan wisely.

 One of my favorites, Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata), sending out multiple stems.  This is a clumping mint, not a running one, so it won’t spread quite as fast as some of the other members of the mint family.  The flowers are truly unique in their color and structure. This picture is from last summer just so you get the idea:

 Pink sepals that fade to green at the stem and yellow tubular flowers with brown spots.  You have to see it close up to appreciate the complexity of these blooms.  You’ll probably have to wait in a long line of bees to do so.

 Last but not least there’s Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) which also has very interesting and brightly colored flowers.


These are just some of the plants that we grew that will be in the sale.  There are going to be many more species from a variety of other growers.  The full plant list can be found here.  At least one member of the Beech Hollow staff will be present to answer questions, so come on out and say hi!  We’d love to see you come out and help support Trees Atlanta’s environmental education efforts by taking home a few plants to brighten up your yard/garden/neighborhood.  The birds, butterflies and bees (as well as Atlanta’s schoolchildren) will thank you.

  Mark your Calendar: April 6th, 8 am to 1 pm.