Permanent Camp: Foliar Fruit Flagging

By George Ellison with illustration by Elizabeth Ellison 

Most wildflower enthusiasts hone in on the showy, flowering phase of a plant's life cycle for observation. Only slowly do we learn to appreciate the post-flowering phase.

The setting and distribution of fruit is, after all, what the hustle-and-bustle of germination, flowering, and pollination was all about. Not taking an interest in this final phase would be like watching three-quarters of an exciting football game and heading for the exit. Fruiting and seed dispersal are the grand finale of a given plant's yearly cycle, and it’s quite often conducted in a manner every bit as eye-catching and interesting as anything that came before.

Fruits appear in a variety of forms with a range of evocative names: pomes (apples), follicles (milkweed pods), loments (beggar-lice), silicles (shepard’s purse), akenes (sunflowers), siliques (mustard), samaras (maples), schizocarps (parsley family),  and on and on.

The fleshy fruits are contrived to induce a variety of birds and mammals to devour them and scatter seed to likely habitats. Other non-fleshy fruits are constructed so as utilize wind or water for dispersal. And still others like witch hazel and touch-me-not have evolved explosive seed dispersal mechanisms that literally “shoot” seeds some distance from the parent plant.

Also of interest is the relationship between the late-summer and early-fall colors displayed by some plants and their seed distribution tactics. A concept described as “foliar fruit flagging” has been advanced in recent years by various biologists.

According to this line of thinking, plants like poison ivy, Virginia creeper, black gum, sassafras, spicebush, dogwood, the sumacs, and the wild grapes produce an early flush of  leaf color from mid-August into mid-September, while most of the forest is still green, so as to attract migrating birds to their already-ripened fruit.

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