As summer slips into fall once again, I behold my humble, little collection of annual flowers fading gracefully into oblivion. I don’t plant much anymore – a few marigolds, a couple of pots of nasturtiums, and a flat of petunias pulled out from the rainbow of color covering a wooden table at Ed’s Grove in Lyman. Despite the cold mornings we’ve had of late, they’re all hanging on, though, giving it a final faithful push with all they’ve got and still not failing to greet me when I push aside my door curtains in the morning.
More as some sort of personal ritual now, I still pinch off the dried heads containing the marigold seeds and the larger, pale-green dimpled embryonic orbs of the nasturtiums that contain all that’s needed to produce more plants, more blossoms. I save some but discard most, as spending a dollar on a few packets of these seeds in the spring won’t break the bank. And packaged seeds usually germinate more efficiently and reliably than old, saved seed that was only half-heartedly stored away.
Which brings me to the functions that flowers play beyond simply being pretty for us and for the bees and birds that pollinate them. It seems that, among all their other talents, plants that produce flowers and fruit know just when to get that particular process going. Working closely with nature, which is never wrong about these things, plants flower when conditions such as sunlight availability, warmth, day length and moisture are ideal, and at no other time. When a plant doesn’t flower when we think it should, something’s not right in its world. And once a plant does flower – which is necessary to its survival as well as that of its kind – there is also a process that determines when the optimum time is to release either the seeds or the fruits.
I often use an acorn as a familiar example of what happens to a seed when it ends up on the ground. The large nut gives us lots of information as to the process of dispersal and propagation. But actually, all seeds go through the same, or a very similar, process before ending up in a place that is conducive to germination. And even then, if a seed germinates, or sprouts, too soon or too late in the season, something will be missing from the light/warmth/daylight equation, and it won’t go well at all. The seed may rot if the ground is too cold and wet, or it may shrivel if it’s too hot and dry. And then, there are all the other life forms that feast on seeds, so it’s safe to say that they don’t have a very easy time of it if they are to live up to their reputations as propagators.
Experienced gardeners know that all plants are classified as either cool or warm-weather species, meaning that their seeds or seedlings do better at different times of the gardening year. The seeds of peas, leaf lettuce and spinach, for instance, love the cool soil of early spring, while beans, corn and pumpkins need a soil temperature of at least 60 degrees to germinate. There’s a very complex mechanism at work here that dictates this, and it all has to do with the origins of a particular plant species, what parts of the world it is native to, and how it has adapted to different growing conditions. And they all know just when it’s time to produce more new seeds and when the best time is to let them go.
Be it a pea vine, a dandelion, or a redwood tree, beauty and productivity are only two components of a much vaster process that ties in to all the others that keep the planet thriving. Lucky for us that plants don’t need to be reminded of what to do and exactly when to do it.
— Rachel Lovejoy, a freelance writer living in Lyman, who enjoys exploring the woods of southern Maine, can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.