The Extraordinary Secrets of Ordinary Seeds
Courtesy of Basic Books
If you’ve ever opened a packet of foxglove seeds, you know they’re as fine as dust, almost like a sprinkle of pepper in your hand. The tiny seeds are hard to handle, and once you’re scattered some over the garden, it’s tempting to rub your hands together and brush the rest away.
But the next time you’re about to do this, stop and think about what you're holding.
Author Thor Hanson wants us to celebrate seeds. After all, almost everything in our lives—from the toast we eat for breakfast, to the cotton in our shirts—starts with seeds. Seeds produce the hardwoods that we make into kitchen tables, and seeds grew the prehistoric plants that we process into fuel for our cars.
In his book, The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History, Hanson takes a intriguing look at the acorns that grow into oaks, the orchid beans that flavor vanilla extract, and other ordinary seeds that affect the world, often in extraordinary ways.
This isn't your typical gardening book, and Hanson doesn't tell readers when to harvest their melons or how long eggplant seeds take to germinate. Instead, his book is a mix of lively stories, adventure, natural history, botany and ecology. As he traces the evolution of seeds over time, he shows us how they've changed, both naturally and at the hands of farmers, gardeners, explorers and even monks like Gregor Mendel, whose curiosity led him to experiment with common garden peas and genetics.
While we’ve been shaping seeds (and the plants they produce), seeds have been shaping us. Hanson, a conservation biologist who has won numerous awards for his previous books, Feathers and The Impenetrable Forest, fascinates us as he explains how the wide, thin wings of Javan cucumber seeds inspired the design of the B-2 stealth bomber.
On the humorous side, he describes how the “breakfast of champions”—to some college kids, a bowl of cereal mixed with beer—was once a typical morning meal in parts of medieval Europe, where beery beverages and ales were commonplace. Then, he reports, “the Great Soberer” came along in the form of coffee beans, and early risers found a different kind of seed to literally perk them up.
Today, he adds, coffee beans are the world’s second-most traded commodity, and we guzzle lots of other drinks like colas made from the nuts of rainforest kola plants. Where would we be without all these seeds?
You’d think anything so valued and useful belongs in a bank, and seeds are indeed being preserved for their genetic information. Hanson takes readers to the National Seed Bank, in Fort Collins, Colorado, where seeds are collected and stored under carefully monitored conditions to keep them viable as long as possible.
He also visits the non-profit Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, where seed keeper Diane Ott Whealy collects seeds and runs a mail-order seed business. Her network of “backyard preservationists” helps ensure that heirloom varieties won’t disappear, even if demand for them in the commercial marketplace dries up. Today, Hanson says, over a thousand seed banks exist around the world.
Hanson’s book isn’t a “how-to,” but it is a “don’t-miss” for naturalists, from amateurs to experts, or for anyone who enjoys growing plants from seeds. Here are some key takeaways:
- Nuts and Bolts – "Botanists call a seed 'a baby plant in a box with its lunch,' and everything in our gardens comes straight from those key traits. Because seeds nourish the baby inside, they nourish us. Because they defend those babies, they are resilient, and often spicy. Because seeds need to travel, we have fruit. And because seeds endure in the soil, we can save them to plant and harvest, year after year after year."
- Saving Seeds – "When archaeologists sift through the remains of an ancient culture, one thing reveals the dawn of agriculture: big seeds. A sudden increase in the size of local grains tells them exactly when people began selecting, saving and cultivating the best varieties. Modern seed saving connects us to this age-old tradition, and it can be as simple as squashing a tomato on a paper towel. Visit online resources like www.seedsavers.org for practical, step-by-step techniques."
- Storing Seeds – "The world record for the oldest viable seed currently lies with a Judean date palm nicknamed 'Methuselah.' It lay buried in the rubble of a desert fortress for 2,000 years before sprouting and growing into a healthy tree. Garden seeds don’t need to last that long, but storing them in dark, dry places will extend their lives and improve germination."
- Swapping Seeds – "Throwing rice at a wedding is more than festive—it’s part of a long cultural tradition of seed sharing. Brides and grooms around the globe get sprinkled with everything from wheat and sorghum to cotton, millet, lentils, peas and almonds. The seeds symbolize prosperity but also the joining of families and the sharing of their seed varieties and knowledge. And whenever seeds are passed on, whether it’s at a wedding, between friends, or through the growing network of community seed libraries, they take on deep stories of gift and receipt."
- The Staff of Life – "One of the most exciting garden moments of the year comes in the dead of winter, with the arrival of the seed catalogs! But seeds aren’t just for gardening. They surround us all day long, from the cotton in our pajamas to the coffee and cocoa in our cups. Seeds give us spices, stimulants, oils, and drugs, not to mention more than half the calories in the human diet. Look for them in your daily routine and you’ll quickly see that seeds are, quite literally, the stuff and staff of life."