by Ceacy Henderson
The packet said to plant before 2008, and now it was 2014. Could the peas still sprout? Holding the dried up, blue-grey pea in my hand I marveled that anything living could emerge from it. Ever hopeful, I poured water on the peas to soak them overnight. However, the next day I was too busy to work in the garden. I drained off the liquid, and for good measure rolled the now plumped peas in peat and inoculant. And there they sat.
Between the weather and my goat having kids I couldn’t find time to plant them for several more days – ok, maybe it was a week! Finally, I opened the plastic bag and took out the peas and almost every one had germinated, each with a little pale root emerging from one side. It made me wonder how long could a seed be viable?
The answer to this question is variable depending on the plant, each species having it’s own timetable and environmental requirements for germination. Occasionally however, seeds have done some very surprising things. The oldest seed on record, to germinate by natural means, is the Judean date palm. In the early 1960s, a stash of seeds was unearthed in a clay jar from an excavation site of Herod the Great’s palace in Masada, Israel, the site of a historic mountainside fortress. In 2005, [more than two millennia later,] a botanist planted one to see what would happen. The seed sprouted and grew into a sapling, then flowered in 2011. How is it possible that these seeds could survive for so long?
A seed is an embryonic plant (embryo) and a food supply (endosperm) surrounded by a protective seed coat, that is, if it is from a flowering plant. The seeds of conifers are held without a seed coat inside protective cones until they are released. The stored food is intended to supply the embryo with enough energy to carry it through dormancy or until the right environmental conditions for germination occurs. A seed lies dormant for many reasons. Germination occurs when the environmental conditions needed to start the process trigger chemical changes within the seed. But the signals needed reflect the strategies plants have evolved to insure that once the seedling emerges the essential requirements will be in place, not just for the growing seedling, but also for the flowering plant. So, not just the right temperature or correct amount of water but also species- specific pollinators, whether they be insects or birds, or even windy weather.
The botanist responsible for successfully germinating the seed rightfully assumed that the endosperm would no longer be useful after such a long period. After soaking the seed coat in hot water to allow the embryo inside to imbibe liquids, the now hydrated seed was submerged in a nutrient bath and exposed to an enzymatic fertilizer. The prepared seed was then potted like any other. Within a few months, the seed had put out a shoot. Even seeds that we commonly have all around us in our forests, meadows, and yards are superbly equipped to meet the vagaries of their environments. Many seeds have built-in variations in dormancy-release so that not all seeds will germinate even if the conditions are perfect. It is a useful strategy to protect a species from “putting all their eggs in one basket.”
Just looking at the seeds that I have started already, it is obvious that they come in many shapes and sizes. Big fat pumpkin seeds, and tiny petunias, gnarly knobby peas, and smooth pearl-like lupines, and those are just garden seeds. What about the giant seed of the Coco de Mer palm tree weighing up to forty pounds or the miniscule seeds of epiphytic orchids, 35 million in an ounce? The fact that flowering plants first show up in the fossil record 125 million years ago has given them plenty of time to diversify into the dizzying array of forms and strategies for survival that have allowed them to be so successful for so long.
Today it is 42 degrees and raining. The soggy, misty view from the window doesn’t reveal the dynamic processes gathering momentum everywhere. It won’t be long before the next spate of sunny days bears witness to a silent explosion of verdant energy. Right now, billions of seeds outside are well into the process of transforming. Swelling with the moisture, tiny threadlike roots pushing out of their protective seed coats to seek nutrients in the soil and anchor the seed for the next phase when the shoot bearing the first leaves unfurls upward. The race is on! Once those plants commit to emergence there is no going back.
All those seeds, each one exquisitely equipped to transform into a tree, or bush, or grass, or herbaceous triumph. The Judean date palm is a fascinating story of seed resilience, and too, the old shriveled peas that I planted that are now poking above the soil. But then, I think all seeds are remarkable, and the variation in form and strategy of dispersal equally so. Right now, outside my window and yours, the culmination of 125 million years of evolution are pushing incrementally forward and upward and out towards the light.