Amazing Feats of Germination
Some seeds have an ability to lie dormant for long periods, but not all seeds share the same vitality.
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By Maureen Gilmer, DIY Network
In 1967, 10,000-year-old seeds of arctic lupine were found in a frozen lemming burrow by miners in the Yukon. They had lain dormant in this strata of permanently frozen silt since the Pleistocene age. Warmed up and given the right conditions the seed germinated within 48 hours.
Seeds of the sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) were found by a Japanese botanist in a peat deposit in Manchuria. Carbon dating showed them to be 2,000 years old. When the hard seed coats were filed down, every single seed germinated.
In 1793 seed pods of silk floss trees were pressed and stored in the herbarium at the British Museum. In 1940 fire broke in the museum when Germans bombed London. After the fire in the herbarium was doused, the Albizia seeds immediately sprouted, growing from between the preserved pages.
Clearly, some seeds have an ability to lie dormant for long periods, but not all seed shares the same vitality. You can hang on to corn seeds for two years and nearly all of them will sprout. When stored for three years you may find a percentage of the seeds have "died," reducing germination rates. More will die in each ensuing year. This short-term viability means that many heirloom varieties cannot be saved in a seed bank. The only way to keep them from becoming extinct is to ensure fresh seed by growing and harvesting them every year.
On the other hand, you can expect radish seeds to retain their germination rates for five to 10 years. Squash, watermelon and beet seeds remain viable for six to 10 years.
When you buy seed packets, be sure to look for the date stamp. Like food products, seeds are packed for the year in which they are to be sold. This ensures you can expect nearly 100 percent germination, particularly with seeds that have limited storage viability. Beware of outdated seed on sale because some can suffer viability problems. When storing seed, be sure the container is dated to keep track of seed batch ages.
If you have older seed or seed you've collected from the previous year, check the germination rates before you invest time and effort planting them in the garden. Line a saucer with a couple of ordinary paper towels or napkins. Sprinkle a small sampling of the seed batch you're proving onto the paper towel. Then lay another paper towel or two over the top of the seeds. Thoroughly moisten the paper towels and pour off any excess standing water. Keep it moist but not overly wet, and place it in the dark of your kitchen cupboard. Check the seeds every day and re-moisten if the paper towels dry out. Most vegetable seeds will sprout within a few days to a week. If only a few sprout, you know they've lost some viability. If none sprout, they're worthless.
To retain high viability rates, be sure to store seeds properly. They should be kept in an environment of even temperature (40 degrees) and low moisture. Garden sheds and even a garage may experience periods of dampness and temperature extremes that can seriously reduce seed viability.
According to propagation guru Ken Druse, store seed in well labeled paper, glassine envelopes, or little plastic bags. He packs these into a wide-mouth Mason jar with a tight-fitting lid, then stores them in the refrigerator. You can also try an interior closet at the center of the house where it will be least affected by temperature fluctuations outside.
The world of seeds is fascinating, and these little living units are the most economical way to start a garden. The best book on the subject is Druse's Making More Plants: The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation (Clarkson Potter, $50). It is a well-illustrated, straight-talking guide to the ins and outs of seed propagation and the many other means of turning one plant into many. It's an important resource to have on hand just in case you uncover Pleistocene lupine seed and want to turn them into plants.
(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of "Weekend Gardening" on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at email@example.com. For more information, visit : www.moplants.com or : www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)
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