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Helicopter seeds: which trees do they come from?

 Looking towards the Twywell Plantation from the village with sycamore trees in the foreground, near Kettering, Northamptonshire. (Photo: WTML)
Looking towards the Twywell Plantation from the village with sycamore trees in the foreground, near Kettering, Northamptonshire. (Photo: WTML)

In the UK you can find native and non-native trees which produce helicopter seeds. These trees are field maple, ash, sycamore, and Norway maple. The term 'helicopter seeds' was coined based on the way these seeds spiral through the air during dispersal. In botanical terminology these are winged seeds known as samaras. 

Identifying trees from their seed

The seeds produced by each tree are unique to the species. This means that even though all four of these species produce seeds that spiral through the air, the design of each seed is different enough that you can tell which tree each seed has originated from. A fun way to identify the different seeds and their trees is to think of the seeds as moustaches of famous people.

  • Clark Gable is field maple
  • Frank Zappa for sycamore
  • Wyatt Earp is Norway maple
  • Ash is... well no one's quite sure!

Seedlings and their famous lookalikes, left to right: Field maple (Photo: WTML/P. Sterry) and Clark Gable; sycamore (Photo: WTML/NPL) and Frank Zappa (Photo: Jean-Luc Ourlin).

Norway maple (Photo: WTML/NPL) looks a twin of gun-toting Wyatt Earp; ash (Photo: WTML/P. Sterry), and no one's quite sure who the ash seedling looks like...

Where can you find these trees? 

Field maple is often found in hedgerows on farms or in woodlands and gardens. It is a native tree which is extremely colourful in autumn. 

Norway maple is a non-native tree with a high tolerance for compact soils and shady places. This makes it a good tree for urban areas, so it is often found in our towns and cities as a street tree. 

Sycamore is a broadleaved woodland species that was introduced to the UK in the 17th century. It is also very colourful during the autumn, making it hard to miss, and is now widespread in our woodlands. 

Ash is native to the UK and is a dominant species in the landscape. Unfortunately, the spread of chalara may change this dynamic for future generations. 

Inspirational seed

New Scientist reported in 2011 that helicopter seeds like ash had inspired an attempt to build a single bladed helicopter! Today you can find a few model helicopters for sale designed to fly on a single blade. Unlike the seeds though, the model helicopters don’t spin through the air.

We are working with Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank on its UK National Tree Seed Project; our volunteers have been collecting the seed of native tree species including field maple and ash. The objective of the project is to build up a seed bank to safeguard the genetic diversity of our trees and provide seeds to universities and other researching bodies to address a range of unanswered questions. The work of this project is generously funded through the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery and made possible by our volunteers. 

Gone with the wind

More on seed dispersal