Some plants are just as interesting after the blooms have faded

Story and Photos by Mark K. Stickley-Godinez

One looks like a small green crown, another like the jester’s hat. This one appears like a beautiful swirling cloud, while the next one is a solid puff of white. My mother called this kind porcupine eggs and another inspired the invention of Velcro. What child in America, much to the dismay of father’s everywhere, has not at least once blown the seed head of a dandelion?

Many conifer cones, like this deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara), are just beautiful in displays and arrangements.

I know, we design and plant our gardens for the flowers. The shapes and colors are displayed on posters, ad campaigns, and catalogues. After all, that’s what sells the plant. And, I’m just as guilty as anyone of having a plant jump into my shopping cart just because I like the flowers. 

But, remember each and every one of those flowers is only there for reproduction. Its sole purpose is to somehow get the pollen from one plant onto the female parts of another plant in order to make seeds and reproduce. And then they grow these seeds in containers that are just as fabulous as the flowers that they came from. So stop and take a look at some of those seeds – how they’re arranged, or what contains them – and the various ways those seeds spread.

This Christmas tree was decorated with dried flowers and various cones, dried Hydrangea heads, acorns, Nigella, Japanese lanterns, lotus seed heads, goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata), grasses, and Sedum.

Some plants will grow and contain their seeds in tiny shakers. Once the seeds are ripe, the pod will split open at the top and as the wind blows, moving the plant, the seeds are spread about. Of these I love the poppies the best. There is a wide range of poppies (Papaver spp.) you can grow in the garden. Some are self-seeding annuals and some perennial. Each has a pod that is covered by a velvety lid that opens in little holes just under the rim. Another favorite, twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), also has a pod with a lid, but this lid lifts up on a hinge at one side of the rim to release the seeds.

Rose of Sharon forms clusters of open, star-shaped capsules. Use them as is or paint them different colors for a beautiful display.
This display of a fairy house uses cones, acorns, hydrangea, grasses, and various fruiting structures of milkweed, Magnolia, sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and rose of Sharon.

Capsules are another type of fruiting structure, similar to the shakers. These are usually long and cylindrical and have seams ups the sides that will split open. Some, like daylilies (Hemerocallis), will just open at the top and part way down the sides. But others like okra will split the full length creating a beautiful furrowed edge. 

I also love plants with thorny seed structures. They aren’t as much fun in the garden – I am a bit of a klutz and am constantly jabbing myself on them – but in arrangements and holiday decorations, they are just spectacular. One year I did a display of all sorts of greenery, cones, and pods but they were all painted silver. And amongst all the round, flat, and broad shapes, the spikes of Datura and teasel (Dipsacus spp.) were the perfect counterbalance.  

Some seeds are designed to fly. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.), just like dandelions, has tiny parachutes attached to each seed. When caught by the wind, or a breath, they may fly for miles. But before they fly, as they split out of the husk, there is a moment when they are all lined up, still tucked in their silky netting. And once they blow out, the husk that is left behind is equally beautiful with a silver satin interior and spring green outside.

Lotus seed heads are a bit harder to gather since they grow in ponds. Also, if you grow these, make sure to keep them contained, as they will take over.

The swirls of a Clematis vine are also made to soar. Each seed is attached to a fuzzy spiral that arranged together looks like tiny tornadoes clustered on the vine. 

Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) seeds are held together in a knot. Broken apart, each turns into a spinning arrow that spirals and twists as it falls, counting on the wind currents to take it away from the mother tree. Maples (Acer spp.) have a similar strategy. But these have a wing that makes it spin like a helicopter through the air as it falls. 

All of these plants can be beautiful in the garden and provide an added interest after the flowers have faded. But they also are wonderful in the house in arrangements and displays. Left natural and tucked in with an arrangement of flowers they give it the look of those extravagant Flemish paintings. 

Some seeds heads will break apart as they dry. So I spray the ornamental grasses, milkweeds, and clematis with a clear coat of varnish to hold them together. Paint will also work, but will take away the natural look. For more special occasions or holiday displays, I coat them with spray containing red glitter. The glitter catches the light and adds just a bit more subtle sparkle to the look.

You can often see the ghost of the capsule that will be formed after the petals fall. The yellow star center of this poppy will turn into the lid of a small pot full of seeds. Holes will form under the rim and the seeds will shake out.

I know, not much beats the spectacular flower border for WOW factor. But gardens are so much more than just what you see up front and in your face. Once the petals have fallen, look again to see what’s left behind. Those hidden details are just as intriguing as the eye candy that is in full display.




Great plants with great fruiting structures

Garden Plants
Siberian iris (I. siberica)
Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)
Lilies (Lilium spp.)
False indigo (Baptisia australis)
Yucca filamentosa
Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Stokes’ aster (Stokesia laevis)
Peonies (Paeonia spp.)
Money plant (Lunaria annua)
Japanese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)
Stonecrop (Sedum spectabile)
Blackberry lily (Iris domestica)
Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)
Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera)
Chestnut (Castanea spp.)
Hops (Humulus lupulus)
American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

Miscanthus, Pennisetum, Erianthus, Chasmanthium, Panicum 

Roadside Plants
Jimson weed (Datura stramonium)
Velvet weed (Abutilon indicum)
Greater burdock (Arctium lappa)
Beggarticks (Bidens spp.)
Cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium)

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