Autumn can seem a slightly melancholy time of year, the opposite to the bright promise and floral extravagance of spring. It is that sense of ‘passing over’, of annuals dying and other plants retreating in preparation for winter. We tend to focus on the flowering capacity of most plants but some have a subtle, understated beauty on the other side with their seed heads. Not all, of course. Some simply look scruffy, brown and of no interest. But once you get your eye in, there is an astonishing range of different forms and some are well worth admiring in their own right. Where plants are not weedy, leaving the seed heads in place provides a valuable food source for birds.
“Don’t buy any more fennel seed,” he said as these plants crossed over from flowering to seeding. Fennel is one of my favoured cooking herbs. In fact these are the seed heads of Florence fennel or finocchio which never made it as far as the vegetable garden. The common fennel that flowers on many a roadside but never develops that edible bulbous base is the usual one that is harvested for herbal purposes.
We find Phlomis russeliana an undemanding, handy little perennial which flowers well even in conditions of high shade. Its flowers are soft yellow, arranged like a tiered cake stand and the stiff seed heads retain that interesting form. I had to pick these to photograph them and you can see the see the seed falling out. Usually the birds – and maybe the mice – will clean up this seed.
While these cute seed heads are from Clematis tangutica, it is a typical clematis seed form, although these are silkier and greener because it is a late season bloomer. That light ethereal form is usually a sign that the seeds are spread by wind, as indeed is thistledown from dandelions. The plant of course has evolved not to please humankind but to ensure its own survival.
Pachystegia have fluff balls of seed, another wind dispersal candidate. This one is P. rufa, a different form of the Marlborough rock daisy to the highly prized, larger-leafed P. insignis. There is something very tactile about these soft pompoms.
Arisaemas are bulbs from the Asian subcontinent with hooded flowers somewhat reminiscent of a cobra. Many of the arisaemas, and indeed other aroids like arum lilies and zantedeschia, set attractive seed pods. The birds don’t touch these which is usually an indication that they are poisonous. Small children are not as discriminating as our feathered friends and it pays to check the safety of any plant which sets such attractive seed, as well as teaching your little ones not to put stray seeds and berries in their mouths.
Even the humble and often maligned agapanthus has an attractive seed head. These are heavy seed and don’t often fall far from the parent plant but, given the concern about weediness, dead heading seems a wise move, especially if you have them near waterways or reserves. Water is an efficient method of seed dispersal as can be witnessed by downstream and riverbank weeds.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.