Late summer into fall is certainly one of the most interesting seasons to get out and take a look at what your favorite flowering plants are up to. You can usually still recognize individual species by their leaf, stem, other characteristic growth and habitat patterns. And now you can readily observe their fruits as well.
The setting and distribution of fruit is, after all, what the hustle-and-bustle of germination, flowering and pollination was all about. Not taking an interest in this final phase would be like watching three-quarters of an exciting football game and heading for the exit. Fruiting and seed dispersal is the grand finale of a given plant’s yearly cycle, and it’s quite often conducted in a manner every bit as colorful and dramatic as anything that came before.
Fruits are the ripened ovaries of plants that are usually located at the base of the flowering structures. Seeds develop from the fertilized ovules within the ovaries.
Fruits appear in a variety of forms with a range of evocative names: pomes (apples), follicles (milkweed pods), loments (beggar-lice), pods (honey locust), silicles (shepard’s purse), akenes (sunflowers), siliques (mustard), burs (chestnut), samaras (maples), berries (grapes), false berries (gooseberries), schizocarps (parsley family), nuts (beech), acorns (oak), and on and on.
The fleshy fruits are contrived to induce a variety of birds and mammals to devour them and scatter seed to likely habitats. Other non-fleshy fruits are constructed so as utilize wind or water for dispersal. And still others like witch hazel and touch-me-not have evolved explosive seed dispersal mechanisms that literally “shoot” seeds some distance from the parent plant.
Some plants are showier when fruiting than when in flower. Doll’s-eyes, a common plant in rich upland coves, are fairly inconspicuous plants when their clusters of white flowers appear in April or May. But from August into October, the white berries that appear on thick fleshy red stalks are unmistakable. The red stalks (or pedicels) and white berries with their vivid black pupil-like spot (which account for the apt common name) are no doubt designed to attract small mammals. They also catch and hold human eyes.
Mountain ash, ginseng, staghorn sumac, wild yam, pawpaw, blue cohosh, pokeberry, sassafras, jimson weed, virgin’s bower, speckled wood lily. and many other plants are at their most distinctive during their late-season fruiting phases. One scarcely notices hearts-a-bustin’ (“Euonymus americanus”), which is also known as strawberry bush, from late April to early June, when its inconspicuous, small, greenish-purple flowers appear. At that time of the year, the plant is easily identified by the angular, four-sided, green, artificial-looking stems, which can stand six feet tall.
The rough-textured fruits that mature in September and October are an entirely different story. Each capsule is nearly an inch in diameter and can range in color from deep pink to raspberry. When these open fully, smooth-textured seeds with scarlet or orange hues are displayed. Each plump seed remains attached firmly to the capsule. No other fruit in this part of the world exhibits such extreme variations in texture and color.
Also of interest, in this regard, is the probable relationship between the early fall colors displayed by some plants and their seed distribution tactics. A concept described as “foliar fruit flagging” has been advanced in recent years by various biologists. According to this theory, plants like poison ivy, Virginia creeper, black gum, sassafras, spicebush, dogwood, the sumacs, and the wild grapes produce an early flush of foliage color from late August into mid-September, while most of the forest is still green, so as to attract migrating birds to their already-ripened fruit.