Sea Beans and Drift Seeds

Besides using houseplants, decorating with drift seeds is my favorite way to bring nature into our home. If you're scratching your head at my crazy talk of sea beans and drift seeds, here's an explanation. Sea beans are large legume seeds from the tropics that wash up on beaches far from home, but the name could be applied to any durable floating seed found on the beach. That definition is fine and dandy, but where did they come from, and how did they get from a rainforest in Brazil to a beach in North Carolina or Florida?



Sea Beans come from many regions of the tropics, but for simplicity's sake, let's use sea hearts as an example. Imagine Tarzan swinging through the treetops in South America on the way to a date with Jane. He's hitching a ride on his favorite species of vine, Entada gigas, since he likes the flexibility and strength it offers in equal parts. Tarzan is a connoisseur of fine vines.

Anyways, in his clumsiness he knocks some huge seeds loose from the Entada gigas vine. The hard seeds bounce off the heads of his forest friends and splash into a muddy river before floating to the surface, and heading all the way downstream to the mighty Amazon.

Some seeds germinate on the river's shores, while others miss the mark entirely and end up as castaways in the Atlantic ocean. Only then do they begin to ride the ocean currents thousands of miles to strange lands were the inhabitants no longer speak Portuguese or Spanish.

Often, the sea beans continue to circle about the ocean's currents or get stuck in the Sargasso Sea before they finally end up stranded on the beach. Usually they arrive along with the rafts of sargassum weed in fall, but sometimes strand after nor-Easters. Some sea beans germinate after getting buried by sand and rotting seaweed, but they never survive in the salty sand and frigid winters.

Sea beans have been found as far north as Scandinavia, but in the United States they're far more likely to wash up on the shores of Florida and the coast of Texas. They're also common in tropical regions all around the world.

Here are some of the drift seeds in my own collection, along with their names. This is only a small selection of what's out there! Some, like the starnut palm, are ridiculously tropical and exotic. On the other hand, the black walnut isn't even found in peninsular Florida. Because of the direction the currents travel in, it had to travel down a river like the Mississippi, into the gulf of Mexico and past the Florida Keys to end up on an East coast Florida shore like mine.


1. Sea heart - Entada gigas
2. Mary's bean - Merremia discoidesperma
3a. Gray nickerbean - Caesalpinea bonduc
3b. Brown nickerbean - Caesalpinea globulorium
4. Sea purse - Dioclea spp.
5. Hamburger beans - Mucuna spp.
6. Starnut palm - Astrocaryum spp.
7. Unidentified palm
8. Manchineel - Hippomane mancinella
9, Crabwood - Carapa guianensis
10. Sea coconut - Manicaria saccifera
11. Jamaican naval spurge - Omphalea diandra
12. Black walnut - Juglans nigra
13. Laurelwood - Calophyllum calaba
14. Bloodwood - Pterocarpus officinalis
15. Coin vine - Dalbergia ecastaphyllum
16. Blister pod - Sacoglottis amazonica
17. Soapberry - Sapindus saponaria
18. Acorn - Quercus spp.

Amazing as it sounds, there are still drift seeds that remain unidentified to this day! Some can only be identified after germinating the seeds and growing the plants long enough to observe the flowers. Being the gardener I am, I have germinated a few sea beans myself but haven't been able to overwinter them outdoors through the winter. I would grow them in containers, were it not for the fact that they outgrow their pots in a single season!

It's best to just marvel at these miraculous seeds the way they are, singly or in a bowl. I love to run my hand through the glossy seeds and imagine the journey that they've endured, and envision passing them on to my grandchildren someday when rainforests wouldn't be as plentiful as they are today.

You can also use just about any durable seed to make displays like these including buckeyes, walnuts and even coffee beans! While a single seed would escape the notice of most, an entire bowl or platter filled with a single species makes a huge impact and starts some great conversations.

12 comments:

  1. I am fascinated by drift seeds and palms. I sat this past summer thinking about how wild vegetation endemic to islands grew into lush and amazing forests so far away from land. While I sat on Coiba island, I came up with bird droppings and floating seeds..drift seeds. Very cool post.

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  2. Great article! I live in Southwest Florida, where I'm actively pursing Florida Master Naturalist certification. During one of our field trips, we learned about nicker beans, and I was later able to find some at the lighthouse beach on Sanibel Island. Right now, we have a lot of black mangrove seeds washing up; if they stay wet long enough, they start to sprout and get this fuzzy "tail" sticking up from it. Here's a link, if you want to have a look - MyMobileAdventures.com: Beach Bean Sprouting

    *~*~*

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  3. What an interesting collection, Steve. I like the look of the crabwood (a bit geometric) and sea coconut.

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  4. This is so interesting. I wonder how far north some of the more tropical seeds that wash up germinate? How well the salt water and hitting the sand scarifies them into germinting, or if it preserves them even more?

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  5. Steve, this is a great post. Thanks for sharing our love for sea-beans with the rest of the world; they truly are one of life's many miracles.

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  6. Very cool! I need to make a trip to the east coat. I've not had much luck on the west. Thanks for IDing the seeds, too!

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  7. excellent! (and entertaining!) ive seen some neat jewelry made with these. have never found any at all at the nc coast, dont know if they ever show up here.

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  8. What an interesting collection. I have been looking for some 'sea beans' over here on the west coast of Florida ever since reading an earlier post of yours about them. No luck so far. But, I'll keep looking!

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  9. I just got back from Port Aransas, TX and found one of most of the ones above. This was the first time I knew about seabeans and how fun they are to find and collect.

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  10. I'm from the north coast of Ireland and I found a hamburger seabean on the beach. What a journey !

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  11. Old post I know but I thought I'd say this was really helpful! My dad brought one home from a tropical place and didn't know what it was and I now know it's a sea heart. Thanks!

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