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8/21/2006

A Small Miracle in Every Seed

For The Herb Quarterly magazine, Spring, 2006
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

Seed. Isn't it remarkable? Seeds found in Egyptian tombs, sealed up for thousands of years, when planted, still grew.

There's a tree growing on the campus of Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri that came from just such a seed, found in an archeological site in the 1950s. The seed had lain dormant for over a thousand years, yet when given light and water, sprang to life. I've sat under that tree and marveled at its history and the seed that brought it back to life.

In my closet, in neat stacks of storage boxes lie dormant my own collection of seed. Although not as exotic as a dusty Egyptian tomb, included in the cache are seed samples sent to me from correspondents around the world. Like pepino cucumber (Anchochas cyclanthera pendata), a seed so rare that the only reference I have found is in the book, Lost Crops of the Incas. It's both a medicinal herb and a vegetable, as well as being a very attractive vine.

Stored there, too, are seeds I have collected on the island of Sulewesi and West Papua, New Guinea. Next to those are herb seed from the desert region of northern India and more from Thailand. There are roselle seed (Hibiscus sabdariffa) that wonderful Egyptian tea herb, which is also the base for sorbets and summer drinks in my home.

Green pepper basil seed from Mexico lie in wait there, along with south Indian lemongrass, which is the plant source for citronella oil, that wonderful mosquito deterrent. And papalo, as well, the Mexican herb used much like cilantro in rural Mexican cafes.

Why do I have these seed collections, you might wonder? I guess because first of all, I can't throw seed away and second, I see them as being like a savings account. I withdraw some of the seed each spring and plant it, and in the fall, harvesting and replenishing the supply like an investment for the future.

When a seed is planted, a truly amazing miracle happens. The seed absorbs warmth and moisture from the soil and the interior begins to swell, eventually bursting the protective outer seed coat. Then, with more magic, a tiny root forms and heads downward deeper into the soil, seeking nutrients. At the same time, responding to light, the plant emerges upward, pushing bits of soil away as the sprouting seed takes on the immature form of a plant and pushes itself into sunlight.

Hidden inside a single seed lies the capacity to grow a new plant, and to pass on the traits of the parent from which the seed came. The new plant can mature and reproduce, creating a field or a forest of plants, all the result of that tiny seed.

When I was a child I was mystified by this process, baffled by how the germinating seed knew when, and which direction to grow. In the eighth grade, for a science project, my teacher allowed me to do experiments on seeds. I chose seed that were virtually indistinguishable to the naked eye, and planted them in trays. I kept records to compare how quickly seeds in the dark germinated as compared to those in full light. My little plant experiments were kept mostly on the wide windowsill of the classroom, which became a dangerous location for them.

Over time I discovered that other eighth graders, who had no interest whatsoever in plants or science would daily water my seedlings with Coca Cola. Sometimes they simply smashed their hands into the tender seedlings, crushing my experiments. Still, over time I was able to demonstrate several things that have served me well as a life long gardener.

First, I learned that proper light is essential, not only for seeds to germinate, but for plants to thrive. Basil, for instance, just will not thrive unless it has ample sunlight and if you give it a shady location, be prepared for an unhealthy plant.

Next I learned that plants are amazingly resilient. Even smashed into the soil by stupid eighth graders, most of my plants recovered and resumed growing. From the grass we mow on a weekly basis to trees damaged by storms, plants have the ability to survive injury.

Third, I learned that Coca Cola notwithstanding, plants require specific nutrients. Too much or too little of the basic requirements and the plants will not reach their full potential. And yet, plants are resilient enough to withstand wide variations in their nutrient supply. While my plant experiments withstood countless dousings of soda pop, they did infinitely better once given normal amounts of water and fertilizer.

From the book, Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, I learned how diverse seed, even within a species can be. Apple seed, for example, according to Pollan, virtually never come true to the parent. With four seed within each apple, the possible variations from the parent reach into the millions.

And from that book I also learned how important the relationships between humanity and plants are. Plants respond to human needs, either through selection or through the ability to evolve to take advantage of people's preferences. Like maize, a wild plant found in the Americas, but through selection and cultivation, the cultivated varieties have little resemblance to their wild counterparts.

That process can work in reverse, as well. Look to the more common variety of holy basil. If planted in the garden next to other basils, it will cross at random with any other basil in bloom and the seedlings will nearly always be a poor reproduction of either of the parent plants.

The mystery of seed is something I look forward to each spring. Not only through the seed catalogs, but through my little cache of seed from previous years, I can grasp the possibilities of yet another garden year. With trowel and seed in hand, I begin the process anew, ready for the miracle of the seed to happen all over again.

Happy gardening! Readers comments or questions always welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net or www.Longcreekherbs.com.

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