Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 39.djvu/415

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ON THE WINGS OF THE WIND. 4 oi

hand quotations from the strange stories of modern scientific Munchausens.

Still higher in the evolutionary scale than the elastic fruits are those airy species which have taken to themselves wings like the eagle, and soar forth upon the free breeze in search of what the Americans describe as " fresh locations." Of this class, the simplest type may be seen in those forest trees, like the maple and the sycamore, whose fruits are flattened out into long expansions or parachutes, technically known as " keys," by whose aid they flutter down obliquely to the ground at a considerable distance. The keys of the sycamore, to take a single instance, when detached from the tree in autumn, fall spirally through the air, owing to the twist of the winged arm, and are carried so far that, as every gardener knows, young sycamore trees rank among the commonest weeds among our plots and flower-beds. A curious variant upon this type is presented by the lime, or linden, whose fruits are in themselves small, wingless nuts ; but they are borne in clusters upon a common stalk, which is winged on either side by a large membranous bract. When the nuts are ripe, the whole cluster detaches itself in a body from the branch, and flutters away before the breeze by means of the common parachute, to some spot a hundred yards off or more, where the wind chances to land it.

The topmost place of all in the hierarchy of seed life, it seems to me, is taken by the feathery fruits and seeds which float freely hither and thither wherever the wind may bear them. An immense number of the very highest plants the aristocrats of the vegetable kingdom, such as the lordly composites, those ulti- mate products of plant evolution possess such floating feathery seeds ; though here, again, the varieties of detail are too infinite for rapid or popular classification. Indeed, among the composites alone the thistle and dandelion tribe with downy fruits I can reckon up more than a hundred and fifty distinct variations of plan among the winged seeds known to me in various parts of Europe. But if I am strong, I am merciful : I will let the public off a hundred and forty-eight of them. My two exceptions shall be John-go-to-bed-at-noon and the hairy hawkweed, both of them common English meadow-plants. The first, and more quaintly named, of the two has little ribbed fruits that end in a long and narrow beak, supporting a radial rib-work of spokes like the frame of an umbrella; and from rib to rib of this framework stretch feathery cross-pieces, continuous all round, so as to make of the whole mechanism a perfect circular parachute, resembling somewhat the web of a geometrical spider. But the hairy hawk- weed is still more cunning in its generation ; for that clever and cautious weed produces its seeds or fruits in clustered heads, of which the central ones are winged, while the outer are heavy,

vol. sxxix. 28

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