At the close of a long season of gathering energy from sunlight many plants are packaging their seeds of increase. Succulent layers give nourishment to the seeds and a bargain to the creatures enlisted to disperse them, as noted last week with the hickory and the tupelo. For some species a passage through the acidic digestive tract of a bird actually prepares the hard seed casing (endocarp) for germination.
Plants with fruiting strategies want to make them delicious and visible. The seeds may comprise only a tiny portion of the edible prize, the greater part sometimes going to the harvester. But the result is more plants.
|Nightshade, a relative of the tomato, potato, and eggplant which are all berry-producers|
Walking along the seashore this week I found two native species, the grape and the cranberry, that have always interested foraging people. They are tasty enough to have been brought into cultivation where human industry coaxes them to high-stakes production. These specimens pioneered improbably among the rocks of Halibut Point, a tribute to the success of far-flung propagation.
This Concord grape vine ranging out over a grout pile has emerged from a scruffy thicket that evidently added enough humus to the stone dust ‘soil’ to support the vine. From that base it’s tricky going: a top-of-the-canopy occupant enjoys limitless light but suffers first the desiccations of wind, salt and drought.
Fruit satisfy the appetites not only of the hungry but also of the systems of botanical classification that organize our knowledge of the plant kingdom. In fruit the masterminds of taxonomy find their most dependable keys to order. Finding fruit is the ultimate prize for the explorer, collector, and gestalt-minded sleuths of the natural world.
My horticultural encyclopedia assures me that “…the seed-bearing organs of plants vary much less than the foliage. Upon this relative stability of the form and structure of fruits and the flowers that produce them depends the classification of plants into families and genera, and sometimes even species in the same genera have decidedly different fruit.”
Botanically speaking peas, wheat and pepper corns are also fruit. The fleshy fruits we have encountered so far on Halibut Point are all true berries, drupes (tupelo), or pomes (crabapple). Nuts – the hickory – comprise another category. Some plants that would attract us earlier in the season, such as strawberries and blackberries, produce aggregate fruits that develop from single flowers with multiple ovaries in contrast to the single ovaries of berry-producing flowers. Such are the paths of science and progress.