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On The Wings Of The Wind
by [?]

Why is this? Why isn’t the plant content just to let its grains or berries drop quietly on to the soil beneath, and there shift for themselves as best they may on their own resources?

The answer is a more profound one than you would at first imagine. Plants discovered the grand principle of the rotation of crops long before man did. The farmer now knows that if he sows wheat or turnips too many years running on the same plot, he ‘exhausts the soil,’ as we say–deprives it of certain special mineral or animal constituents needful for that particular crop, and makes the growth of the plant, therefore, feeble or even impossible. To avoid this misfortune, he lets the land lie fallow, or varies his crops from year to year according to a regular and deliberate cycle. Well, natural selection forced the same discovery upon the plants themselves long before the farmer had dreamed of its existence. For plants, being, in the strictest sense, ‘rooted to the spot,’ absolutely require that all their needs should be supplied quite locally. Hence, from the very beginning, those plants which scattered their seeds widest throve the best; while those which merely dropped them on the ground under their own shadow, and on soil exhausted by their own previous demands upon it, fared ill in the struggle for life against their more discursive competitors. The result has been that in the long run few species have survived, except those which in one way or another arranged beforehand for the dispersal of their seeds and fruits over fresh and unoccupied areas of plain or hillside.

I don’t, of course, by any means intend to assert that seeds always do it by the simple device of wings or feathery projections. Every variety of plan or dodge or expedient has been adopted in turn to secure the self-same end; and provided only it succeeds in securing it, any variety of them all is equally satisfactory. One might parallel it with the case of hatching birds’ eggs. Most birds sit upon their eggs themselves, and supply the necessary warmth from their own bodies. But any alternative plan that attains the same end does just as well. The felonious cuckoo drops her foundlings unawares in another bird’s nest: the ostrich trusts her unhatched offspring to the heat of the burning desert sand: and the Australian brush-turkeys, with vicarious maternal instinct, collect great mounds of decaying and fermenting leaves and rubbish, in which they deposit their eggs to be artificially incubated, as it were, by the slow heat generated in the process of putrefaction. Just in the same way, we shall see in the case of seeds that any method of dispersion will serve the plant’s purpose equally well, provided only it succeeds in carrying a few of the young seedlings to a proper place in which they may start fair at last in the struggle for existence.

As in the case of the fertilization of flowers, so in that of the dispersal of seeds, there are two main ways in which the work is effected–by animals and by wind-power. I will not insult the intelligence of the reader at the present time of day by telling him that pollen is usually transferred from blossom to blossom in one or other of these two chief ways–it is carried on the heads or bodies of bees and other honey-seeking insects, or else it is wafted on the wings of the wind to the sensitive surface of a sister-flower. So, too, seeds are for the most part either dispersed by animals or blown about by the breezes of heaven to new situations. These are the two most obvious means of locomotion provided by nature; and it is curious to see that they have both been utilized almost equally by plants, alike for their pollen and their seeds, just as they have been utilized by man for his own purposes on sea or land, in ship, or windmill, or pack-horse, or carriage.