Green Pages

Seedy Seafarers

Plants travel as seeds – by air, land and, amazingly, sea.
Story & Photos By B. Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

Plants do not generally move around on their own accord as adults, but seeds can be amazing travellers. Seeds are small enough that they are a plant’s chance to move its species around, and most plants take full advantage of this. Some fit their seeds with wings or hang-gliders so they can travel by air. Others rocket them with complicated ballistic mechanisms involving helical plates or water pressure into the air to land elsewhere. Plants outfit their seeds with stickers or prickles to attach them to fuzzy things (as anyone having walked through a patch of burr grass wearing socks will know), and with tasty rewards around them (fruit) to encourage animals to move them about. Most seeds of higher plants are quickly killed by salt water, but there are plants that have adapted to colonising islands and traversing oceans by outfitting their seeds with special sailing equipment.

Seeds of sea heart necklace

Seeds of sea heart necklace

A walk along any windward beach in the Turks & Caicos Islands is likely to introduce a beachcomber to these infant sailing marvels. Many of them look like seeds (or at least are identifiable as something that came from a plant) but a few exist outside the characteristics of immediate recognition as a pod or seed. Friends have come to me with examples of these seeds, asking if they are shells, egg cases, carvings, beads or some other non-plant natural phenomenon. Many people are intrigued by them; I was, and so long ago, when I found my first seed on a beach, I set out to learn more about them.
Seeds found on beaches are typically referred to in the hobby — and yes, there is a hobby — as “drift seeds.” Drift seeds drift on ocean currents, either deliberately or by accident: deliberately, to settle new lands; by accident, to perish among the waves. They have intrigued people for centuries, including beachcombers, sailors, alchemists and herbal healers. In some cases they have caused complex mythology around their being, and they have captivated admirers enough that several international organisations and expositions are centred around them. But for the common beach walker who comes across a drift seed, most often the lucky finder simply wants to know what the strangely beautiful object is —and that is what will be explained here. There are about 125 species of plants that have seeds designed to float on ocean water, and some of these may be able to float and still sprout after 30 years.
Some of these 125 species of drift seeds are straightforward and easy to identify. The most commonly-known and possibly the most efficiently purpose-built drift seeds of all, the luxury yacht of drift seeds, is the common coconut. Coated with a smooth, sleek outer skin, wrapped in airy, floating husk, and holding a generous reserve of sterile food and water inside an extremely hard shell, the coconut can drift on ocean currents for months before being washed onto shore. Any coconut that retains it water supply until it is washed up above the high tide mark will certainly sprout. While coconuts grow happily inland, they are designed to grow along shores and lean out over the sea, where they can set their new little embryo-carrying yachts on courses to new islands. Coconuts are native to the tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans, but humans have carried them to the tropical Atlantic as well, where they figure into Caribbean and Central American diet, culture and lore.
Many of the coconuts we find on Turks & Caicos beaches originate from trees on Hispaniola. Once these coconuts still have their husk intact and retain their water reserves (shake it to tell), they can be planted. Some growers prefer to lay the coconut down on its side and bury it 2/3 of its height into the ground; others prefer to plant it pointed-end-down halfway into a pot. Within several months (provided fresh water is steadily available) the coconut will sprout and grow quickly into a large plant. With enough fresh water, rich soil and full sun available, a beach-combed coconut can grow large enough to produce its own coconuts within five to ten years. One caveat though — these shipwrecked coconuts will be of unknown genetic provenance, and may not be varieties resistant to lethal yellowing disease. For a coconut tree that will last a lifetime, be sure to invest in a known named variety from a nursery — otherwise, be happy with your non-pedigreed coconut but be prepared that it may not survive if disease strikes. These mutt coconuts do seed themselves on shores of the Turks & Caicos Islands occasionally, but due to our rapidly shifting sands and infrequent rains, most do not survive unless planted further inland by people.
Seeds of large grey nickers

Seeds of large grey nickers

Other drift seeds may not be as well outfitted as the coconut, but are also better adapted to growing immediately along the seashore. The mysterious blue floating stones of the sea are a prime example of a plant not at all fussy about where they grow. Known as burners or briar in the Turks & Caicos, large grey nickers Caesalpinia bonduc are one of the beach’s beauties when it comes to drift seeds. About the size of a marble (the Dutch word for the same is the origin of the name) and smoothly coated in a blue-grey shell, these seeds have myriad uses and can be found growing here. Two or three of these polished-looking beans grow in each prickly pod the plant produces, falling out after the pods open and shake in the breeze. The seed of the plant is its only smooth part. The rest of the liana (tree-sized vine) is completely covered — stems, leaves and flower stalks — in sharply curved spines. The liana grows in tangled mounds on sand dunes, where land crabs seek shelter from night herons.
Despite the decidedly grouchy nature of the plant, the smooth seeds have myriad uses for people. Good luck talismans, jewellery, and decorations have been made from them. Similar species bear yellow or brown seeds, though these are far less commonly washed up on TCI shores. The seeds’ habit of drifting from the Caribbean on the Gulf Stream for the last few thousand years means that they ended up in places as far as Scotland (where they were thought to be seeds of seaweed) and Scandinavia (where they were considered rocks), where (although it was far too cold for them to grow) they brought value as “eagle stones,” rumoured to ward off the evil eye, prevent miscarriage, and yield medicines. Eagle stones were reputedly placed by eagles in their nests to ward off illness and misfortune, and could bring similar effects to human possessors. They were so sought after to prevent miscarriage that they were even counterfeited in early times!
Medicinally, the ground inner seed germ has been used to treat dysentery, worms and malaria, and in the Caribbean the same has been used to ease stomach complaints. In the Eastern Caribbean game wari (a variation on the African game oware or mancala) they serve as game pieces, and as marbles and buttons. An Antiguan acquaintance informed me of one of the most peculiar and novel uses of these seeds. When a blue land crab makes its home in a place where it is not wanted (such as burrowing into a garden or lawn), a handful of nickers down its burrow will frustrate the crab so much — because it cannot grip the smooth seeds to dig them out of its burrow — that it will abandon the uncomfortable home!
Aside from evicting crabs from holes near home, these seeds have another use that earns them the local name “burners.” Children will rub the seeds on a surface briskly until the friction makes them hot. The thick shell holds the heat well, long enough to run to a classmate and touch the hot seed to their skin, “burning” them. Having volunteered to be the recipient of a burn to verify that this actually works, I can affirm that it indeed produces an uncomfortably warm sensation on the skin — though possibly not enough that it would make me move out of my house the way it might a crab.
It was a different drift seed that reputedly aggravated a different sort of move from home. One of the most conspicuous and commonly encountered drift seeds is the sea heart Entada gigas. Winning the award as the world’s largest legume, these individual beans can be nearly five centimetres across and come in a pod up to two metres long. The mother plant is, like the nicker bean, a liana, or tree-sized woody vine, able to grow to 100 feet in a year and a half, to and across the tops of rainforest trees. Its name in most of Latin America is “escalera de mono,” monkey’s ladder, and it is likely used as such. The liana prefers to grow along rivers and estuaries of the wet tropics, and our sea hearts may arrive from the Greater Antilles, South and Central America or West Africa. They are known to inhabit the wet tropics around the world and could possibly come from as far away as Southeast Asia or Australia. These seeds also ride the Gulf Stream to Europe, and it is this habit that supposedly encouraged Columbus to follow his hunch that Asia could be found by sailing up-current and south.
Medicinally, the germ of sea hearts has been used as both a fertility enhancer and a contraceptive in different parts of the world. Sea hearts have also been used as snuff boxes for nearly a thousand years, and it is possible that Columbus made the connection between the smooth, chestnut-brown sea hearts washing up on the incoming warm currents with the polished snuff boxes arriving over the easterly trade routes from Asia. Today, the local name for sea hearts in the Azores remains “fava de Colom:” Columbus bean.
Seeds of the antidote vine

Seeds of the antidote vine

About the size and shape of the Columbus bean but lacking its smooth finish, the antidote vine’s seed Fevillea cordifolia is commonly found, but is not nearly as talented a seafarer as the other drift seeds. A corky shell lets in too much sea water if the seed drifts too far, and most of those found on TCI beaches are well-expired and have no hope of growing. This seed, unlike most of the other drift seeds, is not a member of the pea family, but is actually a strangely-disguised cucumber family seed. It was reputed in its native Brasil to have a number of purgative, anti-toxic and healing properties, hence its common name.
Cow itch seeds

Cow itch seeds

With perhaps a less-famous etymology than the Columbus bean and less powerful than antidote vine, the comically-named, similar but smaller drift seed that impresses lucky finders with its colour and pattern is the hamburger bean. It looks like a cartoon version of its namesake — a dark brown patty sandwiched between two tan toasted buns. Known as “ojo de buey” in Latin America — ox’s eye — this beautiful bean may be the seed of several species of cow itch vines Mucuna. Their common English name comes from the terribly irritating hairs that cover the seed pods, looking like soft, fuzzy velvet. Any overly curious person who happens to rub the pod to feel this deceptive flocking, such as me, is in for a painful surprise. The hairs are actually trichomes, a fancy botanical word referring to micro-spines whose sole purpose is to cause intense itching and pain when they are stabbed into the skin of a botanist who just had to get too close. The irritation of these trichomes is legendary — a colleague in Montserrat regaled to me a popular local yarn about devious political party members having rubbed the irritant hairs in other’s robes to prevent their opposition from sitting in the Parliament sessions. Several colleagues throughout the Lesser Antilles agreed that “cow-itching” was a sly, cheap, but well-employed political trick; at least one colleague firmly believed that there was a strict legislative ordinance against said activity in their jurisdiction. Whilst I can vouch for the severe, intense irritation caused by the trichomes of the hamburger bean pods, I will also reveal that I have found said irritation less severe and intense than that which is caused by members of their typical target group. Thankfully for the beachcomber and the politician in Turks & Caicos, the seeds typically wash up without their vicious pod, and they do not typically grow here. Furthermore, to grow pods the flowers must be pollinated, and they are specialised to be pollinated by species of bats that do not occur in TCI.
Less irritating but just as bat-pollinated are the similar and also cutely-named zipper purse beans of the genus Dioclea. These beans have a plain flat edge and a round edge that is lined with a double band of a different colour from the rest of the bean (they come in a variety of colours), said to resemble a flat-bottomed purse with a round zippering top. These seeds are less common and usually originate from South and Central America, from where they more typically flow out to the Pacific Ocean and wash up on the shores of Polynesian islands.
Not all sea beans come from the continents. Another home-grown sea bean, like the large grey nicker, is the bay bean Cannavalia maritima. Another liana, this vine sprawls along sand dunes, coastal coppices, and formerly the front of the author’s home. Three large, succulent leaflets virtually impervious to insects and purple flowers that resemble sweet pea blossoms make this plant an excellent landscape choice for seaside gardens.
The plant does come with its dangers though. The beautifully striped brown and tan beans are borne in thick, airy pods that hold a deadly secret. The pod is full of a cocktail of wildly psychoactive alkaloids that are both extremely addictive and hyper-hallucinogenic. It is said that the first time a person indulges in drugging themselves with this pod, they become irreversibly addicted as well as terribly ill. The second time they take a dose to quell their addiction, the toxic build-up kills them. While “smoking may be hazardous to your health” is not printed on the pods, one would be well advised to neither combust nor consume the pods or their seeds. The plant is worth growing for its looks and ease-of-care though, and makes a spectacular shade vine for a pergola or arbour. A word of warning from experience though — encouraging the bay bean vine to grow up to the eaves of the roof may result in said eves being wrenched off of the house and pulled down by what will eventually become a massively heavy and powerful liana.
If the bay bean is one of our smaller drift seeds, one of the largest must be the calabash. If the coconut is the luxury yacht of drift seeds (holding just one powerful passenger), the calabash is the ocean liner of drift seeds. Calabashes are large, hollow, woody spheres or ellipses, and they grow on the calabash tree Crescentia cujete, a shrubby, dense tree with brown, bat-pollinated flowers that is from South American but was widely distributed throughout the Caribbean by the Carib and Taino peoples. Each woody case carries hundreds of small, flat seeds, which are surrounded by a poisonous pulp. However, the seed cases were of infinite use to the Caribbean aboriginal peoples — they were used to make bowls, water canteens, musical instruments, and various containers. Even today they are the primary ingredient in making a set of maracas, and calabash souvenirs from islands where they are common include purses, rattles, curio boxes and spinning shakers (which incidentally also use a sea heart in their construction!).
Calabash trees do not naturally occur in the Turks & Caicos, and they are unusually short-lived trees (particularly in the dry tropics) so any brought here in Taino times would be long dead. There used to be a few around Lorimers, Middle Caicos, but these appear to have died out as well. Today several can be found in TCI gardens, particularly those owned by enthusiasts of this most useful plant.
Aside from the coconut, grey nickers and bay bean, the other drift seeds are unlikely to grow in TCI. That is not to say they can’t grow — a persistent gardener can certainly coax still-viable drift seeds to life. The large grey nickers, sea heart, hamburger bean and zipper purse bean need only be thoroughly scratched with a sharp knife (along the edge furthest from the hilum, the scar where the seed was attached to its pod — its belly button) and soaked in clean, fresh water until they swell. They are then planted in deep, wet peat moss and the pot is wrapped in a plastic bag and placed in a shaded area until the sprouts appear. The sea heart, hamburger bean, and zipper purse beans will immediately need some sort of strong trellis to grow up, and plenty of water to survive.
Drift seeds are not always grown, they are often simply collected. A community of enthusiasts is active online and holds symposiums and meetings in south Florida and along the Atlantic coast of the United States. The website (and others — search “sea beans” or “drift seeds”) is an excellent source of information and has an identification guide to the common and rare drift seeds of the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean. Collectors pride themselves in finding rare drift seeds, long-distance travellers and sea beans that are near-perfect in looks even after having sailed across the open sea. Some collectors shine their finds in rock polishers or with buffers and lacquers; others make elaborate jewellery out of them. There are competitive group sea-bean hunts (particularly after intense sea storms) in some areas, and extensive museum-like collections grace the homes of some enthusiasts. Drift seeds are sometimes even sold in sea shell shops in tourist areas, branching from the old belief that they were the seeds of some unknown ocean-bottom plant.
Drift seeds’ uses are extensive — medicines, talismans, crab-evictors, food, deadly psychoactive drugs, political majority thwarters, containers and baubles — and they remain as intriguing to beachcombers today as they have been throughout history. Their looks are beautiful to bizarre, and there are many more types than are covered in these pages. The next time you have a walk along a windward TCI beach, keep a lookout for some drift seeds. And politicians beware — knowing the enthusiasm of Turks & Caicos party supporters, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if future elected officials experience a telltale irritation after this article goes to print.


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Oct 22, 2010 15:15

Fascinating article about Sea Beans. I will link it on my website. Thank You!

Paul Mikkelsen
Dec 24, 2011 15:45

Fantastic article and photos! Kudos to the author and to “TIMES of the Islands”. I’ve provided a link to this article on my seabean website:

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