Winged Fruit – All in a spin

Helicopters, Whirlybirds – What am I talking about?

You might have been hoping I meant proper helicopters? Instead, I mean the beautiful winged fruit (yes, they are not a seed!) of Field Maple, Ash, Sycamore and Norway Maple. These are the four species of tree that have these in the UK.

Red Maple

The botanical name for them is Samara. However, there have been various nicknames for them, including Spinning Jennys, Wing-nuts, Whirlybirds and my favourite, Whirligigs. These are all inspired by the way they spiral through the air as they fall from the trees.

The actual seed is either in the centre of the winged fruit (elm) or to one side (ash). The sycamore has a double Samara with two winged seeds joined together – this is the helicopter structure we all have come to enjoy.

I clearly remember my brother and me going to my grandparents and spending hours playing with them in their garden. We would drop them from as far as we could reach. Watching them hover and twirl like helicopters to land delicately on the ground.

It is the same aerodynamics that keeps these seeds in the air that hummingbirds, bats and some insects use to hover. It is also these aerodynamics that allows them a better chance of being successful. They can travel further and into more space where they can then start germinating.

So next time you come across them, stop and pretend you are a kid once again, and enjoy watching the beauty of them fall to the ground.

Did you know?

In 2001, The New Scientist reported that helicopter seeds like those had inspired an attempt to build a single-bladed helicopter! For more information on how they are influencing the design of helicopters have a read of:

2 thoughts on “Winged Fruit – All in a spin”

  1. Really interesting to find out all the different names – they always have been and always will be spinning Jennys to me though!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *