December 12, 2016

'Drift' seeds find their way to our beaches from afar


Living on an isolated island as a child, I was fascinated with all the different aspects of nature.  We had little to distract us from the beauties that surrounded us each day.  I learned to love and respect the different habits of each creature that roamed the woods or lived in the ocean.   With each change in the seasons, there came new and exciting things for me to observe and learn.   

As fall approached, the one thing that took center stage was the formation of seeds on the vines, grasses, shrubs, and trees.  It was a happy time for the birds and the animals.  Squirrels could be seen flitting from tree to tree.  Flocks of birds fed on the seeds.  Cooler days and nights also led to a change in the sounds that echoed throughout the day.  The chatter of the squirrels and songs of the birds seemed sharper and clearer in the fall.

 With the coming of each fall, I still find myself collecting seeds to dry and store for spring planting. To me, it is still is a joy to observe the different kinds of seeds produced by plants. It is even a greater joy to have someone give me a seed that I am not familiar with, and to plant that seed and wait eagerly to see what kind of plant it will produce. Nothing gives a gardener any greater joy than to have someone give him a seed, or to provide another person seeds.   Seed-sharing has a way of bonding people.

When Mary and I operated our shop -- the Old Gray House on Light Plant Road in Buxton -- the Wahls family from Athens, Ala., would come to visit with us every year.  One of their boys, Ethan, would bring me either a plant or seeds.  Even though Ethan and I were miles apart in distance and age, our seed-sharing became a bond between us.  I looked forward to his visit each year and was always prepared to have something to share with him.  Mind you, our annual meeting was only for a short time, but our plant- and seed-sharing memory lasted for the entire year until his next visit. Ethan’s memory will always be with me when seed time comes.

Living on the ocean, we have an extra joy -- it's not just island plants that provide us seeds.  It is the ocean itself.  To obtain these seeds, you walk the beach.  The best place to find these seeds is in the wrack at the high-water mark, where you will see the seaweed or trash that has been deposited after the tides recede. 

I hate to mention the word "trash," for it shows how little respect many people have for the environment.  Lots of people, sorry to say, would not take the time to put their trash in a garbage can if it was within an arm's reach from them. Some even toss out their bottles and cans as they drive along the beach.   Little do they realize the damage they do to the environment when they recklessly toss their trash on the beach.  Their actions are responsible for the death of much of the sea life that gets entangled in the trash.  There is no excuse for anyone to trash our beaches or waters.  Severe punishment should be imposed on them. 

 Anyway, if you should see me walking along the beach and kicking the seaweed, it is not because I am mad.  It is because I am searching for seeds that came riding in on the ocean waves.  Kicking is one way of seeing what is concealed within the seaweed.  A better way is to gently rake through the seaweed to find seeds. 

Seeds you find on the beach are called drift seeds.  They are seeds that are carried to our beaches from faraway places, such as the Caribbean or even South America.  Some of these seeds have been traveling the ocean highways, or currents, for long periods of time or maybe even years before they are deposited on our beach as a result of the wind and waves.  If you have not done so, I recommend you obtain a map of the ocean currents so that you can understand where some of the treasures you see originated.  

Part of the fun of scouring the beach for treasures is to try to determine the origin of the objects you find.  Seeds are a just one of the things that come to us by way of the ocean currents.  We even have such items as refugee boats from Cuba wash up on our beach, which is what happened during hurricane Matthew.

Islanders of old understood the value of the ocean currents.  After every storm, they dashed to the beach to collect all types of articles, such as lumber and buoys.  Many of the old homes on the island were built out of lumber and even had furnishings made out of things that washed up on the beach after storms.  Crews from ships passing by the island sometimes threw building materials overboard, which provided another  source for residents to use.

In the 1930s, most of the yards on the island were dotted with things found on the beach.  It was common to see big buoys, ship's wheels, bells, driftwood, and sand walkways lined with large horse conch or whelk shells.   Even gravesites were lined with large shells.  All this was soon to disappear as sand roads became hard roads and access to the island no longer was dependent on a small wooden ferry. 

With the coming of the Cape Hatteras National Park in 1953 and the building of Bonner Bridge in 1963, life changed dramatically for all who lived on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. Thousands of tourists poured onto the islands.  Many of those who made day trips from the mainland to the Hatteras Island just naturally assumed things people had collected on the beach that was in their yards and along the roads was theirs for the picking.  And picking they did.  No longer was island life the simple life it was.  Now the new norm became "What is yours is mine for the taking."   Before the bridge, it was "What is yours is yours, and I honor and protect your property rights."

Now it is seldom you see beach treasures displayed in people’s yards unless they are bolted down to keep them from being stolen.  Even then, residents have to be careful as the things they display might result in a visit from the National Park Service. It is illegal to collect artifacts from the beach. 

I recall when an organization on the island first began they asked for donations of artifacts or information about things and the location where people had found them on the island.   An islander showed them some of the things he had found, not intending to donate them.  He had items such as cannon balls from the Civil War and Indian relics he had found before the National Park Service owned the land.   He was told it was illegal for him to have those things in his possession.  As he put it, “They kept my stuff.”

Incidents like this have led the islanders to whisper only to the closest of family members and friends about items they found over the years and the locations where they found them.   It's a shame that because of such an air of distrust, many secrets of the past hidden in the woods and items washed up on the beaches will probably never be known.  

As far as I know drift seeds are not classified as artifacts.  You can still enjoy collecting them and dreaming about the faraway places they came from.   I am not an authority on drift seeds, but if you want information on these seeds that fall in the ocean from some plant along the water’s edge and float on the currents to our beach, you can readily find it with the aid of the Internet   The fun in collecting these seeds is to identify them, learn where they came from, and learn about the plant that produced them.

I will mention one drift seed that is my all-time favorite.  It is the drift seed or sea bean known as a "Sailor's Good Luck Charm."  Its other names are the Monkey’s Ladder, Sea Heart, Columbus Bean, and Entada gigas.  I wrote an article about them years ago and gave away and sold thousands of them as good luck charms to friends and visitors to our island.  

You might want to read the article about my daddy’s sea bean that was published by Irene Nolan, now editor of the Island Free Press, in May of 2002 --

Should you have one of my sea beans, rub it for good luck and wish Mary Parr and I good luck as we begin our new adventures in life.

(Dewey Parr and his wife, Mary, owned the Old Gray House Gifts and Shells in Buxton for 25 years. It was their "retirement" project when they opened it up in 1991, and on Sept. 30, they closed the store and moved on to a new "retirement." You can still check them out on the Facebook Page,

comments powered by Disqus