Ouch! That was definitely an acorn that just hit me on the head. There seems to be a bumper crop of them falling from our trees this year. When a slight breeze blows it sounds like hail falling through the trees. THUNK! A black walnut hits the top of the car as I cruise along River Road taking in the fall colors and noting Delaware River water levels (low). Holy moly was that loud and a little bit scary! No dents (in my head or in the car) but all of this fruit flinging has gotten me thinking about the purpose of fall.
Turns out that there are other reasons for fruits to fall from the trees than providing ammunition for you to throw at your younger (though similar sized – I’ll have you know) sibling. The autumn colors signal to many of us winter is on the way. It’s time to split the rest of the firewood, dig out the long sleeves and extra blankets and find the snow shovel underneath the accumulation of beach chairs and coolers that piled up this summer. Similarly, for wildlife, the changing of the leaves signals a bounty to be eaten and preserved for the cold winter months.
Think about the small red fruits of a dogwood or spicebush, they would be tough to see from a bird’s location high above, and it would take a lot of energy to stop at each tree to figure out if there were ripe fruits to eat. Instead, birds can keep an eye out for the changing of the colors, an entire tree full of red leaves signals to those flying above ripe fruits to be had, fuel for continuing the long migration or fattening up to make it through a (hopefully) snowy winter.
As I explore various places this fall I take a look at the fruits, and the trees from which they fell, and consider their purpose and value.
Of course, the purpose of fruit is to get seeds away from the parent plant to start a new generation in another location. From sticking, to swimming to satisfying, there are a variety of ways the plants have developed to accomplish this. Some are easier to discern than others.
Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima)
Man, what animal looked at this contraption and thought “Let’s see what deliciousness lies inside?” This thing is lethal! Spiny, spiky and sharp, I guess I should be glad these weren’t falling from the sky hitting me in the head. Luckily for the squirrels and other animals that have found these non-native fruits enticing, eventually this spiny case turns brown and breaks open revealing nutrition inside. There is also a native chestnut tree, once an important component of our eastern deciduous forest. A blight first noticed in New York in 1904 quickly wiped out the population. Today you may find an American Chestnut here or there, rarely getting more than 10 tall before succumbing to the blight again. If you should happen to find a mature American Chestnut, the American Chestnut Foundation would like to know about it and propagate its seeming blight resistance. Reach out to them if you find one!
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
My mom dislikes these trees intensely. And NOT because my sister and I used the hard green fruits as weapons against each other each fall. They seem to be the first to turn yellow and lose their leaves. When she saw this she knew winter wasn’t far behind which saddened her tremendously. Speaking of fruits that don’t fall far from the tree – I love to see the Walnuts turning, and to see their fruits littering the ground. It’s a signal to me to get that snowboard out of the closet and put the snow shovel on the front porch because winter is coming! Yay!
Recently I taught a class and was mentioning the toxicity these native trees have in the soil. They release chemicals that inhibit other plants from growing beneath them. (There are some plants that will do just fine – find a list here). One of my students mentioned that he knows when the fruits are ripe because all of the squirrels around him have dark brown stains from chin to chest. I have never seen that, but desperately would like to witness that spectacle now. Like spicebush, some people collect black walnuts to eat. They make a terrific baklava. Anyone who has tried to take these apart either for food or fun knows how badly they stain clothes and hands. This is what is happening to the squirrels. In their effort to release the sweet walnut inside, they have been marked probably for the rest of the winter, as walnut eaters.
On a more serious note there is a new fungus attacking this valuable native tree. Thousand Cankers Disease is a serious threat. Be sure to know about it and check your trees. This is a valuable food source for animals and a significant part of our forest ecosystems. Keep an eye on them and if you see something suspicious, report it so professionals can work to stop the spread. We don’t want what happened to the American Chestnut to happen to the Black Walnut.
Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera) AKA Monkey Brains
Just recently a colleague encouraged me to smell the Osage Orange. I had studied them in school and brought many home over the years, fascinated with their size and enamored by their color. Never once did I think to smell them. Turns out they smell great, like pears. The scent isn’t so strong that you would notice it when you walk in a room, but give the wrinkly surface of these giants a gentle scratch and you will smell it. Perhaps that scent is what attracted the now extinct megafauna believed to have eaten these and transfer their seeds around their native region of the South Central United States. Too large for most of our existing mammals and birds, this tree has remained in the same region because we don’t have any more giant sloths and mastodons to eat them and drop the seeds. Squirrels will give it a go however, stopping at flattened fruits that exploded on impact hitting the road with force from high above. Wondering where you can find your own Osage Oranges? Take a look in any farmer’s hedgerow east of the Rockies, and you will probably find these large trees, and their large fruit, there.
Paw Paws (Asimina triloba)
I wonder if animals feel the same way about this plant’s fruit as most humans I know. Either you love them or one is enough for the rest of your life. (I fall into the second category…but I hear there are tastier cultivars being developed) These green fruits with the large seeds and custard-like flesh are eaten by raccoons and other large mammals, including my husband. You won’t find these in supermarkets or even farm markets, they don’t travel well and when they are perfectly ripe they look perfectly rotten! You have to know where to find them or get a friend who knows. People are obsessed! There are even pawpaw festivals. Native to NY south to FL and west to OK and TX, they seem to be especially popular in Ohio. They are beautiful landscape trees, the only temperate species in a family of tropical plants. They will lend a tropical look to your garden, if you have a couple with different genetics you will get fruit and the deer don’t bother them at all. Plant a pawpaw (even if you don’t like the fruit, they’re worth it!)! When out and about in their range, take a look for them in well-drained bottomlands where this largest of native edible fruits forms large colonies.
Ugh! Before I knew about Bidens and other botanical hithchikers, I spent an afternoon with a colleague weeding some raised beds in a vacant lot converted to school garden in the middle of the city. We were pulling out weeds as tall as us and taking armfuls of the weeds to the back of the pickup. For hours we did this. It wasn’t until the end of the day that I realized that my flannel shirt now had this beautiful texture. Small brown seeds with evil little hooks had attached themselves to my shirt by the millions. For approximately 3 minutes I tried to pick these off my shirt and quickly realized I had neither the patience or inclination to sit there and pick hitchhikers all day. There happened to be burdocks in this garden as well, so I used my time productively to harvest some burdock seeds which I took back to the office and attached ever so gently (read: hurled across the office) to my coworkers’ sweaters. I mean I should’t be the only one suffering from this physical attachment of seeds to wardrobe.
The hitchhikers I encounter these days are more likely to be those of Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana). A small summer-blooming woodland wildflower. Instead of being delicious and calling attention to their nutritional value and high sugar content by being brightly colored, these seeds choose to be annoying. Apparently, as I am sure various family members or coworkers have proven to you time and time again, being annoying seems to have some evolutionary advantage (What’s that saying about the squeaky wheel?) Those seeds have no way of discerning between the soft fur of deer and chipmunk and my camera strap or woolen socks, so they indiscriminately hitch a ride on whatever they will stick to and land where they will, on a quest for a suitable place to overwinter and germinate into the next generation of plants that will tick off the bushwhacking hiker.
My first memory of these seed pods was a hike through a meadow I took as a chubby-cheeked, double-kneed little one in Kindergarten. I am sure I ended up with hitchhikers on my clothes, but the happiness of finding pods erased any negative memory of botanical hangers-on. The school was called Love and Learn and we were on an adventure to look for Monarchs in all life stages to bring back into the classroom. I don’t remember at all what happened with the monarchs. I don’t remember them hatching, crawling around as caterpillars or eating leaves or anything. But I can smell the early fall air from that day and picture the white tufts of seeds emerging from green spiky pods on plants taller than me in a meadow that went on as far as I could see. (I think this early plant-based adventure, as well as an unfortunate incident involving a scared bunny, my lap and bunny urine during this same year, sealed my fate early-on as a plant-person.) Milkweed seeds are meant to fly on the air, like dandelion seeds. Another indiscriminate mechanism for dispersal, often these wind-dispersed seeds are quite numerous as there is a good chance they will not land in a place suitable for germination.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Back in early spring the spicebush was the first to flower in our native woodlands. Now is the time for the bright red fruits. While some folks collect these for their own kitchens, the spice often likened to that of Szechwan, upland game birds and several woodland songbirds enjoy these fruits as well, depositing the seeds throughout the woods creating new stands of spicebush with genetic diversity. The yellow fall foliage lets the birds know the fruit is ready and the bright red is easy to see among the yellow leaves.
Hearts-A-Burstin (Euonymous americanus)
If you are lucky, on a woodland adventure you will come across this native shrub. If you really want to see these, take out a map and draw a line from the top of New York State diagonally across the US to the western edge of Texas. Go for hike in the woods in this area. Look for bright green whispy stems and in the fall look for these amazing fruits. Considered toxic to us humans, some birds and small mammals will eat these seeds but this shrub tends to spread by suckering and forming large colonies.
Red Bud (Cercis canadensis)
The pod. This tree is related to the green beans and peas we eat and it even gets its own pods in late summer and early fall. They persist through the fall adding interest to this spring blooming native tree and providing food for quail, cardinals and rose-breasted grosbeaks. Most people know this tree for its magenta blooms along the stems before the heart-shaped leaves emerge. Find this blooming at the forest’s edge from NY down to FL and west to TX and OK.
Floating, Falling, Feeding – there are many ways fruits use to get their genetic diversity out into the wild. Though some of us lament fall as the introduction to winter, I encourage you to take in the beauty and diversity and potential and LIFE in every season. There is so much to see, just watch out for those falling acorns!