The fascination of seed

Alcea cannabina © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Alcea cannabina

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – The chilly, damp weather at the moment does not encourage me to spend much time in the garden. Instead, I am drawn by the lure of seeds. Before I allow myself to trawl through lists of various seed suppliers, I need to take stock of the various seeds I harvested over the past months. An assortment of little dishes, paper bags and envelopes have accumulated and need sorting and tidying.



Seed cleaning

Halesia monticola © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Halesia monticola

Throughout my training I have spent many hours harvesting and cleaning seeds. In the Arboreutum of Kalmthout in Belgium I was introduced to the architectural beauty of many tree seeds such as Halesia monticola, the snowdrop tree. In Wisley I spent many a wet afternoon in the seed library cleaning and bagging seeds for their seed exchange scheme. Of my days in the Alpine Yard in Kew I particularly recall the fascinating capsules of Cyclamen.

Cyclamen hederifolium © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Cyclamen hederifolium

The round curled up balls nesting in their spiral stems. But also, here spending wet afternoons using the beautifully crafted sets of small brass sieves that help to separate the husks and dust from the actual seeds.

In Scotland, at Jack Drakes Alpine Nursery I sat for weeks in the attic room overlooking the nursery sieving, sorting the harvest of treasures such as Meconopsis, Primula, Trillium and other delights for next season’s nursery production and for direct sale to the customers. Some fellow students dreaded these days. I loved them. All I dreaded (along with everybody else at Kew) were the seed identification tests. In the fortnightly Plant Identification Tests, there was at least once a year a seed ident. This meant being confronted by a room-full of little dishes with seeds, which one had to identify, giving the full botanical name, including plant family.  It could be anything from lettuce seeds, to the more distinctive shapes of a maple.

The humble seeds

They may appear small and insignificant, but they are so valuable. They represent continuity, hope and wealth. Thanks to them life can carry on. It means you can produce food to put on the table next season. For a nurseryman it means that you can grow plant that you can sell and generate your revenue. For a gardener it means you can look forward to more of those wonderful flowers you so enjoyed this season. For the generous spirits, it means you can give away and share something precious.

Seed germination triggers

Seeds fascinate me. I love studying the ingenious mechanisms mother nature has developed and refined over time, understanding the reason behind distinctive dispersal methods which each plant seems to have developed. Each seed has the optimum chance of survival and distribution based on its specific environment.  Some must be sown straight away, as they have a short longevity. In this category are many spring and early summer flowering perennials such as primulas and Meconopsis. They have all of summer and autumn to develop into strong little plants before the onset of winter. Others have in-built mechanisms that prevent them from germinating in autumn. Freshly germinated seedlings would have little chance of survival during winter. To avoid this, they will not germinate until one, or even more cold spells have passed. The impatient gardener can overcome this dormancy problem by putting the freshly sown seeds in the fridge for several weeks, known as stratification. Then there are those that will first produce a viable root system before they appear above ground.  Paeonies tend to show in year two, having spent year one making roots.   

Our oaks root almost instantly as they drop to the ground in autumn, making the most of the long, cool season to get its feet established. But it is not until spring that a stem and its first leaves will appear. They rely on the increase in warmth and day length. At the opposite end of the scale are those that need to be exposed to the heat of a bush fire before they can germinate, knowing that only then they will have sufficient space and light to start a new life. Romneya coulteri is one of the plants that require heat treatment before they start.

Sensual pleasures of seeds

Samen - Acaena microphylla 'Kupferteppich' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Die Samen von Acaena microphylla ‘Kupferteppich’ haben kleine Haken

It is not only the mechanical side which fascinates me. The aesthetic and sensual aspect is equally pleasing. Some are deliciously scented, others stink. Seedpods and seedheads are beautifully constructed and have such differing textures. Some feel silky, such as the shiny black seeds of Lewisia, whilst others are encapsulated by a sticky mess. Dandelion and its relatives come with perfect little parachutes so wind can carry them far away, whilst Galium aparine (cleavers or goosegrass) (Kletten Labkraut oder Klebkraut) have a Velcro-like texture or tiny hooks so they can catch a ride in the fur of animals.  The highly poisonous yew enrobes its almost black seeds in fleshy, tasty edible red berries. They will pass through the digestive tract of a bird unharmed, only to be deposited with its little fertiliser pack, somewhere far away from the mother plant. Some just rely on brutal force. They can catapult themselves into the neighbourhood. On warm sunny summer days, you can hear the “knack” as seedpods of Euphorbia characias explode. If you have experienced the tickling thrill of the seedpods of the Himalayan Balm explode in your enclosed hand or have witnessed the liquid seedmass that comes spewing out of the squirting cucumber, you know that in every adult there is still a child hidden. They are simply irresistible.

Just remember:

  • Always write down the name and date of the plant you collected, as well as where it came from. It is nice to remember a good friend or family member by plants that originated form their gardens.
  • Avoid storing seeds in airtight containers such as jam jars or plastic boxes: if they are not completely dry, they will go mouldy. Use paper bags or envelopes, and store them in a biscuit tin, somewhere cool and dry.
  • NEVER take seeds in other gardens without asking first. This is theft and is just as upsetting as when somebody steals your favourite silver paperknife. Always ask. It is much nicer to be given something than to have stolen it.
  • Do not bring back seeds (or plants) from holiday. You may unwittingly introduce a previously unknown pest or disease (such as the box caterpillar), or a plant that becomes an invasive weed (like Japanese Knotweed).
  • Many seeds have a long shelf-life. It is always worth sowing seeds that have been sitting around for a long time. The germination rate may not be as good anymore, but there is always the hope something comes of it.
  • If in doubt how to treat seeds, scatter them on compost in a pot, cover them with a layer of sieved soil or sand, as thick as the seed is, and put in a sheltered corner of the garden where you can keep an eye on them that they do not dry out. (possibly cover them with a pane of glass to keep the moisture in.) Some perennials, and several woody plants simply take their time. Leave pots for at least two years before giving up!

  I have no patience for sowing on buttons or knitting jumpers, but I can spend hours removing fluff or fleshy outers, separating husks and debris, then packaging and labelling the seeds safely in small paper envelopes, to store them in a dry, dark, and cool place ready for sowing next spring.   I cannot wait for this time.