by Kat Mackinnon, RH (AHG) – Originally published under the 2017 Good Medicine Confluence Proceedings
“Nature does not move in mysterious ways, really. She just moves so slowly we’re inclined to lose patience and stop watching before she gets around to the revelations. ” ~Barbara Kingsolver
We have embedded in our nature the desire to create
Within seeds, we find the natural history of plants. The purpose of a seed speaks ultimately of creativity, of the plants desire to travel and express itself. The processes of fertilization, hormone influence, dormancy and germination is every bit as complex, inexplicable and magical as our own reproductive strategies. Whether you’re a salty farmer or an utter mystic, the tale of seeds is an inspiring one.
Just look at the form of a seed. It speaks volumes — about what it needs to germinate, where it prefers to grow, what was happening when that seed was being birthed. The thickness of the seed coat, the consistency of the surrounding fruit, these are all way markers, clues for what conditions we need to reproduce as growers to best encourage a viable seed. And beyond the physical, we can begin to see the paths that plant has taken, over many millennia, to get to this very moment.
In the summer, I spend much of my time looking at flowers, both for work and pleasure. And goodness I love them — they’re showy, sexy, and often the most flamboyant parts. They are tellers of stories in their own way, and often a primacy is put on using this set of characteristics to identify plants, both in formal botanical keys as well as in casual field guides. But the nature of flowers is ephemeral. It’s part of their beauty and power. To pay attention to a plant only when it is flowering cuts you off from the richness of a full relationship. To really know a plant, follow it home. Know its ways from seed to seed.
Anatomy of a Seed
“A seed is really an embryo in a picnic basket.” ~Jonathan Silvertown
The following are some simple terms to start getting to know the science of things a bit more. These are terms that involve the structure, function, and some of the internal influences happening within a seed. Obviously, humans have been collecting and growing seeds for, well, ever, without necessarily knowing and labeling these terms. But humans are tool using animals, and these are just that, newer tools. They can help us figure out better ways to preserve seed long term, as well as increase the chances of things like germination. For myself, they often serve to inspire, showing just how amazingly complex and multifaceted our world can be.
Cotyledon, seed leaf: This refers to the first growth from a seed, the embryonic leaves. Flowering plants (angiosperms) are often divided into producing either 1 or 2 seed leaves (monocots or dicots). These first seed leaves are fueled entirely by the seeds own energy reserves, and while often green and lush, are not always a good meter of seedling health. For a seedling to produce the more lasting leaves of a plumule, you need adequate water and soil nutrition.
On a random but fun side note, some non-flowering plants, while still producing seed leaves, are waaaay more variable with how many they make, so it’s not as useful in identification. Different types of pine, for example, can have between 3 and 18 seed leaves. So instead of monocots and dicots, you’d be looking at septuplocots and dodecacots. Yeesh.
Embryo: This part of the seed contains the genetic goods that result from fertilization. It’s what will eventually develop into the cotyledon, or first leaves of the plant.
Endosperm: This is the pantry of the seed. It develops from the male pollen grain (In plants part of the sperm contributes to producing an embryo, just as it does in animals. Unlike animals, another portion of the sperm sticks around and does other interesting things, like create protective structures). Endosperms are present in most mature seeds, but especially in monocot seeds such as grains, which we breed to fatten the endosperm for human consumption. A few exceptions such as the teeny-teeny-tiny seeds of orchids have voracious embryos, which consume the endosperm at maturity, and then store their foodstuffs in the nascent seed leaves.
Fruit: This is the mature, ripened ovary of a flowering plant. Similar to humans, the ovaries of plants are what contain the seeds, rather than being the seeds themselves (Many befuddled beginning botanists have confused the two). Their form is highly variable, giving rise to a delightful and sometimes maddening amount of rather specific botanical terminology. The sweet fleshiness of peach drupes, the hard, dry, single seeded achenes of sunflowers, and the sturdy nuts (acorns) of oak trees are all examples of fruits.
Germination: The delicate stage between dormancy and a seedling.
Plumule: a shoot bearing the first true leaves of the seedling, as opposed to the seed leaves or cotyledons.
Radicle: Che Guevara, Frederick Douglas, His Holiness the Dalai Llama. These are all radical people, however they don’t have much to do with the botanical term, radicle (though the terms share the same etymology). From the Latin radix for ‘root’, this refers instead to the first portion of the germinated embryo to emerge from the seed. If you’ve ever sprouted lentils, mung beans, chia seeds, or just about any seed, the twirly finger of growth that comes out after a day or so is the radicle.. A sensory organ, this embryonic root instructs the seed as to its place in the world, and is the main influence behind how the seedling first begins to grow.
Seedcoat, Outer Coat, Testa, Tegmen: However colorfully it’s dressed, this is the bouncer/wise old doorman of the seed. While the texture and color may vary, the functions are the same. One of its main purposes is providing physical and chemical protection (you’d want that too if you knew you’d be going through someone’s digestive tract). The thickness and composition of the seed coat also plays a large part in determining germination through regulating temperature and moisture, and is crucial in determining dormancy.
“Before the seed comes the thought of bloom.” E.B. White
When we see ourselves in others, whether people, plants, objects or landscapes, it breeds compassion. We feel for the dry plant in its pot, the rain hungry forest. In herbs and trees, we have empathy with their struggles, which often seem more vulnerable than our own as mobile animals. They are prone to the caprice of something as simple as a rain shower, in a way that we are not. Observing germination, this juxtaposition is especially stark. In the world of seeds, the odds of survival are astonishingly slim.
Take a Ponderosa pine. In the untended wild, only about 5% or so of its 1000’s of seeds will germinate in a growth cycle. Only about 5% of those germinated seeds will make it through the first year of life. This is true not only for tree species, but for herbs, grasses, just about any wild species. This does vary of course-species such as cheat grass are the bunnies of the plant world, reproducing with an intensity which would make even the most diehard agrostologist say “whoa, that’s a bit much”. But even with the more fecund examples, the struggle for germination is a profound illustration of both the uncertainty and the utter abundance of life.
There are a number instances where the odds of germination and survival of certain species is increased. One of the big ones is the interaction of plants with animals, and especially the human animal. We tend to not think of ourselves as part of Nature, but at this point, it’s interesting to reflect on our role in the environment. As squirrels unwittingly tend the oaks with their acorn caches, we too become caretakers of the plant species we use for food, medicine, and tools. We care for the corn, beans, and squash, of the onion, the nettle and dogbane, the geranium and the mint. We become intertwined with the plants we cultivate, with both parties being changed by the relationship.
Factors in Germination
There are many 1,000s of medicinal plants out there. And fortunately, there are also a great many growers of various leanings who have devoted their time to figuring out how best to germinate and cultivate them. There are charts, blogs, and all manner of handy detailed resources on how to coax leaves and roots from your seeds (see the annotated references below). The concepts and terms below will serve hopefully to give you context for when you go to read those more detailed instructions.
The most important thing to remember, either in storing or germinating seed, is that we are constantly trying to mimic nature. Stratification refers to exposing stored seed to different temperatures and moistures in order wake it from dormancy. In the wild, this happens naturally through the changing of the seasons. In the north, freezing temperatures and snow melt act to soften tough, protective seed coats, preparing seeds to bust a move come spring
What a plant requires in the way of stratification can vary hugely from species to species. Echinacea, for instance, needs a prolonged period of cold to germinate, followed by a gradual warming period to make permanent structures. Basil meanwhile does poorly with this treatment, and prefers exposure to higher temperatures more suddenly.
Beyond sifting through the magic informational hoard of the internet, one of the best ways to determine stratification methods is to look at what a seed goes through in its native habitat. Species in a colder northern climate are likely to need at least some cold before being stimulated to break out. More equatorial species tend to need warmer temperatures, or at least only a short and sweet period of cold.
You are a seed, set loose from your mother, now in the wide world. Battered by wind, scratched by rock, bitten and eaten by animals, perhaps even touched by fire. Once again, with scarification we are trying to reproduce the wild in our gardens. We recreate our wind and rock and animals with sandpaper, hot water, and at times the fermented acidity of a seeds own fruit.
Not all seeds need scarification, but for those that do, the goal is generally the same. To break through the seed coat, allowing water and warmth to stimulate the awakening of the embryo.
While plants do make a good deal of oxygen, its often forgotten that they also need it, and seeds are no different. They use oxygen to metabolize fat and sugar for growth, same as we do. Hence why it is often recommended to aerate your soil for maximum germination, as compacted and clay-like soils will tend to have a lower concentration of oxygen.
This is yet another factor that has a great deal of variability from species to species. Part of why many weedy medicines can thrive in the compacted wasteland of our street sides is due to their lesser need for O2. Aspens thrive on the disturbed (and naturally aerated) soils of winter avalanche pathways partly because they are a bit more O2 hungry. Temperature and moisture is also a factor here, with soil providing both insulation and more of a humid environment for the seed.
While not a perfect rule, a general guideline to figure the appropriate depth is to plant a seed 1-2x its length. The smaller the seed, the shallower it will want to be. Some, such as the pencil tip sized seeds of California poppy and Wild lettuce, prefer to lie just on the surface, while species such as Calendula and Fennel need a 1/4 to half an inch of cover.
While this is not the biggest influence on germination, it does have a great deal to do with what happens directly afterwards. The composition of the soil, from its minerals, to its water, to the fungi and bacteria, will determine whether a seed will continue to grow beyond its seed leaves. Once again, look to the plants natural habitat to determine what to recreate. The spicy fruits of cayenne and the aromatic leaves of basil grow well together not because they have the same country of origin, but due to their love of sandy-loamy soil.
Last year, while collecting seeds of Hypericum, Achillea, and Artemesia, my attention began to wander in the hot sun. All the herbs I was collecting had Greek mythology wound into their genus names. It led me to thinking of the vast amount of story inside a single seed. Not just the human projected kind of story, though that’s fascinating as well.
Instead I wondered about the way they held all their ancestor’s work-every hot day, every flood, every drought, each Ice Age and grassland fire. They hold these patterns inside of themselves, rarely turning from these hard-worked patterns with any abruptness. They are time capsules, storing sun, and water and soil, preserving it for a time when growth is possible again.
I try to remember this each time I plant my garden, each time I seek to spread wild seeds. For the entirety of human existence, we’ve been not just growing plants, but with them. We contain each other’s stories, holding the efforts and interactions of our predecessors. We are both the tenders and the tended. It is up to us then to choose what kind of stories we tell with plants. One of sustaining—of loss and destruction—or perhaps something else entirely. As Richard Bach says, we are free to tear out the pages if we wish, create some completely different. There is only a small requirement to engage in this process (though technically doing nothing is a certain type of engagement). Plant seeds. In your garden. In a sturdy cardboard box on the windowsill of your apartment. In abandoned building sites, on sidewalks, with friends, enemies, neighbors, family. Plant natives, plant heirloom varieties, plant weedy dandelions. It is perhaps an obvious point. But to preserve seeds, we need to grow them.
The Seed Biology Place, London, England. Great spot for a more science-y overview of seed anatomy and physiology.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway. A great resource for looking at worldwide conservation of species, as well as cool links to various projects regarding global seed saving.
Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation, Gary Paul Nabhan. A book from quite some time back, this is one of the first texts I picked up that got me thinking about seeds. Full of loads of stories, perhaps not the most up to date of resources, but still useful and interesting.
Meet the Green, Educational Resource. This is my pet project, and general platform for putting out lessons in botanical what have you. The best part of the site is the blog and the resources page. If you’re into botanical terminology, there is a fabulous and oft updated page under Botanical Terminology that’s darn useful.
For Dreaming and Inspiring
Seeing Seeds: A Journey into the World of Seedheads, Pods, and Fruit~Teri Chace and Robert Llewellyn. The most beautiful and drool worthy book on seeds I’ve ever seen. Basic info on seeds, but holy gorgeous pictures batman.
An Orchard Invisible: A natural History of Seeds, Jonathan Silvertown. A touch dense, but full of the stories behind how we know the current theories in seed science developed.
Seed: The Untold Story, film documentary. While not mind-blowing in the information department, this is a great resource for getting people inspired about collecting seeds and understanding the necessity for doing so.
Seed Savers Exchange, Winneshiek County, IA. If you are interested in building community resource around seed collecting, these folks have a great starter kit program. If you work for a school, non-profit, or other educational organization, they will send you a kit including seeds and awesome how to resources on starting seed banks and collection coops completely free of charge. While a great personal source of info for growing, preserving, and planting seeds, this is especially useful if you’re an educator wanting to share with your community.
The Seed Garden: The Art and Practice of Saving Seed. ~Lee Buttala and Shanyn Siegel. If you’re interested in growing and saving seeds get this book. How can I put this delicately? It’s the s**t. Super useful, with beautiful illustrations and directions, as well as detailed growing and harvesting directions for over 50 species of vegetables and herbs. Available from Seed Savers, and well worth it.
Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, Ketchum, ID. I have yet to get involved with these folks, but have heard excellent things from those who have taken workshops with them at their home base in Idaho.
Native Seeds, Tuscon, AZ.
Strictly Medicinal Seeds
This is the Cech’s family-run seed business. An excellent resource for a whole lot of medicinal seeds, some of which are tricky to come by. It also serves as an excellent spot to check out basic guidelines for germinating a huge amount of medicinal seeds.