Botany Blueprint: The Mountain Mahogany

Specimen #12: Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)

he mountain mahogany’s spiraling seeds are designed for flight. Affixed with a silver-haired coiled plume, they remain nested in their dried tubular calyx until the suggestion of wind exhorts an inclination to disperse. While this is a perfect adaptation for mountain top life and its strong late summer gusts, it also proves a challenge for collectors. The peregrine seeds do not sit still. I found these specimens on a high altitude hike, and clipped them from a somewhat shielded bluff. By the time we reached the summit, the dry winds had roused the seeds from the branches and the little spiraled feathers began their journey, swarming the arms of my jacket. I plucked these from their inhospitable germinating spot, and the rest I coaxed into immobility with one hand shielding the wind.

Appropriately, it is from these signature seeds that the mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) derives its name. Cercocarpus comes from the Greek kerkos, for tail, and carpos, or fruit. Its pale yellow flowers are small, inconspicuous, and lack petals — so the plant is rather unremarkable, and hard to identify, until the blossoms give way to the ripening seeds and silver halo of winding coils. On the topic of its name, however, due attention has been paid to another adaptive trait: the leaves. Commonly known as the curl-leaf mountain mahogany, each leaf has a margin that turns inward. This curvature limits the amount of surface area exposed to the sun and wind, which helps the plant thrive in its adapted climate: hot, dry, and fire prone. It is a tough plant, thriving on rocky, windswept soils.

Technically a shrub, the curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) can reach up to thirty feet tall. And, while it doesn’t begin to produce seeds until 10-15 years of growth, a prolific yield of well-designed fruits seems to more than make up for its early years. The seeds are a popular source of winter food for deer and elk, but the opportunistic foragers must act quickly. When the spiraled plume lands, it’s poised — literally — to nestle into the earth. Autumn’s adjusting humidity causes the tail to alternately straighten and recoil (a response to moisture and a lack thereof, respectively). This movement drives the seed deeper and deeper. Once lodged in the soil, it releases the tail and begins to grow roots for another mountain mahogany.

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