Every time I look at you you’re chewing.
“What’s that in your mouth?” I’ll say. Just ten months old, you respond with a closed-tooth grin. I sigh and approach you, opening my own mouth wide, hoping you’ll copy me so I can slip a finger in and fish out whatever mistaken hors d’oeuvre you’ve found beneath the lilac bush, where I have you sitting while I do a little weeding.
Well, they’re edible, I thought although the smaller, younger leaves tend to be less bitter and more palatable. You’ve also sampled the wispy seeds and the flower. Another favorite: white pine needles. I pull them out regularly, telling you that yes, they’re packed with Vitamin C, but taste better in teas than in salads.
Your favorite by far: maple seeds. No matter where I put you, you find them. Sure, they probably have protein, and even some omega-threes, I say, but let’s save them for the chipmunks. Rose-breasted grosbeaks eat them, too, I’m surprised to find, and rabbits and flying squirrels and foxes. In Vermont, up to 50 % of a porcupine’s diet consists of maple seeds, according to American Wildlife & Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits.
I put you in the middle of a large blanket while I plant a new strawberry patch, but you pull the blanket toward you until you can reach over the accordion of folds and fill both fists with maple seeds. I rush over and pull one out from between your lips by its long wing.
I anchor the corners of the blanket and put you back in the middle. Once you start to crawl, I confine you in the stroller at the edge of the garden, or in the laundry basket under the clothesline, offering up increasingly dangerous items for you to handle and suck on that I think will keep you satisfied (a set of binoculars, a child-proof pill bottle filled with buttons) but still the maple seeds find you, helicoptering down to your small territories like heralds with a message from wonderland: “Eat me,” they say.
It’s a mast year: the maples are producing a higher-than-normal number of seeds. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Certainly weather and climate play a role in just how many seeds a tree produces each year, and producing lots of seeds requires lots of resources, so a tree may not be able to produce as many seeds the year following a bumper crop. But there’s more to it than that. Masting could be a reproductive strategy for the tree: producing an occasional, surprise high yield overwhelms seed-eating animals, allowing more seeds to survive.
I’m not sure how effective that strategy will be in my yard this year, I think, as I watch you curl your toes toward another seed and grasp its wing between them. The maples didn’t know you were coming.