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Helicopter Seeds 101: A Comprehensive Guide for Gardeners

Do you know trees like Red Maple and Norway Maple produce winged seeds spinning like a helicopter?

Generally, Helicopter seeds are dry seeds or fruits with wings and papery coverings that spin in the air pivotally when they fall. These seeds are also called samara and need warm and cold stratification or only cold stratification to germinate rapidly.
The wings and the papery tissue over the light seeds allow easy floating or flying farther from the parent trees.

So, follow this article to quench your thirst for the varieties that produce Helicopter seeds and failproof tips to germinate them.

What do Helicopter Seeds Look Like?

You can find the trees like Field Maple, Ash, Sycamore, and Norway maple, producing Helicopter seeds often called Samara.

Helicopter seeds on the plate
You can eat your Helicopter seeds after removing their outer papery cover.

These seeds are edible; you can enjoy them after boiling them as a vegetable, removing the outer cover.

However, never feed them to your dogs as they are poisonous and cause vomiting and diarrhea.

Size5-15 mm wide and 20-50 mm long
ColorGreen, Reddish
ShapeV-shaped wings with rounded ends
Germination Time40-120 days
Blooming PeriodMarch- April or sooner in mild areas.
Flower ColorRed or yellow
Floral ArrangementsClusters

What is the Physics Behind Helicopter Seeds?

Helicopter seeds, also called dry fruits, have wings around them that give both downward and rotational motions when falling on the ground.

These winged seeds are often called whirligigs, spinning jenny, and wingnuts due to their appearance and motion.

Although Maple seeds can go farther, some may not be effective enough to fly. Without a proper environment, these seeds may decompose instead of germinating.

Importance of Helicopter Seeds

  1. Helicopter seeds’ papery covering, wings, and light nature make them capable of transferring long distances without any help from birds.
  2. As the seed dispersal occurs farther than the parent plant, the newly dispersed seeds get better conditions to grow as mature trees.
  3. These light seeds do not just spin, but are also a food source for many small animals and birds.
  4. Moreover, it is said that the Ash seed is the source of inspiration for creating a single-bladed helicopter

5 Tree Varieties with Helicopter Seeds

Mainly, plants like Maple, Ash, Elm, and Sycamore trees produce helicopter seeds.

Those seeds are produced in late spring – early summer and fall off the trees upon maturity. Learn about the prime examples of trees producing helicopter seeds. 

1. Red Maple

Red Maple is the tree from where you get your maple syrup.

You can identify Red Maple with their distinct red leaves, bright-red clustered flowers, and reddish-winged seeds.
Red Helicopter seeds
Red Maple produces lots of Helicopter seeds compared to other varieties.

Red Maple is originally from North America and can grow 40-70 feet tall with a lifespan of over 150 years.

You can grow this incredible plant with 2 winged Helicopter seeds in USDA Zone 9.

2. Norway Maple

Norway Maple, also known as Harlequin Maple, is often mistaken for Sugar Maple. 

Native to Europe, this invasive species can grow about 40-60 feet tall, bearing green, opposite five-lobed leaves with yellowish-green flowers.

Also, it bears seeds with blade-shaped wings that are pollinated by wind.

Norway Maple grows in USDA zone 3-7 and has a good shade tolerance ability with a lifespan of 150-250 years.

3. Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple varieties are originally from Japan and grow in USDA zone 5-8 with over a hundred years of lifespan.

This long-living plant bears beautiful 9-10 lobed green leaves that turn red in autumn and small reddish flowers blooming in May-June.

Moreover, the plant grows 15-30 ft tall and produces 0.5 to 0.75 inches long Helicopter seeds, which are green-red.

These winged seeds ripen between September and October and are pollinated by insects and wind.

4. Velvet Ash

Velvet Ash is a tree growing 30-50 ft tall with a 50-150 year lifespan and is Native to Mountain Southwest.

This velvety-leaved plant can grow in USDA zone 7-10 and bears pinnately compound lanceolate leaves with small green flowers in clusters.

Besides, Velvet Ash bears Helicopter seeds called samara shaped like Canoe paddles.

5. Tipu Tree

Tipu Tree is from the bean or legume family native to Bolivia and can grow between 50 and 98 feet.

Moreover, this plant lives up to 150 years in USDA zone 9-11.

This flowering tree bears pinnately compound bright green leaves and golden yellow flowers that bloom in late summer.

The seeds of this plant grow on a seed pod that looks like maple keys and resembles a bean.

Some Maple trees stop giving Helicopter seeds after they reach 20-30 years of maturity. However, some may produce seeds until they live.

How to Grow Helicopter Seeds?

You can only grow fallen Helicopter seeds as those still on the trees never germinate.

Remember, these seeds take up to 2 years or more to germinate, so start with stratification.

Seed Germination 

The wings help the seed to remain upright and germinate after effectively embedding itself into the soil.

Methods like cold stratification and warm and cold stratification may help in rapid germination.

1. Germination via Cold Stratification

You can use cold stratification for Sugar Maples, Bigleaf Maples, Japanese Maples, Norway Maples, and Red Maples.

  • Pick the recently fallen healthy seeds and dry them in a paper towel for three days without any disturbances.
  • Remove the paper cover and wings of the seeds and let the seed rest for 24 hours on a new paper towel.
  • Take the moist sand in quantity equal to the seed and place the mixture into the refrigerator after packing it in the plastic bag.
  • Leave the bag in the refrigerator for four months.
  • Fill a 12-inch planter with 2 parts of specialized Edna’s potting mix and one part of compost, leaving an inch for watering.
  • Or, fill the 6 inches layer of seed bed with compost and plant the Helicopter seeds 1 inch deep.
  • Ensure the seeds are 12 inches apart before covering them with soil.
  • Sow only one seed per container if you are growing a Maple plant in a pot, and keep the soil moist.
  • Apply mulch into the soil and water only when it dries until the seeds germinate.
Insight: You will notice your Helicopter seeds germinating in 40-120 days.

Warm & Cold Stratification

You can use this method on Vine Maple, Striped Maple, Amur Maple, and Paperbark Maple, as they have very hard covering.

Unlike other Helicopter seeds, these varieties produce seeds in autumn or winter, requiring extra care to germinate.

  • Rub the base of the seeds against sandpaper until the outer covering breaks, and soak them in hydrogen peroxide for a few hours.
  • Again, soak the seeds in warm water for 24 hours and store them at 68–86ºF for 30-60 days.
  • Place the seeds in zip lock bags with peat moss and other growing mediums and keep them in the refrigerator after misting the mixture well.
  • Cold stratify the mixture for 90-180 days.

Remember that the germinating probability of these seeds is only 20%, and Acer glabrum entirely takes 180 days to germinate.

Tips to Care for Helicopter Seeds After Germination 

Prefer to transplant your germinated Helicopter seeds only in spring or summer, but not in the fall.

 Also, if you are relocating the seedlings, select a sunny spot to grow your plant.

  • Plant the seedlings in moderately acidic soil of pH about 6-7.5 mixed with compost or peat moss.
  • Pat the soil gently and make the soil moist but not soggy.
  • Water the seedling once a week regularly or when the soil turns 2 inches dry.
  • Never place the newly germinated seedling in direct sunlight until the roots are properly established.
  • Apply mulch around the trunk area to prevent the plant from weeds and retain moisture.
  • Ensure to grow the seedlings upright to give them proper shape. Pruning early will help maintain the plant’s proper shape when the trees grow big enough. 

From Editorial Team

Germinate your Helicopter Seeds without any special treatments!

You can grow Silver and Red Maples directly into the soil without any stratification method, as they don’t go dormant.

Collect the fallen seeds in spring or late summer and plant them immediately on moist soil without drying them.

Some Red Maple drops the seeds in autumn, which can’t germinate them directly, requiring cold stratification.

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