December 3, 2020

What is a seed?



At some point in the evolution of life on earth, plants discovered sex. This may sound mysterious and exciting but, simply put, the ability to mix and match genes allowed for better adaptation and evolution as conditions on our planet changed.

Plants did this by creating mechanisms for pollen to be moved between flowers or between plants. When pollen finds the pistil of a female or bisexual flower what results is germination, the combining of genes from the two parent plants. When this happens it creates a seed that can be disbursed to a new location, to create a new plant. Sometimes bare, sometimes encased in a pod or within a fruit, the seed is ready to find a new home and sprout, to start a new cycle of life. These mechanisms that have been developed to spread seeds to new locations are one of the wonders of the plant kingdom.

Some plants have little umbrellas attached to seeds to float them away on the breeze. Some plants produce seed pods that pop open when ripe to cast seeds a distance from the original plant. Some have sticky substances or hooks to attach to the fur of passing animals or the cuffs of our pants. Some are encased in a hard coating so that they can be eaten and then pooped out intact, to grow again.

Equally impressive are the conditions needed for seeds to germinate and begin growing in a new place. Some pine seeds must be burned in a fire before they germinate, to ensure there will be a clear space for the new pine tree to grow. Many seeds must be conditioned by winter cold or even frozen before they germinate. Some have to be cracked or scarred, a process that botanists call scarification. Some are so tightly sealed that once dried, they can last hundreds of years and still be viable!

Each seed carries within it all the information the plant needs to grow, flourish and reproduce. As gardeners, we depend on seeds when we plant our gardens, but often do not realize where these seed varieties came from. Over millennia, wise women (I do believe in many cultures it was the women) have steadily selected which seeds to plant, and by doing this they have developed the foods we eat and on which we rely.

Corn started out as a shrivelled little ear not bigger than the end of your thumb, growing on a plant called teosinte, a lowland type of grass, but over centuries careful selection of the largest ears (well before the era of scientific plant breeding and genetic modification) resulted in the large, tasty kernels of corn that have become a staple crop worldwide.

The same is true of wheat, citrus, squash and most of the major plant food sources on which we depend. Where we are now, and current threats to diversity by major food corporations will be covered in a later post. But, for now, the main thing is to understand and celebrate the fact that seeds are simply amazing. In all their sizes, forms and patterns they carry the heritage of thousands of plants, waiting to sprout and grow, to surround us with beauty and food, glorious food!

Leave a Reply