What Is A Seed Head: Identifying Flower Seed Heads
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By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
Gardening experts, like doctors, lawyers, mechanics or other professionals, sometimes throw around terms that are common in their profession but may have other people wishing they would just speak plain English. Occasionally, I will get on a roll explaining something to a customer and see a look of confusion come over their face as I mention terms like “balled and burlap,” “plant crown” or “seed head.”
Many times people will hesitate to ask a question like: “What is a seed head?” because they are afraid it will make them look stupid. Truth is, there are no stupid questions and gardening experts actually want to help you better understand your plant’s needs, not ridicule you. In this article, we will cover how to recognize a seed head on plants.
How to Recognize a Seed Head
The term “seed head” is defined as a flower head in seed by the Oxford dictionary. It is the dried flowering or fruiting part of the plant which contains the seeds. On some plants the seed head is easily recognized and identified. For example, on dandelions, the yellow petals wilt and drop, then are replaced by the fluffy white seed head.
Other easy to identify seed heads on plants are sunflowers, rudbeckia, and coneflower. These seed heads form right in the center of the petals, then ripen and dry as the petals fade and wilt.
Not all seeds form on obvious seed heads, though. Plant seeds can form in other ways too, like in the following seed head parts:
- Capsules (e.g. poppy)
- Catkins (e.g. birch)
- Pods (e.g. sweet pea)
- Winged capsules or samaras (e.g. maple)
Flower seed heads generally start out green, yellow, red, or orange in color, but turn brown as they ripen and dry. Some seed heads, such as seed heads on euphorbia or milkweed, will burst open when they ripen and send seeds out by the force of the burst. In the case of milkweed and dandelion, seeds float away on the wind by light, fluffy fibers.
Uses for Seed Heads on Plants
Recognizing flower seed heads is important for several reasons: future plant propagation, prolonging blooms by deadheading, creating bird friendly gardens, and because some plants have attractive seed heads that add winter interest to the landscape.
When collecting seeds for future plant propagation, placing nylon panty hose around the ripening seed heads can ensure that you get seeds before they are naturally dispersed by wind or birds. When deadheading plants, we cut spent flowers off before they have a chance to put energy into producing seeds. By doing this the plant’s energy is diverted from seed production to sending out new blooms.
Certain plants have attractive seed heads that are left on the plant to add winter interest to the landscape or for use in crafts. Many of these seeds can also provide food for birds and small mammals in winter. Some plants with attractive seed heads are:
- Siberian iris
- Sea holly
- Sedum stonecrop
- Globe thistle
- Ornamental grasses
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What is a Seed Coat?
You will likely already know what a seed coat is, but allow us a brief explanation. A seed coat, or seed husk, is the protective outer coat of a seed. These vary in shape and size depending on the type of plant in question.
For peppers, the seed coats are quite susceptible to becoming stuck on seedlings when they sprout. This phenomenon is also known as “helmet heads” because the seed coat resembles a helmet covering the first set of leaves.
The first leaves on a seedling are known as the cotyledons (pronounced kah-du-LEE-dun), and they are the embryonic leaves. They provide the plant with energy to produce roots and a strong stem during early stage growth.
Helmet head on pepper seedling.
For this reason, it is essential that you remove the seed coat that is stuck from the plants ASAP! If the cotyledons do not receive light, the plant will likely not make it.
We take preventative measures to help reduce the number of seed coats that get stuck, but without fail, we always get a few each year. So let’s talk about how to remove the seed husks safely.
The seeds blow in the wind, latch onto the fur of animals or are otherwise removed from the plant. Seeds can remain dormant for nearly three years. The seeds will germinate almost immediately if the conditions are right -- between 68 and 95 degrees F, starting the life cycle all over again for these competitive species. For this reason, foxtails are particularly dangerous to spring-sown crops.
With a professional background in gardening, landscapes, pests and natural ecosystems, Jasey Kelly has been sharing her knowledge through writing since 2009 and has served as an expert writer in these fields. Kelly's background also includes childcare, and animal rescue and care.
Seeds in the Garden
Growing tulips from seed in the garden is simple. Just gather the seed heads after they ripen and dry on the plants in late summer and fall. Break open the seed heads and scatter them in the areas where you want new tulips. Scatter the seeds in garden beds, or in grassy areas for a naturalized look. Growing tulips from seed is less labor intensive than planting bulbs, but not as reliable either. Scatter lots of seeds and see what comes up. You might get some exciting new colors when the tulips grow in the spring.
Eulalia Palomo has been a professional writer since 2009. Prior to taking up writing full time she has worked as a landscape artist and organic gardener. Palomo holds a Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies from Boston University. She travels widely and has spent over six years living abroad.