I love looking through my basket of seed packets. Each of them is a historical catalogue representing places I’ve visited, meals I have had, friends who garden, and plants I have smuggled. In the winter I fantasize about the first seeds that will sprout and the hope of spring that they promised.
It is doubtful that we will ever be able to synthetically engineer something so seemingly simple but profoundly complex as the seed. Most people in developed countries have become so far removed from the source of their food that they rarely think of seeds outside of metaphor.
Contained in its tiny shell is the genetic plan to unfold and grow into a monumental tree or a humble weed.
A seed contains all of the energy it needs to sprout and push up through the earth towards the sun until the plant can sustain itself. The bigger the seed, the more energy it has. Coconuts are
among the largest seeds, they can germinate while floating across oceans and begin to put down roots once they hit land. Seeds have developed ingenious ways to disperse themselves around the world. Since plants aren’t mobile they must make use of the wind, the rain, or humans and animals to spread beyond the reach of the plant that they came from.
Seeds are part of the many amazing systems that the earth has to sustain life. Every living thing has the instinct to reproduce. A blackberry cane produces a fruit that is bitter until the seeds have reached the point that they are mature enough to sprout. Then the fruit turns sweet and colorful to attract birds, foxes, bears, or raccoons to come and eat it. The animal benefits from the fruit but unknowingly becomes a vehicle for the seed. The raccoon eats the blackberry and as the seed passes through its digestive tract, the hard seed shell begins to break down. The racoon eventually poops, dropping the seeds into a new area packed in a warm compact package of moist feces that will help the seed germinate. Other seeds aren’t covered in fruit but they are light enough to be spread by the wind or, have developed burrs to stick to animal fur and eventually be dropped in a new location. Squirrels take and bury acorns in the ground to save for later but don’t always remember when they planted all of them. This increases the likelihood that the acorn will grow into a solid oak tree. An acorn that dries out will die but the acorns that are buried can remain viable for years.
While some seeds are only viable for a few weeks, archeologists have found seeds preserved for thousands of years which are still able to germinate. There is much controversy over the oldest known seed to be germinated but it’s safe to say that there are seeds which have been sprouted that are older than Jesus.
The fruits, vegetables, and flowers that we plant in our gardens all have undomesticated ancestors which may still exist in the wild. Each seed that sprouts is genetically slightly different than its parent plant and sometimes there is a mutation that makes the plant significantly different. Over hundreds of lifetimes humans have selected the largest, sweetest, most appealing fruits to save seeds from and replant. Each generation yields a crop that is slightly better than the last one. The original tomatoes were the size of a pea and were poisonous to humans. Through an unintentional process of selective breeding we have naturally engineered giant mouthwatering heirloom tomatoes. This is much different than the heavily debated process of genetic modification (GMO).
The garden plants we have now have been handed down from generation to generation. The United States is a blend of cultures that is represented in the variety of cuisines available. Many immigrants coming to the US brought with them seeds from their country of origin. In agricultural based societies like many of the Native American groups in the US, seeds were highly regarded and treasured, handed down to each new generation to be planted. This is why we call them heirloom varieties. Native people who were captured and forced to walk the Trail of Tears even sewed their seeds into the hems of their clothes to protect them. There are now varieties of corn named in memory of the Trail of Tears and the people who carried them and cared for them.
Although heirloom varieties have been passed down from generation to generation, that doesn’t mean they have gone unchanged. Plants can adapt over time to new climates and have the ability to develop resistance to pests and disease. Many plants require pollination from neighboring plants to maintain genetic diversity. In the wild bees will breed two plants of the same species and the seeds of that fruit will have traits of both parents. Hybrid seeds are ones that companies often develop by intentionally breeding together two different plants to get a mixture of desirable traits, such as good flavor mixed with high disease resistance. These are sold as hybrids often labeled with “F-1”, denoting that it is the first generation offspring.
Not all seeds that you plant will come out being similar to its parent plant. This is called being true to seed. Most vegetables will grow true to seed if not cross pollinated, but fruit trees are another story. If you take apple seeds from a Gala apple and plant them, you will wait years and years to produce fruit only to find that the apples (if it produces at all) will be wildly different than the Gala you saved them from. They will probably be bitter or sour, and much smaller. That is because 99 percent of all commercial apple trees today are grafted. All of the Gala trees in the world originated from the same single apple tree. Yes you read that correctly and it’s true for each variety of apple and for many other fruit trees as well. Every apple seed produces a different kind of apple, not the same as the parent tree. Once a variety of apple is found that is worth growing the only way to reproduce that same apple is to take a branch or bud from the original tree and graft that bud onto the roots of a different apple tree. This will grow up and bear the same fruits as the original tree and cutting can also be taken from this tree to graft new trees.
Consider a single tomato seed; planted in spring it will produce a single plant that will easily
yield 15 tomatoes. If each tomato contains 120 seeds and you save each of those seeds to plant the next season all of those plants combined will create 3,240,000 seeds. In two generations you can multiply your seed by 3 million! Plants create so many seeds because without the mindful care of human beings planting and watering seeds in good soil, seeds have very low chances of survival. A single amaranth plant can produce over 1 million seeds in one year. In a mast year a mature oak tree can produce up to 10,000 acorns. It’s necessary to produce so many because less than 1% of those seeds will become trees. The rest will fall prey to predators, disease, or will never even have a chance to sprout.
Our diet is full of seeds, although we might not think of them that way. Nuts, corn, and all grains are seeds. Next time you are having granola for breakfast consider the capacity of growth that exists in your bowl.