In celebration of Earth Day on April 22, I would like to honor seeds! Seeds are all around us and a part of our daily lives, hidden in plain sight! We may take them for granted, but they really are a very important part of our plant life, food production, clothing and thousands of other products.
They give us food and fuels, intoxicants and poisons, oils, dyes, fibers and spices. Without seeds there would be no bread, no rice, no beans, corn or nuts.The Triumph of Seeds, by Thor Hanson
For an interesting journey into the world of seeds, I recommend the book, The Triumph of Seeds – How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History, by Thor Hanson. Hanson is a biologist living on an island in Washington state and his book brought to life three details of seeds that I had not thought about — their self-contained energy, the existence of seed banks, their endurance and ability for survival.
Self-contained energy. Seeds come prepackaged for root growth — they don’t even need to make new cells to do it! As mentioned in the book Seeds, Carol Baskin who is a science teacher at University of Kentucky tells her students that “a seed is a baby plant, in a box, with its lunch.” While germination (the process by which an organism grows from a seed) details vary, the importance of water is constant. Some seeds dry out, using a thick, protective coat to protect them from moisture so they can remain at a near standstill for months, years or even centuries until conditions are right for germination. Other seeds, such as the avocado seed needs constant moist conditions for sprouting.
One amazing story about a 2,000 year old date seed that came to life, demonstrates the energy storage power of seeds! In the 1960s, archaeologists at the site of the Siege of Masada in Israel, discovered date seeds beautifully preserved with scraps of fruit still clinging to the seeds. Four decades later, museum workers decided to plant one of the date seeds and were wildly excited to see a lone shoot poking up through the potting soil. Named Methuselah, the sprouting palm now stands ten feet tall with its own gated garden, watering system, burglar alarm and security camera! It’s the oldest known example of a naturally germinating seed.
Seed banks. An unsuspecting building stands in Fort Collins, Colorado containing laboratories and cryogenic vaults built to withstand earthquakes, blizzards, power outages and fires. Over 2 billion specimens are housed here at the National Seed Bank which aim to save the range of genes that make them useful from flavor and nutrition to drought tolerance or resistance to disease. The cold storage preserves the seeds for a certain amount of time, but seeds need to be rotated out and in to keep them viable. “The best way to preserve these seeds is to plant them. Keeping seeds planted allows those varieties to continue adapting.” as explained by the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa. It’s amazing to know that our seeds are protected and used to allow plants to evolve and adapt to future growing conditions!
Endurance and survival. Seeds travel for survival through wind, water, animals or birds. Cotton is an interesting example of a seed that travels very successfully by both wind and water. Cotton seeds are covered by fluff containing thousands of fiber strands which enable them to travel easily by wind. Interestingly, the same fluffiness that keeps cotton aloft in wind also helps it to float in water for up to two and half months by trapping air bubbles in the many fibers! This explains how Charles Darwin matched cotton genes in the Galapagos Islands as the same cotton from the South American coast.
The survival instinct of seeds is incredible — their legend lives on in children’s books such as one favorite that we read to our kids as toddlers, Belly Button Boy by Maloney Zedauskas. It’s a charming story about a boy who loves to play in the dirt, but refuses to take baths. As dirt piles up in his belly button, he wakes up one morning with a green leafy plant sprouting from it! It’s a fun journey through his navel garden dilemma to encourage children to keep clean!
One final story from our own backyard. I noticed a large scattering of pine cone scales under the big evergreen tree. A busy squirrel had been taking apart the cones to get at the 2 seeds that sit on the inner part of the cone on every scale. There were still a few seeds lying on the ground so when I picked them up and broke them open, I discovered they were full of pine sap! I wondered if the squirrels were eating the pine sap? When I researched this, I found out they do indeed eat the sap. The sap had the most amazing pine fragrance, but had a sticky texture. It reminded me of the sap I saw as a child oozing from the bark of evergreen trees that I accidentally leaned against!
What are some fun seed stories that you can share in the comments? Have you watched a maple key twirl gracefully in the wind to the ground?
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