The process usually goes like this. I find something that I think is interesting. I photograph it, measure it or do whatever it takes to record the thing, and then do some heavy research before committing the subject to cyberspace. More often than not I encounter my subjects by “accident” (although “by random discovery” might be a better wording choice). The other day I “randomly discovered” a Basswood tree adorned with seed clusters and, since I’ve always had a soft spot for Basswood, decided then and there to make them the subject of a future Naturespeak. Welcome to the future.
Basswood seeds may not seem the stuff of close examination, but on a gray December day when nothing else is happening they provide plenty of grist for the mind mill. The fruiting structure of this plant is unique among northern trees. Unlike the winged seeds of maple and ash, where a winged appendage is attached directly to the individual seeds, the basswood uses a single wing to airlift an entire cluster of seeds. Each fruiting cluster (called a cyme, in case you are looking for a scrabble word) is suspended from the branch by a single stem. A leafy wing (called a bract, in case “cyme” wasn’t good enough for you) is half-attached to this stem – the other half angling out to form a free wing.
Ideally, when the whole structure breaks free from the home branch the wing will give spin to the dropping cluster and carry it away from the mother tree. The first part of this journey, the vertical part, is a cumbersome affair. The awkward rotation of the bract wing only manages to carry the seeds a few feet away – perhaps a tree length away if conditions are right. The second part of the journey, the horizontal part, is where the wing really does its thing. As the winter winds kick in, the bract wing functions as a sail to carry its load along the ground. Over a hard packed snow surface a basswood seed cluster can go for miles.
Some of you may recall that I already talked about this horizontal wind-surfing technique in a previous column, so I’ll leave that one alone and move on to the subject of seeds.
Basswood seeds are little brown nuts encased in a hard fuzzy nutlet. There are typically 6-20 per cluster. Individual trees will vary as to the shape of their nutlets and the specially endowed ones will have more than one nut per nutlet. I checked out the tree shown in the photos and was slightly disappointed to find that it was one of those standard “round nutlet with one nut apiece” trees. Exciting topic, eh?
Well, as the old adage goes, there’s more to a tree than round nutlets (what?). There are buds to consider. You’ll notice upon close examination that basswood buds are bright red (see here). Before continuing, see if you can say “basswood buds” three times fast. O.K., let’s continue. These brilliant basswood buds not only supply a good winter identification feature but they contribute to another potential tongue twister. Brilliant Basswood buds become better by biting. They taste like peas, by the way. So, you can do a little basswood bud browsing before bypassing them.
One of the websites I researches went beyond this bud tasting advice and actually mentioned that the wood of this tree was “bland tasting.” While some of us may take occasion to down a few buds, not many of us are into eating wood – at least on purpose. I suspect that this entry was written by a beaver. The wood of the basswood is far better known for its wonderful carving qualities than for its taste although I suppose if you cooked it right and smothered it with enough gravy you’d end up with something edible for the holidays.
On a final note, there’s the matter of the Basswoods name. American natives totally disregarded the edible nature of the wood and instead made use of the bark. They would beat the snot out of the bark in order to expose the network of fibers within. These fibers were twisted into strong serviceable twine for making nets, baskets, and bags. The old fashioned English term for twine was “bast.” When this tree was given its Anglesized name the original term bastwood, or twine wood, was used. This term was eventually corrupted into basswood by other English speaking people who had a hard time talking while chewing wood.
Now you know why basswood has nothing whatsoever to do with fish. You would eat bass and would not eat wood.