Sometimes the beauty of nature jumps out at you like a flashing neon sign. Sometimes you find it in the simplest of things.
In September, I witnessed an intriguing natural phenomenon right here in my front yard. On a daily basis for several weeks, tiny little tuffs of fluff kept drifting along our driveway. I was so intrigued that I decided to capture one in my hand and find out what it was.
It turns out they are the plumed seeds of a native plant called pilewort, dismissed by most as a noxious weed. These things are a true wonder of nature — they have a certain understated elegance in both form and function.
They drift along, steered by even the slightest breeze. They rise and fall with the air currents and can travel long distances from the parent plant, which is the whole point if you’re a flowering plant trying to disperse your seeds hither and yon.
I decided to try to get a close-up photograph of these tiny marvels of the natural world, which would seem like an easy, straightforward thing to do, but turned out be a frustrating ordeal. They are so delicate that if you try to grasp one with your fingers, the vegetative filaments break off and the whole thing is ruined. They are so aerodynamically sensitive that it is nearly impossible to get them to sit still to have their picture taken, even when the wind is dead calm.
Nevertheless, I found a piece of old barn wood for a backdrop and placed it on the hood of my truck. I caught one and with my closed hand cupped around the fragile little seed plume, I held it over the barn wood and unfolded my fingers. It instantly lifted off and began drifting away as if it were alive. I followed it for a few feet and trapped it once again. This time I cupped my other hand over the first, just as if I had captured a lighting bug.
I then held my hands over the wood and very gingerly opened my fingers, tilting my palm toward the piece of barn wood. The plumed seed finally slid out of my hand and onto the wood. I grabbed my camera and positioned it to take the photo. But as I did, the slight amount of air turbulence created by moving the camera into position caused the little botanical hovercraft to lift off once again.
So I recaptured it and got it back on the wooden backdrop. This time I very slowly eased the camera into position and snapped off a few close-up exposures. Bingo. That worked.
This remarkable invention of nature is a true work of art consisting of nothing more than a spray of arched vegetative hairs (trichomes) that sprout from one end of the seed like the legs of a spider, with the payload strategically located at the bottom of the whole thing.
Dennis Chastain is a Pickens County naturalist, historian and former tour guide. He has been writing feature articles for South Carolina Wildlife magazine and other outdoor publications since 1989.