The fruit has a single purpose: seed dispersal. Seeds contained within fruits need to be dispersed far from the mother plant, so they may find favorable and less competitive conditions in which to germinate and grow.
Some fruit have built-in mechanisms so they can disperse by themselves, whereas others require the help of agents like wind, water, and animals (Figure 1). Modifications in seed structure, composition, and size help in dispersal. Wind-dispersed fruit are lightweight and may have wing-like appendages that allow them to be carried by the wind. Some have a parachute-like structure to keep them afloat. Some fruits—for example, the dandelion—have hairy, weightless structures that are suited to dispersal by wind.
Figure 1. Fruits and seeds are dispersed by various means. (a) Dandelion seeds are dispersed by wind, the (b) coconut seed is dispersed by water, and the (c) acorn is dispersed by animals that cache and then forget it. (credit a: modification of work by “Rosendahl”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Shine Oa; credit c: modification of work by Paolo Neo)
Seeds dispersed by water are contained in light and buoyant fruit, giving them the ability to float. Coconuts are well known for their ability to float on water to reach land where they can germinate. Similarly, willow and silver birches produce lightweight fruit that can float on water.
Animals and birds eat fruits, and the seeds that are not digested are excreted in their droppings some distance away. Some animals, like squirrels, bury seed-containing fruits for later use; if the squirrel does not find its stash of fruit, and if conditions are favorable, the seeds germinate. Some fruits, like the cocklebur, have hooks or sticky structures that stick to an animal’s coat and are then transported to another place. Humans also play a big role in dispersing seeds when they carry fruits to new places and throw away the inedible part that contains the seeds.
All of the above mechanisms allow for seeds to be dispersed through space, much like an animal’s offspring can move to a new location. Seed dormancy, which was described earlier, allows plants to disperse their progeny through time: something animals cannot do. Dormant seeds can wait months, years, or even decades for the proper conditions for germination and propagation of the species.