Seed dispersal, nature’s way

Bittergourd vine (I hope!) growing out of my pot of Dracaena Surculosa

I was out taking a look at my plants one evening when I noticed a different plant growing in my big pot of Japanese Bamboo (Dracaena Surculosa). It had obviously sprouted within the last few days, because the two halves of the seed bean it had grown from were still attached to the stem.

This particular pot of Jap bamboo tends to have lots of “visitors”. The big pot sits just under the edge of our mango tree canopy, and it’s bushy enough to attract birds to perch on it frequently. There are always lots of weeds and uninvited plants growing in it that have to be extracted.

However, this time, something made me pause. Maybe it was my new “inner veggie gardener” telling me to hold on for a minute. I took a photo of the 15cm high vine, and posted it on the GCS forum to see if anyone could identify it. In less than 2 hours, as many people said it looked like a bittergourd plant.

In fact, a couple of days later, I showed it to my mum. Surprising us both, she blurted, “That’s periak” – the Malay name for bittergourd. Seeing the plant had triggered memories of her childhood, when they had grown the veggie.

A sprouting palm tree at the base of my bean trellis. It could have been deposited by a bird, or dropped by the palm tree nearby.

Now I know that no person planted that seed there, so it had to have been “deposited” by one of our feathered visitors. Not wanting to transplant and shock the plant, I redirected it so the tendrils found the fencing around my new compost pit, next to the pot. Yup, I had to break that self-imposed rule about not growing an edible creeper there, but it was either do that or let it smother the Japanese bamboo.

This made me look into how birds help plants to disperse their seeds. We have an established curry leaf tree that produces clusters of berries. The birds love the berries, and we subsequently have lots of little curry leaf trees sprouting in the ground below wherever the birds perch to poop. The same goes for the berries of palm trees. Thanks to the birds, we’ve had several different varieties of palm trees growing here at one time or another.

Curry leaf plant sprouting from the crevice of a brick next to the fence - obviously deposited there by a bird, because there's NO parent plant that close!

My initial assumption was that birds only dispersed seeds by pooping them, but research taught me that they also regurgitate them. Urk. Their digestive systems can’t process hard things like, oh, the exoskeletons of insects, undigested bones, hairs and feathers, so they eventually spit them out in a process known as pellet casting. Good to know, huh? :|

But on to other dispersal methods…

Lighter and/or hooked seeds can hitch a ride on creatures that feed on them or simply pass by. Or they can be spread via wind, water or explosive action on the plant’s part. (Here, I get the image of a drawing of the balsam plant in my head, thanks to old school books…) But then, that’s how my Peacock trees disperse their seeds – another reason we have lots of them sprouting all over the garden, too.

Dispersal is just Nature’s way of conducting a lucky draw – and for people like me, it’s an exciting event, because I never know what’s going to start growing in the garden until I see it!

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Fruit-eating birds in Singapore gardens

One of the things I like about having a variety of plants in a garden is watching the variety of birds that are attracted to the different plants. In many cases, I didn’t realize that certain plants had any draw for birds, but once you get a camera and are on the lookout for new victims, you notice much, much more…

Black-naped oriole - so named for the black band that goes right around the neck - feasting on a mango

Fruit trees are natural bird magnets. Within the neighbourhood, we have mango, jambu (water apple), rambutan and papaya as the most common fruit trees. Then there are berry-producing trees such as the curry leaf and palm trees.

Black-naped orioles, mynahs, starlings and bulbuls are our most common fruit-eating feathered visitors. They indulge in all the fruit offerings they can find.

Asian Koels have also established themselves here in recent years. They’re the irritating ones that cry out in that VERY LOUD, ascending-the-scale cry early in the mornings (and sporadically during the day). Koels aren’t very discreet birds – they hop noisily through trees and occasionally don’t care that you’re clicking away with the camera below them.

Male Asian Koel eating the berries of a palm tree. I had a good laugh because he was so intent on feeding while leaning downwards that he nearly fell out of the tree! Only a flurry of fluttering wings and scrambling feet kept him from falling down. And I know it was a “him” because the females are similarly red-eyed but beautifully spotted.

One unusual visitor was a flameback woodpecker that I noticed in a neighbour’s rambutan tree. Unfortunately, that particular neighbour lives several houses away, and a camera zoom can only do so much. I wish I could do a CSI photo clean-up, but this isn’t Hollywood. You can sort of make out the woodpecker hanging off the rambutan, though. Sort of. I hope to get a better photo of the flameback one day – they’re probably the most unusual birds I’ve seen locally so far.

Common flameback woodpecker hanging off a red rambutan fruit.

© 2010 curiousgardener.com All rights reserved.


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Beans!

My snap beans that had been planted in January were supposed to mature by early to mid-March. I know I made a big deal about the profusion of flowers that came out in late February, but they kept aborting, and I despaired that I’d ever see any beans. In fact, a couple of the plants died, and I was convinced that I’d been gypped with this lot of seeds. Or maybe that they weren’t suited to our climate.

Well, I had a happy Easter surprise when I took a look at the beans today. They must have started doing something right this week, because there was the very first tiny bean hanging off the vine! It made me feel like an expectant parent who sees the tiny, fully-formed hands and feet of a foetus in an ultrasound scan… Well, I’ve nurtured the plant so I’m entitled to some parental pride, right? :)

Actually, just before I noticed that bean, I wondered what was wrong with some of the flowers. There seemed to be some kind of blister of sorts at the base some of them. Yes yes, I know… that’s the ovary of the flower, and the fact it was doing something unusual should have clued me in. Can I get some points for finally getting it?

Pollinated flowers beginning to fruit. Notice the burgeoning beginning at the base of the flower on the extreme left?

What seems to happen next is that the bean begins to form, growing outwards and pushing the protective petals downward in Nature’s very own striptease. *cue sexy music* :P

The forming bean discarding the now unnecessary petals.

Finally, the petals fall off, leaving the bean to form in full glory.

Fully formed and growing bean, just over 1cm long, looking like a pirate's cutlass with the curling sepals at the base of the bean. Arr, me hearty, grow! Grow!!

So I’ve noticed several pollinated flowers, and a couple of stripteasing beans. It’s just a matter of time waiting for Baby Bean to grow up and have more siblings…..

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Easter lilies

Our gorgeous orange Hippeastrum hybrids

It’s Easter and our lilies are in bloom. Oddly enough, in our tropical, equatorial climate, these plants always seem to know that Easter is here because they’re always in full bloom at this time of year. Well, this particular variety of lily anyway.

Zephyranthes

Our thunder lilies also seem partial to Easter. They don’t bloom often, though, but they’re gorgeous when they do.

Spider lilies

I can’t say that our spider lilies are affected by season, apart from the fact that they decided to show how much they liked the change in weather. Once the dry spell was over, they seemed to take a deep breath and suddenly burst into bloom. We have a nice little cluster of them and they look pretty and… spidery… with the clusters of flowers. These bloom throughout the year.

Wild lilies

My favourite are last — wild lilies that sprout up wherever and whenever they want in our garden. However they get where they do, their leaves blend in with the grass, and the plants are only noticeable when the flowers bloom. They’re always a pleasant surprise, especially when they appear in clusters. I find them finicky because they grow where they want to grow, and not always where you put them. I’ve transplanted them a few times, trying to make a bed, only to have them die out (or so I thought). Then, months or even years later, they suddenly pop up where I’d moved them to, and I find myself happily surprised once more.

However you celebrate Easter this weekend, I hope you have an enjoyable one. Happy Easter! :)

© 2010 curiousgardener.com All rights reserved.


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