Chapter 5:  Drift Seeds

Seeds, like people, can be intercontinental travelers. Those that travel by water, aimlessly drifting with the currents or driven by stormy seas may travel thousands of miles before reaching their debarkation point.  Tropical seeds that travel out to sea are known as drift seeds.  Though most tropical seeds are too heavy to float, some can drift in sea water for as long as two years and still remain viable.

The South Atlantic equatorial current transports drift seeds from the west coast of Africa to the coasts of Brazil and the West Indies.  Drift seeds from the Amazon and Orinoco may travel to the shores of western Europe via the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current, a voyage of 15,000 kilometers.

If fate brings them to a warm climate they may germinate.  If it is their destiny to land on a temperate shore they are likely to become a souvenir for someone's pocket or dresser drawer.  Often they are regarded by the finder as a good luck omen.  Some, like the nickernut, Caesalpinia bonduc, have become objects of practical use such as buttons or marbles.  The sea heart, Entada gigas, served as a handy container for matches and snuff.

In 1570 two European botanists were the first to record tropical seeds stranded on a temperate beach.  They thought the tropical seeds had arrived from the New World because of favorable winds (the Gulf Stream was unknown at that time).  Lay people who found them believed they grew on underwater trees. Fanciful stories and lore were attributed to these botanical visitors from across the sea.1

Some seeds that drift are included under other headings in this book.  For instance, coconut is described in the Palm section and the black walnut is listed with North American trees.  Over 200 species are known in the literature as drifters, some of which are shown on the following pages.