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Welcome! In this article, we will learn all about helicopter seeds – what they are and where they come from. We hope you enjoy reading it!

Table of contents

Topic Overview

Here is a quick summary of some helicopter seed facts:

  • There are eight helicopter seeds. We have eight main types of flying tree seeds – ash, field maple, hornbeam, linden, Norway maple, pine, sycamore and wych elm.
  • Winged seeds are called samaras. Winged seeds are known by many names, including whirigigs, spinning Jennys and helicopter seeds. But their official name is a samara.
  • They need wings to fly. Being able to fly  helps them travel away from their parent tree so they are not competing for light and food.
  • There are several types of wing. Some seeds have two wings, others have one and some even have three. They may be long and elongated, round, on either side of the seed, at the top or at the bottom.
  • They create mini  tornadoes as they spin. By creating their own tornado-like vortex, helicopter seeds spin gently downwards, giving them time to disperse, instead of falling straight to the ground.

Keep reading to learn more …

Which Trees Produce Winged Seeds?

Winged tree seeds are called samaras and across Britain and northern Europe, there are eight main types. (There are also a few others, but these are smaller.) Together, the big eight are:

  • Ash
  • Field Maple
  • Hornbeam
  • Linden
  • Norway Maple
  • Pine
  • Sycamore
  • Wych Elm

Ash Keys

(Fraxinus excelsior)

The seeds of the ash tree are also known as ash keys. You can spot their bunches dangling from  curved, upward arching branches in woodlands and hedgerows. In the spring and summer, they are green and may blend into the leaves. But in autumn and winter, they turn brown and are easily seen.

ash keys seeds

Field Maple

(Acer campestre)

Field Maple seeds are readily found in parks, fields, hedgerows and woodlands. They are often tinged with pink as they mature, and grow almost horizontally away from each other.

field maple

Hornbeam

(Carpinus betulus)

Hornbeam seeds have a very characteristic shape. Notice the three lobes to their wings? While seeds of birch and aspen can also show this three lobed pattern, they are very tiny compared to the size of the hornbeam seed. So if you see a three-lobed helicopter seed, you can be pretty sure it is this.

Hornbeam

Linden

(Tilia europea)

Linden seeds are also quite different to the other seeds shown here. Their wings are wrapped around their stems, with the seeds themselves held in a little cluster of one to three at the bottom of the stem.

linden

Norway Maple

(Acer platanoides)

Norway maple has a wing angle in between that of field maple and sycamore, making it easy to distinguish. Although, this may become difficult unless you can find two seeds still stuck together. If you can find its parent tree, the leaves can help to tell them apart.

identifying helicopter seeds - norway maple seed

Sycamore

(Acer pseudoplatanus)

Sycamore seeds are very easy to find in parks, hedgerows, woodlands and fields. Try to find a pair still joined together. Their seeds are held quite closely together and are much smaller in size than field or Norway maple.

identifying sycamore seeds, what are helicopter seeds

Wych Elm

(Ulmus glabra)

The seeds of the Wych elm are pretty different to the rest of the seeds shown here, and therefore not easy to confuse with the others. They grow and often fall in clusters, with their seeds enveloped in the middle of a thin, round, papery wing.

wych elm seeds

Why are they called helicopter seeds?

Because, they are seeds that fly!

They have wings to help them travel, so they can move away from their parent plants and grow into new trees. 

Helicopter seeds are known by all sorts of fun names, including:

  • Whirligigs
  • Whirlybirds
  • Wingnuts
  • Keys
  • Spinning jennys.

Why do they have wings?

When producing its seeds, the objective of a tree is to be able to disperse them as far away from itself as possible. This prevents any offspring from competing with it for food, water and light, and in the future, reduces the chances of cross-pollination. 

To accomplish this trees have adapted several mechanisms:

  • They either hide their seeds inside tasty fruits and berries to be eaten and dispersed by birds or animals
  • Encase them in tough outer shells to protect them as they roll and bounce to the ground
  • Produce tiny little seeds that blow away on the wind
  • Or incorporate a thin membrane onto the seeds to help them fly away.

Why do they spin as they fall?

Scientists have carried out all sorts of experiments on helicopter seeds to find out why they spin as they fall, and 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!

Which seeds look most like helicopters?

There are three tree seeds that most resemble helicopter propellers. They are:

  • Field maple
  • Norway maple
  • Sycamore

These three seeds are very easy to confuse. But, once you know the difference between them, they are pretty easy to identify.

Look at their wings

An easy way to differentiate between these three seeds, is to look at the angle between the seeds’ wings. 

  • Horizontal wings are field maple
  • Wings close together are sycamore
  • Seeds with an angle in between these, are Norway maple

Look at their Leaves

Another way to differentiate between these seeds, is to find their parent trees and have a look at their leaves. 

  • Field maple often has three rounded lobes.
  • Norway maple has five, sharply pointed lobes
  • Sycamore has five pointy, but much shallower lobes.

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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