At a certain point, most of us get “the talk” from mom or dad, explaining where babies come from.
When it comes to plants, the birds and the bees can get a bit more complicated – even, sometimes, involving actual birds and bees! But one of the most beautiful blossoms that come from this process are wonderful achenes.
While humans have one standard method of reproduction, plants actually have a number of different ways to spread their seeds, with achenes representing the offspring borne of a very specific type of plant procreation.
So to understand just exactly what achenes are, it might be helpful to first understand the line of fruits they come from.
In the world of botany, achenes are officially designated as a simple, dry fruit with monocarpellates and an indehiscent characteristic.
Got it? Not really? Don’t worry – this stuff is pretty dense. But we can break it down a bit:
First, all fruits are considered either “aggregate,” “multiple” or “simple.” This designation refers to how a fruit gets its start on a cellular level, either through many ovaries of the same flower, the fused ovaries of multiple flowers, or a single ovary of one flower, respectively.
Simple fruits are then further divided into categories of “fleshy” or “dry,” depending on whether they include a layer of certain texture-promoting tissues under their skin.
And aside from the methods that bore them, fruits are also categorized on what type of equipment they have to reproduce. “Monocarpellates” do so with the help of what is sometimes referred to as a superior ovary: A singular structure that includes nearly everything a plant could ever need to make baby plants.
Finally, fruits are noted for their preferred process for seed dispersal, described as either “dehiscent” or “indehiscent.” The former will split or crack open when fully ripe, to distribute their seed pods, usually with a little help from wind or other movement. The latter stays shut tight, relying, typically, instead, on being passed around through the digestive tracts of other animals who may want to eat their fruits.
So out of all that scientific jargon, how do we shape the very special achene?
As stated above, these types of fruits are dry and simple with monocarpellates that live under indehiscent pods.
Which, in other words, means that acheneds come from the single ovary of a single flower. They don’t carry a characteristically juicy type of flesh. They reproduce, much like they’re created, through a single ovary. And even when fully ripe, the casing that covers their seeds stays closed.
Still, to make up for their indehiscent tendencies, many achenes have developed fuzzy or hair-like extensions, that let them blow in the wind, kind of like a dandelion flower seed. (This means they can sometimes go by yet another scientific designation: Diaspore.)
But, since the label of “achene” comes from a very specific classification system, the term may refer to a number of plants that may meet all the scientific criteria, but may not be what many people typically consider “fruit.”
Indeed, a list of achenes may not particularly get anyone’s mouth watering. Usually, these very special types of fruits are more widely considered “grains,” or frequently even confused with seeds themselves.
Some of the most familiar types of achenes include:
The small seed-like structures that stud a strawberry are also, technically, achenes, and not actually the fruit’s seed itself. And roses are also known to produce a clutch of achene fruits, though these are typically hidden inside the flowers.
The concept may sound a little confusing, but it’s one of the beautiful mysteries that makes this life just a little more delicious.