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High-Sea Drifters

Sea beans add a whole new dimension to beachcombing.

By Eileen Mattei

After months floating on ocean currents, seed pods and fruits of tropical vines and trees drift into the Gulf of Mexico and eventually wash up on Texas beaches with the sea wrack and flotsam. Called sea beans and drift seeds, these travelers trigger questions about currents, species propagation and how the beans float for thousands of miles. They also give us another reason to spend time on the beach.

Sea heart and sea purse, red hamburger bean, nickernuts, black pearl and starnuts are just a few of the colorful names of sea beans that land on the Texas coast, semi-polished by the surf and sand. True sea beans can float for up to 15 years thanks to a smooth, waterproof outer seed coat and an internal air pocket. Drift seeds, in contrast, usually have fibrous matter that is lighter than water, letting them float like corks for months (black mangrove seeds) or for years (coconuts and tropical almonds.)

The cross-shaped indentation of Mary's bean simplifies identification of the Central American morning glory vine seed. Hamburger beans look like miniature burgers on a bun and come from spiny pods of rainforest vines found in the West Indies and Central and South America. The dozens of sea bean varieties challenge the curious beachcomber to find out what they are, where to find them and where they came from.

Entangled in sargassum seaweed, sea beans get pushed ashore by the wind. "Sargassum comes in thicker and heavier in the spring and early summer," says Kay Lay, South Padre Island's Sea Bean Queen and author of a beginner's guide. "To find sea beans, begin at the wrack lines, where debris and sargassum collect, and walk along looking in the seaweed. My best results come when I look a little closer to the dunes in pockets of debris where the flipflops end up. Sea beans are good floaters and often land right on top where you can see them."

Sea beans show up year-round as strong winds and tides push them ashore. Fleets of Portuguese man o'wars marooned on the beach indicate that other drifters are coming in, too. Use caution and a stick to poke in the wrack, particularly the lines formed by earlier high tides. Once you start looking for sea beans away from populated beaches, you'll begin to spot them.

Sea bean folklore includes their uses as indigenous medicines and good luck charms. Some circumnavigate the globe, although most Texas sea beans began their voyage on a river in Africa or South and Central America.

Sea bean collectors polish and display them or make them into jewelry. Others germinate sea beans, either to confirm the identity or to grow an exotic vine. "At least 75 percent of the ones we call true sea beans are still viable and grow into lovely plants," Lay says. A bean that rattles is unlikely to germinate.

For more information, visit <www.seabean.com> or <Sea Beans>. Sea-Beans from the Tropics (edited by Ed Perry IV and John V. Dennis) is available on Amazon.com.

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