What’s in a seed?

August 1, 2016

Consult a dictionary and it may tell you that a seed is a mature fertilized plant ovule, consisting of an embryo and its food store surrounded by a protective seed coat. When I look at a seed, I see everything we need to survive wrapped up in a small, portable bundle. When seeds grow into plants, they provide us with food to eat, clothing to wear, construction materials for shelter, medicines to fight ailments, and oxygen to breathe.

Seeds come in all shapes and sizes. The world’s largest seed comes from a palm tree called coco de mer, found on the Seychelles Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. This massive seed grows to 12 inches tall and can weigh in at fifty-five pounds. On the other end of the spectrum are orchid seeds some of which are the size of dust particles and float on the wind for miles.

Seeds can be living time capsules, giving us a rare glimpse of what grew thousands of years ago. In 2005, a date palm seed was germinated after resting 2,000 years at Masada in the Israeli desert. More recently, genetic material was extracted from 32,000-year-old seeds that covered the tundra when woolly mammoths roamed the earth. The seeds came from a flowering prairie, Silene stenophylla, discovered in an ancient nest of a ground squirrel buried deep in the arctic permafrost.

I find it amazing that the oldest, tallest, and most massive trees begin life as a seed about the size of this “O.” These trees are so special that they have been given first names to distinguish them from all others. The oldest living tree from seed is the bristlecone pine named Amen and is found in the Sierra Mountains of Utah. It has been cored and dated to 5,065 years old, which makes it 500 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Farther west in California, are groves of sequoias and redwoods. The General Sherman Sequoia is the most massive tree on the planet and weighs in at 2.4 million pounds. This is the equivalent of two fully loaded Boeing 747’s with a Boeing 737 thrown in for good measure. The tallest tree on the planet is a redwood, Hyperion, which stands at an unbelievable 379 feet tall. In comparison, the top of Mount Auburn’s Washington Tower is 125 feet above sea level, putting Hyperion at three times this height.

The greenhouse at Mount Auburn propagates and grows thousands of plants from seed each year. Many are commonplace and are used to adorn the hundreds of pans and baskets that beautify the graves. However, we have grown many interesting woody trees and shrubs from seed over the past several years as well. One of these is the Waverly Oak.

The original group of twenty-three Waverly Oak trees were estimated to be of “substantial size” when the pilgrims landed on the shores of Cape Cod in November of 1620. In 1890, Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, described the Waverly Oaks as “the most interesting trees in eastern Massachusetts.” In 1891, the oaks inspired Charles Eliot, founder of the Trustees of Reservations to write an article published in Garden and Forest expressing the need to conserve “special bits of scenery” in a rapidly developing landscape.

One of the White oak seedlings grown at Mount Auburn’s greenhouses.

Last fall, board member, Jim Levitt, faithfully gathered hundreds of acorns over a period of three weeks from what is believed to be the last surviving Waverly Oak. The acorns were viable and had already begun to germinate in the plastic cups left on my desk. After a quick float test in water to separate the “good” from the “bad,” the acorns were planted. Soon there were several trees springing up in the middle of winter. At first I was excited to see them growing. Then it dawned on me that they had to be kept alive during the darkest and coldest part of the year. Fortunately, they went into a state of semi-dormancy and pushed new leaves late this spring. To date, the greenhouse staff has grown 181 Waverly Oaks, and all seedlings are spoken for.

Seeds are essential for our survival, producing some of the most amazing living organisms on the planet. Their tenacity for life under extreme conditions should be an inspiration to us all to never give up. Seeds, although small and unassuming, can become some of the grandest structures on the planet and may grow up to become a driving force to inspire people to do great things.

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About the Author: Jerry Mendenhall

Assistant Greenhouse Manager/Plant Propagator

View all posts by Jerry Mendenhall →

One Comment

  1. Elizabeth Greywolf says:

    Fascinating, well written article. Thank you for the research you’ve done on seeds and for your work in preserving the Waverly Oak. I’d be very interested to know where the “original group” came from and why there is only one left.
    Best,

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