Helicopter Seeds

Hello! In this tutorial, we are going to learn all about helicopter seeds. Including, what they are, which trees they come from and why they spin as they fall. Afterwards, if you would love some more resources about our most common flying seeds. Are you ready? Lets get started!

Let's learn about helicopter seeds

What are helicopter seeds?

Helicopter seeds are a type of flying tree seed. There are actually two types of flying seeds – winged seeds and parachute seeds. Helicopter seeds are winged seeds, but they are not the only type of winged seeds. They are so named because they spin through the air as they fall – like helicopter propellers. (There are also non-spinning winged seeds.)

What are winged seeds called?

Helicopter seeds are known by several common names, including whirligigs, whirlibirds, spinning jennys and helicopter seeds. But, the real name for winged seeds, is a samara (while, parachute seeds are called pappi).

field maple

Which trees do helicopter seeds grow on?

Many trees produce winged seeds and helicopter seeds. But, in the British Isles, there are eight main types of flying tree seed:

  • Ash
  • Field maple
  • Hornbeam
  • Linden
  • Norway maple
  • Pine
  • Sycamore
  • Wych elm

We also have a few tiny flying seeds, such as those of birch and alder. (Also, linden is not technically a winged seed, as its ‘wing’ is actually a leaf and not attached to either the fruit or the seed. But, it is easily mistaken for one so is on my list). Meet our other nuts and seeds

Ash keys

Why do seeds need to fly?

The aim of all trees is to reproduce, and they do this via seeds. But, if a tree’s seeds landed straight at their feet, then the new, baby trees would compete with them for food, light and water. So, they try and send their seeds away, or disperse them. Flying is one way to do this.

How else do seeds disperse?

Apart from flying, seeds can also disperse by other ways:

  • They can hide inside tasty fruits and berries to be eaten and dispersed by animals and birds
  • They can be encased in tough outer shells to protect and encourage them to roll and bounce away
  • Some seeds are really light and tiny so they can blow away on the wind of be swept away by water
  • Winged seeds incorporate a thin membrane that acts like a sail and helps the seed fly away

Why do helicopter seeds spin as they fall?

Scientists have carried out all sorts of experiments to try and find out why helicopter seeds spin as they fall. The answer is pretty amazing. Much like a tornado as it whirls and spins, helicopter seeds create their own mini vortex, allowing them to spin gently instead of simply falling to the ground! This slows them down, giving them more time to fall and more time for the wind or air currents to carry them away. Find out how maple seeds spin as they fall

Which seeds look most like helicopter seeds?

Not all samaras look like helicopters. Some have only one wing (like ash and pine), others have lobed wings (hornbeam, birch and alder) and some have round wings (wych elm). There are three seeds which are paired and look like helicopters – field maple, Norway maple and sycamore. Meet our other nuts and seeds.

How to identify helicopter seeds

The three big ‘helicopter-type seeds’, field maple, Norway maple and sycamore, can be a little tricky to identify at first, but there are a few ways to tell them apart.

  • Look at their wings – Field maple wings are wide and almost horizontal, while sycamore seed wings are small and close together. Finally, Norway maple seeds hold their wings in a downwards sloping angle.
  • Look at their leaves – If in doubt, try and find their parent trees. Field maple leaves have 3-5 rounded lobes, while Norway maple has sharp, pointy, star-shaped leaves. Finally, sycamore leaves have 5-7 lobes and are in-between field maple and Norway maple in roundness/sharpness.
  • Compare their seeds and leaves in our trees field guide

How to identify other winged seeds

Our other winged seeds are also pretty easy to identify once you know what to look for.

  • Ash tree helicopter seeds hang in bundles of keys. They are readily seen, especially in the autumn and winter – they look like big brown bundles hanging on the tree.
  • Hornbeam tree seeds are three lobed, with their seed nestled at the top, between the three lobes.
  • Linden grows with its wing-like leaf wrapped around a stem, and its seeds nestled inside small clusters of fruit dangling beneath the stem.
  • Pine seeds have a triangular or wedge-shaped wing, with oval-shaped seeds at the bottom.
  • Wych elm seeds are round, with their seed nestled in the middle.
  • You can see all our flying tree seeds here.
hornbeam seeds

Samara Nature Study

Which helicopter seeds can you find?

Do you think you could identify these seeds if you found them? Remember to use all available clues to help you. 

  • Take a look at the leaves and the colours of the leaf stalks (sycamore, field maple and Norway maple leaves all look very similar, but sycamore has red stems.)  
  • If the seeds are still joined together, look at the angle between them. Sycamore seeds are quite close together; field maple are polarised away from each other, and Norway maple is in-between.  
  • How many blades does the seed have? Hornbeam has three blades.
  • Do they grow in bunches? Look at the ash seeds, for example.
  • Where is the seed in relation to the wing? In Linden, the wing wraps around the stem, with the seeds hanging beneath. Hornbeam, has its seed nestled between the three blades. And in ash, the seed is right at the very top. 

How to play with your helicopter seeds?

Onto the fun part! How to fly your helicopter seeds!

  • First – find your helicopter seed. Often you can find them lying on the ground. 
  • Pick it up, high, high, high… as high as you possibly can
  • Twist the stem between your fingers
  • Let it go…
  • Weeeeaaa!!!
  • See how it twists and twirls its way back down to earth.
Try and look for different seeds. Do they all twirl and fall in the same way? Are some helicopters better than others?
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