Winter is the perfect time to see Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia) in fruit, and to understand how this plant got its name.
Attached along the length of the standing stems of this plant are fruit capsules that look like perfectly carved wooden boxes, each with a convex top and rounded bottom, and with elaborate designs that appear to be carved on the cube’s lid.
These tiny decorative fruit capsules are often visible throughout winter, releasing the many tiny seeds inside through a pore on the top of the box, and eventually also by splitting open at the seams. Before the fruit capsule opens, the seeds may rattle, giving this plant another common name, Rattlebox.
How is this perfectly shaped fruit capsule produced? Who is responsible for the beautiful carvings on the lid? (Could it be tiny flower elves? Maybe there is a less magical explanation.)
Seedbox typically blooms in mid to late summer, usually July and August. Let’s look at the flowers and buds for an explanation.
In Seedbox buds, sepals are the outermost layer of flower parts. They are green and leaf-like, and play the role of bud scales, enclosing and protecting the other parts of the flower before it opens. The photo below shows a flower bud, enclosed by the sepals. In the upper right of the photo, there is a notch in the sepals at the base of the bud, a narrowing of the structure, and a squarish impression in the leafy covering. This covering is enclosing the flower’s ovary, the flower part destined to become the fruit capsule. We can see two sides of the ovary, already hinting at the box-like fruit capsule to come.
The purpose of the flowers is to attract visitors to assist with cross-pollination. The most effective pollinator will have a tongue long enough to reach the nectaries on the face of the ovary below, while brushing its body on the flower’s reproductive parts, including the Sweat Bee in the photo below, and some Bumble Bees. Other bees and beetles are known to visit the flowers for nectar and pollen, while flies, wasps, and butterflies only partake of the nectar.
The bee is rewarded for her pollination assistance with nectar and pollen for herself, and she will also carry some back to provision her nest for her larvae.
Let’s look at an open flower.
Working from the outer ring of flower parts layer by layer towards the center, each flower has four sepals, four yellow petals, four stamens (male reproductive parts) and one pistil (female reproductive part). The pistil consists of a stigma at its tip, where the pollen must be deposited in order for pollination to take place, the style, which positions the stigma and through which the pollen must travel to get to the ovary, which is at the pistil’s base. Seedbox stigmas look like miniature pompoms perched at the top of their pedestal-like styles. As the ovary ripens to a fruit capsule, if the pollen successfully reaches and fertilizes the ovules in the ovary, seeds will be produced.
If we look at the very center of the flower, we can see the petals, stamens and pistil attached to the square top of the ovary, with the sepals appressed to the four straight sides around the ovary’s outside edges.
The flower parts that made pollination possible eventually wither and drop off, leaving their mark on the face of the ripening fruit capsule.
The petals drop off after about a day, leaving tiny scars that can be seen at each corner of the developing fruit capsule’s topside. As the stamens drop off, each leaves a mark midway between the corners, just slightly in from the edge of the square.
Eventually the pistil’s stigma and style, positioned at the center of the flower above the ovary, drop off, leaving a round scar as a reminder of their role in the flower’s reproduction strategy.
Finally the sepals are gone, leaving the bare woody ‘seedbox’.
The face of a Seedbox fruit capsule records the history of its pollination story. The four large-ish evenly spaced ovals in each quadrant on the top of the fruit capsule were the nectaries, the source of the beverage that enticed the flower’s visitors.
Seedbox prefers moist soil, and can be found growing in wet meadows, prairies and woods, as well as in drainage ditches. It is native in Quebec and Ontario provinces in Canada, and in the United States from Vermont west to Wisconsin, southwest to Colorado, then south as far as Texas and the Florida panhandle. It is a member of the Evening-primrose (Onagraceae) family.
If you’re looking for something to do while waiting for spring, look for Seedbox!
Dedication: Pam, this is for you!
Illinois Wildflowers Flower Visiting Insects
Thank you Mary Ann for this post. In the fall of 2019 I purchased some Ohio ecotype seed, there was a mix up and I ended up with this little beauty! How fortunate is that? I saved the plants, but since I really didn’t know anything them I decided understanding what makes them tick would be one of my 2020 winter projects! Your post has been a wonderful place to start!
What a serendipitous error! I’m glad my post gave you a start in your quest for more information.
Wow, wow, wow. Amazing illustration of the complexity and beauty of this unusual plant. Thank you Mary Anne. You are a treasure!!!
Thank you, Pam! It’s such a cool plant.
Mary Anne, this is a wonderful illustrated essay on the Seedbox! I have a small collection of perfect little boxy seeds and I hope to be able to grow the plant in my garden this year. I think I’ll keep a few of the seeds just to look at, though…
Good plan! I’m glad you like the post.
What a great article, I look forward to finding this plant. Thanks
Thanks, Bridget! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Really interesting post. I’ve shared via Twitter: https://twitter.com/ExploringColour/status/1233855334801739776
Thank you for yet another beautiful and informative lesson in nature’s beauty and bounty. I am also going to look for seedbox near me!
Mary Anne thank you for this wonderful article. I have a few stems of the seed pods of Ludwigia alternifolia on my desk because I think they are tiny works of art. And now I know how they became so beautiful.
After reading your article I became curious about the genus name Ludwigia. I learned that Christian Gottlieb Ludwig was a prominent German botanist and physicist and was a strong critic of Linnaeus and his new system of plant classification. So to exasperate Ludwig, Linnaeus named a genus after him. (This was apparently a punishment Linnaeus sometimes bestowed on his critics.)
Happy ending though – Ludwig eventually came around to Linnaeus’ way of thinking!
Thanks for adding this to the story!
Pat Ludwig check out the seeds from the snapdragon, dried they look like little skulls.
Happy Leap Year, Mary Anne. I loved the mystery with the excellent build-up to the solution complete with magnificent photos. I am going out to look for a seed box. This is a wonderful gift for this last day in February.
I’m glad you enjoyed it! Good luck on your quest!
Thanks so much for this wonderful explanation! I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed this plant. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
Glad you enjoyed it!
Never seen it in the wild. Beauty!
It is beautiful!
What a remarkable flower! I’ve never been able to follow how this amazing seed capsule develops from the rather insignificant flower, and you’ve revealed the mystery to me. Your photography is beautiful. Thank you for teaching us about this charming plant =)
Thanks, Julie! I played wondering naturalist to figure it out.
Very informative botanical story with great photos! Thanks for your efforts!
Thanks, John! I’m glad you enjoyed it.