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Extravagance in production: Nature’s trees

Earth Resting Atop a Leaf --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

By Frances Lamberts

In one of several more lives he had wanted to live after leaving Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau devoted himself to studying and describing nature. As a land surveyor walking the woods and fields around Concord daily, he kept lists of natural phenomena over many years: First appearances of birds and wildflower blossoms, sightings of insects and other animals, and the sequence in which trees and shrubs leafed out in spring.

His daily journal notes came to more than 6,000 pages. In his last years, he compiled a 631-page manuscript for a book on wild fruits and another, 354-page manuscript on the dispersion of seeds.

His (posthumously published) book on fertility of trees and their agents of pollination and seed dispersal, “Faith in a Seed”, came to mind as I was picking up fruits from a honeylocust tree this winter.

Two saplings having come up nine years ago, I had transplanted them to opposite sides of a walkway.

They turned out to be male and female specimen of this shade tree, companion to black locust in the pea-plants family. Now, the male starkly denuded, the high branches of the female were loaded with shiny-brown, twisted seed pods, most more than a foot – even 18 inches – in length. They contain twenty or more flat, hard seeds and a congealed, gummy, sweet pulp from which the tree’s common name of honey locust derives.

Some of the wind-blown pods I collected had been partially gnawed open and the seeds and pulp extracted, presumably by resident squirrels.

Indeed, the USDA fact sheet for the tree indicates its pods to be favorite food for many wild animals (and some livestock); earlier in the year, too, its leaves and flowers provide larval-host and nectar food for moth and butterfly insects.

Thoreau’s long, painstaking and passionate work, observing, counting, measuring and describing Nature led him to proclaim seeds as the means through which new life is born and continually reborn. On seeds and their flowers, he said, rests both the beauty of our planet and its goodness, through the fruits which feed the entire creature world.

In Faith in a Seed he describes “a very large heap” of cones which “a few squirrels, possibly only one” had cut off a pitch pine tree to eat the seeds under the cones’ prickly scales. “I counted 239 cores of cones under this tree alone,” he writes, and “many similar cores of cones under the surrounding pines.” The squirrels “appeared to have devoured all the fruit of that pitch pine grove.”

Through profligate seed production, since they “have many mouths to feed,” trees and other plants ensure their own survival. “As for the seed of new plantations,” Thoreau writes in this passage, “Nature will be contented with the crumbs which fall from (the squirrels’) table.”

About a third of my tree’s fruits were still on the branches in mid February. Estimating from the pods I had picked off the ground by then and counted, it ripened more than 13,200 seeds to assure itself at least one successful Gleditsia triacanthos, or Honeylocust offspring.