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A Natural History Lexicon | Samara

Welcome to Wingtrip’s Natural History Lexicon, a regular rundown of natural history terms, however varied and at random. To find future and past posts on this subject, simply search “natural history lexicon” or find it in the tags. Thanks for reading!



-A winged nut or achene containing one seed, as in ash and maple.

Walking around on Shaw Island, there’s life cropping up everywhere. Stepping outside I’m confronted with a vivid green that will fade to dreary browner tones sooner than I’d like. Out on boat in San Juan Channel I can see islands I know as tan in refreshing spring garb. Fresh growth and new seeds are bursting. Beneath the maples out my front door are the delicate seedlings of Big Leaf Maples (Acer macrophyllum). Most of the maples have sent off what spawned these miniatures, but a few retain samaras, that for this reason or that didn’t fall. These winged casings hold seeds.


Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) in full bloom. Shaw Island, Washington.

Pollinated flowers lead to seeds and eventually all the maples nearby, which are in full bloom will be laden with fruit, but not the kind we’d eat. We may call them maple keys, wingnuts, helicopters, but a more technical term is samara. The term isn’t limited to just maple seeds, but any winged single seeded body like from an ash or an elm. However, in this area of the Pacific Northwest the only native plants bearing samaras are maples.

Big Leaf Maples in particular have large fibrous samaras, paired in two, that dropped lift airbourne and spin away from the parent tree. This auto-rotation creates lift, taking them even farther with the aid of wind. In extreme cases, up to a mile away.

Many of these seeds may germinate, but that’s no guarantee of their survival. One out of thousands will survive, because to a degree where samaras land is chance. Then they face shade, drought, and freezes, munching deer, invading insects, and plant competition. When we look out at the plant world, we don’t think in these terms because their struggle is largely silent, but every large tree is miraculous considering all it had to survive to become mature.


Big Leaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) seedlings.


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