Mad about Science:

Seeds

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Ever wondered how a seed works? Me too.

I mean, it’s a little thing that falls out of a plant that somehow creates a new plant. We sell them in big bags and little bags. We eat them, we throw them around our lawn, we dump them into the soil, then like magic, we watch plants grow where the seeds were dumped.

This is an incredibly broad subject, and before continuing I’d just like to say that I am not claiming this is exactly how the process works for every kind of plant, because it’s not. Some plants have created some incredibly clever and unique means of reproducing.

This should cover most of your garden pretty well, though!

So what is a seed?

Let’s start from the beginning. Let’s pretend that you have a squash plant growing in your garden. Throughout the late spring and all of summer, you’ll see those familiar bright orange flowers start springing up all over the plant. If you look very closely, you’ll notice the interior of the flowers may look different from each other. One is male, and one is female.

If you ever had the birds and the bees talk, this is the bees part of it. Now, the plants can’t exactly crank up the Barry White, so they’ve developed another method to reproduce: pollen.

For some, pollen is the worst part of spring. It’s everywhere, it chokes you at every possible opportunity and until now, you probably never put much more thought into it. Get ready to never look at allergy season the same way again.

You are literally allergic to plant sperm.

Ewwwww.

Pollen grains cluster together, usually carried by the wind, but also by insects, and are deposited into the female parts of a flower, called a pistil, where the germination process begins. Pollen is very, very small and produced by each plant in great number. This is important for the continuation of the plants’ genetic survival, because if only a single grain of pollen were produced, successful reproduction would have odds that make winning the lottery look like an everyday affair.

The reason people are allergic to pollen is because the human body thinks that the pollen grains are hostile viruses or bacteria and do everything in the body’s power to expel the invaders, despite the fact that the pollen is largely harmless to us most of the time.

Back to the plants, the pollen is introduced to the female pistil. Then what happens?

It differs from plant to plant, species to species. There are entirely too many to cover here, but the core is the same. The pollen carries the genetic information required for reproduction to the female organ, and over time and through a lot of cellular division, the plant will grow fruit, seeds, you name it. Using our earlier example, your female squash flower has grown an actual squash!

Now, the gourd itself isn’t the seed. It’s a sort of life support vessel for the seeds inside. Usually, the flesh is designed to protect, preserve and feed the seed that will grow into a new plant, but sometimes plants will cleverly use the fruit as a means of propagation and bait. Take huckleberries for example. Who are the two biggest consumers of huckleberries?

Humans and bears. Well, with humans, this tactic is largely wasted, but we all know that bears go in the woods, so to speak. So the berries, obviously very delicious, are eaten by bears where the seeds enter the digestive tract, get encased in a clump of nutrient-rich poop and are deposited up to several miles away from where the berries were first grown, adding new genetic diversity to potentially other huckleberry patches. Gross, but amazing.

But Brenden, what about seedless grapes?

Another case of human intervention. Seedless grapes and most commercial bananas were created by humans for the sake of convenience. The seeds have either been shrunken, like in the case of bananas, or eliminated, like with seedless grapes, for the benefit of human consumption.

So how are seedless grapes grown, if they can’t reproduce?

Plants are crafty. They have more than one way to break an egg, so to speak. Seedless grapes are technically a clone that originated from a mutation. While you might think at first that scientists worked a bunch of crazy multi-billion dollar techy magic to splice and mess with embryonic cells, the truth is a lot simpler.

They cut a sprig off the parent plant, planted it and let it grow. Then they cut sprigs from that one, then sprigs from the ones that grew from that one, and on, and on, and on.

This technique is modified for most fruit trees sold for planting at home.

Let’s say a nursery has a young crab apple tree growing, but they want a Fuji apple tree for a client. They cut the crab apple down to the base, almost to the dirt, then they cut a fresh branch from a mature Fuji apple tree, bind them tightly together and seal them to keep bacteria and insects out, and from then on, the tree will grow as a Fuji, despite the base of the tree and all of the roots being a Crab apple.

Could you imagine if that could be applied to human anatomy?

Doctor, I sawed my arm off trying to juggle chainsaws. Can you just glue a new one on?

At the library, we’re about a lot more than just books and movies and the occasional science article littered with crude scat jokes. We’re big on sustainability and community enrichment. I’m personally a firm believer that getting back to the most basic of practices can help our brains make sense of a sometimes overwhelming world filled with technology that we don’t always fully understand. Where am I going with this?

The Seed Library!

If you haven’t checked it out before, I’d like to invite you to come take a look. We’ve converted a card catalog cabinet into a seed storage device and opened it to the public with a small set of basic guidelines.

1. Write down what you take.

2. Bring back seeds that you harvest from what you grew this year, that way someone can grow something next year.

3. Only bring heirloom seeds you’ve grown. We appreciate donations, but we would like to continue heirloom lineages that we’re able to trace back to farmers and individual growers rather than laboratories.

That’s really it. Very simple, and it will save you some money in the spring. You’ll also be doing your part to help a plant’s lineage along this great evolutionary journey we’re all partaking in.

Come ask about it at the information desk, we’ll show you to the Seed Library, all of the literature and the seeds themselves. I’m sure Camile would love to talk to you about the Seed Library, too.

And just think about it, the next time you’re holding a small handful of dry seeds in your hand, you’re holding the product of almost two billion years of evolution just waiting for a chance to feed you and your community.

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