Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Go Forth and Multiply

The first tree to bloom in the spring is the maple. Maybe there are others, but the maple is the first one I notice. You have to know what you're looking for in order to see the small, reddish-brown flowers at the end of the branches. You might not even notice them otherwise. But as a spring aficionado, the maple flowers are something I search for in late February or early March. They give me hope that spring is coming eventually.

Because of the maple's early spring activities, it is also the first tree to go to seed. It produces these whirligig seed pods that are meant to be dispersed in the wind. For those unfamiliar with maple seeds, they have a small, egg-shaped part (maybe one centimeter in length at the very most) containing the seed, which is attached to a much longer wing. Often they are in pairs attached at the seed end, and as a kid you may have called them helicopters.

We have a stately maple tree in our yard. The tree must be more than fifty years old, and its wide canopy shades most of the back yard and part of our house. It is an incredibly prolific seed producer, too. Every year it covers our yard with maple whirligigs. This year is no exception. Last night when I left for karate, the car was covered in maple seeds. They had gathered on the car in much the same way as snow does. There was a thick layer of them propped up to the windshield by the windshield wipers. I ran the wipers to get them off. The hood and the top of the car were also covered in the seeds. I noticed as I backed out of the driveway that the spot in the driveway where the car had been parked was black, whereas the rest of the driveway was brown from all the maple seeds.

As I drove along, I began to hear a whirring sound, which came from the air lifting the whirligigs from the car. Although it was a hot evening, I couldn't open the windows unless I wanted to be inundated with maple seeds as the wind tore them from the hood. The whirring continued for the whole drive.

I realized that I was giving the maple seeds a way to spread farther than the old maple tree could have done the natural way. Five miles from the source, I was dispersing seeds as the wind removed them from the car. I wondered if one of those seeds might grow into a majestic maple tree someday, and astonish scientists performing a genetic survey of local trees by how far maple seeds could disperse. I had never thought about plants spreading via car. I imagine that pests (e.g. insects) could spread that way too.

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