Tag Archives: seeds

Saving seeds

Bags of seeds by RawpixelThere are legendary people and places in the drive to save seed diversity, and then there’s the legend. Nikolai Vavilov was a Russian plant geneticist who was active in the 1920s and 30s. Urbane and erudite, full of charm and curiosity, Vavilov made friends with everyone from local farmers to government officials. On a quest to prevent the periodic devastating famines that had plagued Russia for centuries, he traveled the world, collecting seeds. The seed bank that now bears his name grew to 400,000 seeds as a result of his vision and energy. 

A fascinating aspect of our agricultural history is that planting seeds to grow food happened in several disconnected areas 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. Like an evolutionary radiation, it was a sudden burst of activity across widely separated groups of humans. It was Vavilov’s genius to recognize the importance of discovering these cradles of cultivation. He was an avid explorer, with a love for the endless fieldwork his quests entailed, and adept at picking up languages and dialects. He rightly guessed that the areas where food plant species first flourished would be deep repositories of genetic diversity. His five areas were China, Ethiopia, the Andes region of Central America, the Mediterranean, and central Asia. Mountainous regions are particularly lush with biodiversity because they contain so many different ecosystems, each with their own genetic variants. 

His life ended tragically. Once the highly respected leader of Soviet agricultural science, he ended up in Stalin’s gulag for promoting the ‘bourgeois science’ of evolution and for the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of his international connections. There, Vavilov died of the starvation he spent his life trying to prevent.

But even Stalin knew not to destroy his seed bank. It survived the 900-day German siege of Leningrad in World War II because Vavilov’s employees locked themselves in the building. Despite having no heat or running water, and dying of starvation themselves, the survivors protected the seeds until the siege was over. That same deep understanding and love for what seeds bring us from their long genetic history inspire all kinds of seed activism today. 

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Creative Commons

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Wikimedia Commons

There are the ‘doomsday’ seed banks like Svalbard in Norway, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Colorado, and the Millennium Seedbank in England. The United Nations has nine banks around the world. Many countries store their heritage seeds in national vaults. Hundreds of smaller banks often hold seeds of less commercially important plants. Their genes may prove crucial to the continuing vitality of agriculture, and thus to our existence as a species. Innumerable seed saving groups and exchanges keep heirloom seeds in circulation. Seed libraries allow you to check out seeds in spring and return in the fall with seeds from your harvest. 

Heroes are still with us, like the Iraqis who rescued seeds from an important Abu Ghraib bank before the building was destroyed by a bomb. The seeds, with genes from the beginning of agriculture, were taken to one of the United Nations banks, near Aleppo, in Syria. Later, as the Syrian war intensified, they were packed again and driven to Lebanon on the last open road. Some have now made it to Svalbard.

Organizations large and small have their own legends, like Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. Feisty and inexhaustible, Kimbrell spends his life taking corporations and government agencies to court to protect food, farmers, consumers, and the planet. We owe the fact that DNA itself cannot be patented to litigation by the Center for Food Safety. It was their series of lawsuits and collaborative campaigns that prevented the USDA from watering down organic standards. Last year they added a Global Seed Network to their existing Save Our Seeds program. The network provides a platform to connect smaller groups and individuals.

Citrus fruit colors by Edgar Castrejon

Nature loves diversity. Photo by Edgar Castrejon via Unsplash

Navdanya (‘Nine seeds’) was founded in India by another legend, Vandana Shiva, a force of nature and environmental warrior worldwide. Navdanya’s mission is to “protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed.”  Dedicated to community resilience and social justice, Navdanya works locally throughout India. In the past twenty years, nine million farmers have been trained in sustainable farming and seed sovereignty. They have established 122 seed banks, and their own farm is a teaching center. Crucially, they are in the forefront on issues of biopiracy. International treaties guarantee national sovereignty over genetic resources. But it’s a constant, underfunded battle to protect native seeds and plants from corporate predators.

Once a seed has been patented it can no longer be used to create other crop varieties. To reduce competition for their genetically modified products corporations buy seed companies to take traditional seeds off the market. Modeled on the open source software movement, the Open Source Seed Initiative was created to “free the seed.” Seed growing and breeding partners commit to keeping OSSI-pledged seeds, their derivatives, and information about them available to all.

Vavilov’s solution to famine lay in seed diversity, which yields crop diversity. Farmers need a deep pool of traits to choose from. Then, as conditions change, they and their crops can adapt. At the best of times, there are changes in populations of beneficial and harmful insects. New plant diseases evolve. Rainfall and temperature vary. But global warming has made diversity a worldwide challenge. Warmer, drier climate not only makes drought more likely but brings changes in insect populations and diseases. Every change ripples through the ecosystem.

Vietnam market by Stephan Valentin

Vietnam market. Photo by Stéphan Valentin via Unsplash

The nature of Nature is variety. There are 400,000 species of beetles! But evolution takes time and needs available traits to work with. Right now we’re creating a dangerous bottleneck in the diversity of food species because corporate control has restricted access to 90% of our crop seeds. Seeds need to be planted and harvested to keep the gene lines mingling and flourishing, reacting to the conditions they’re grown in.  Limiting the gene pool makes no sense outside of corporate boardrooms. Local government agents urged farmers in Mexico’s Chihuahuan highlands to switch from their native corn to a white variety that produces more ears with larger seeds. But the white corn lacks the anthocyanins that turn the native corn blue. Not only do those polyphenols make the blue corn more nutritious, but they evolved to protect the seedlings from cold in that mountainous area. 

By the time we figure out these mistakes — and they are worldwide — we could lose precious genetic information forever. Seed banks are not the answer. They offer protection against catastrophic loss, but they are vulnerable. Svalbard was put inside a mountain in the Arctic so the permafrost would keep the seeds cold and prevent flooding. But the permafrost is melting, and water got to the door in 2017. Even if we could keep every seed in every bank safe, they exist in suspended animation. They’re kept viable, but the viability they inherited may not suit the growing conditions they meet in the future. Seeds in circulation and actively growing will adapt as circumstances change. 

Array of tomato varieties by Reseal Apacionado

Photo by Rezel Apacionado via Unsplash

The venerable Seed Savers Exchange is ensuring just that. Started in 1975 by Kent and Diane Ott Whealy, the organization has preserved over 25,000 heirloom seeds. SSE runs the largest non-government seed bank in the world and also stores seeds at Svalbard. But their mission is to continually grow out seeds on an 890-acre farm to keep plant genes ever renewing and mingling. Through what they call participatory preservation, gardeners worldwide grow with them, adapting plants to a wide variety of conditions. The resulting seeds are shared with Seed Savers and offered on the site’s Seed Exchange. 

The Italian agronomist Salvatore Ceccarelli is creating a similar movement with farmers: participatory plant breeding. He spent most of his career in the Mideast, working with cereal grain farmers in those dry conditions. When he had to leave during the Syrian war, he brought seeds with him to Italy to develop grains suitable for global warming. He works with farmers collectively to breed seeds that work best not only for their local environment but for all grain growing areas in a drier world.

Photo by Alfred Schrock via Unsplash

Genetic diversity is extremely subtle. Look at the fascinating array of our fellow humans. All those variations come from less than one percent of our genes. For the rest, we’re basically identical. So keeping a gene line pure while at the same time fostering its adaptive abilities is a delicate task. One that Native Seeds/Search has taken on. Their specialty is indigenous seeds of the southwest United States and northwest Mexico. They have a small bank and farm to protect, regenerate and supply 1900 seeds. Most are for food but some are from plants used for dyes, medicines, and shelter. Native Seeds’ mission is to keep the heritage seeds of local tribes pure and flourishing in the face of threats to their culture, ecology, and traditional farming practices.

Ultimately, all seed saving is cultural. Crop seeds evolved in intimate relation to the peoples who planted them. Whether saving Navaho corn, Syrian wheat, or Ethiopian teff, we are preserving the history of a region. It’s the story of our ancestors and their patient labor over the last 12,000 years. Blessedly, there are millions of seed savers all over the world. From card tables at farmers markets, backyard sheds, community exchanges, banks large and small, our heritage seeds are moving, growing, adapting. Will this stem the corporate juggernaut? Only by growing the movement not just to save seeds, but to grow community empowerment and activism. Corporate profits depend on our not understanding what’s happening to our inheritance.

By saving seeds we are keeping alive millions and millions of conversations. Between the soil and the seed, the farmer and the land, the earth and its beings. If we lose this priceless genetic history, we’re not only losing the brilliance of seeds but the ancestral genius that worked with them over millennia to create the foods we love and rely on. Men and women who noticed that this seed yielded sweeter berries, that one survived late spring frost, this one thrived despite a dry season. Who built on that knowledge, shared it, passed it down to us. Who sat down daily to meals we are still eating amid traditions we still cherish. Through this profound and nourishing legacy seeds become a door into what it means to be human.

Bowl of seeds by Joshua Newton

Photo by Joshua Newton via Unsplash

Photo at top by rawpixel via Unsplash

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

 
Related posts:
 

The toxic gamble: genetically engineered seeds

Farmer harvesting hay in British Columbia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordThe most public debate on the use of genetically modified seeds concerns their safety: whether they are safe for the environment and safe for human consumption. These are crucial questions, arguably the most important. But they are accompanied by a host of other very important issues: democracy, public versus corporate control, the rights of communities and individuals, the control of the food supply, the future of plant genetics, the future itself. Issues of culture, sovereignty, heritage, and spirit are involved. Who we are as inhabitants of our mother planet underlies all these issues.

Genetic manipulations can sound promising: rice with beta-carotene to prevent blindness in vitamin A starved children. Spinach that survives frost. Cotton and potatoes that resist their most pernicious beetle pests. Farming is hard and risky. Anything that makes it easier and more predictable is surely worth a look. Drought resistant wheat? Great idea! Especially in the face of global warming.

It was such a great idea that our ancestors started developing drought-tolerant wheat 10,000 years ago. Cereal grain cultivation originated in the middle east, where there was plenty of reason to foster plants that naturally weathered dry seasons. Grasses are wind pollinated, so the different species could mix easily, blending genes, creating desirable traits that were then chosen, grown, and treasured. Some of these ancient grains are in use around the world today, including in our own midwest, helping farmers cope with the effects of warmer, drier climate.

Teosinte, the ancestor of corn, is pictured with its modern progeny. Photos by Matt Levin and CSKK

Teosinte photo by Matt Lavin; corn photo by CSKK. Both via Flickr/Creative Commons

The choosing and mixing of beneficial traits in plants of all kinds brought us most of the food seeds that we had 100 years ago. Farmers who never heard the words genetics or evolution nevertheless were part of those processes. We know from genetic analysis that corn developed from an unassuming grass, teosinte, when we began planting it nine thousand years ago. Slowly and carefully, operating on knowledge acquired from intimacy with seeds and plants, locale and weather, farmers developed plants with the prominent cobs and seeds that became a staple food of what is now North and South America. The other two staples — beans and squash — were developed with the same patient wisdom.

The indigenous people of the Americas planted their three sisters together, starting with a few corn seeds set into a mound of soil. The corn stalks created a pole for the bean vines to climb. Beans are in the legume family, which pulls the crucial nutrient nitrogen from the air into the soil. The large squash leaves shaded the ground, discouraging weeds, conserving water and preventing the sun from baking the soil. Coastal tribes planted a fish in each mound for fertilizer. 

A bowl of jewel-like beans from seedambassadors.org

Photo from Seed Ambassadors

One hundred years ago, after thousands of years of such careful nurture and thoughtful husbandry, there were 307 varieties of commercially available corn seeds. As of the last count in 1983, there were twelve. Monsanto is everyone’s culprit, with good reason, but they didn’t begin it, and they’re not alone. Early in the twentieth-century corporations realized that there was money to be made in creating seeds that had to be bought anew each year, instead of the ancient practice of collecting them at harvest. This led to F1 hybrids, which dominated farm staples such as corn, sugar beets and vegetables. F1 hybrids are genetic crosses designed to use the desirable dominant traits of each parent. However, in the next generation recessive genes can activate, and so the crop is less predictable and likely weaker. 

So, farmers purchased new seeds every year, on the surface a reasonable tradeoff for a reliably hardy crop. But only reasonable if they had a choice, which diminished rapidly. The hybrid breeders didn’t want competition from traditional seeds, so they began to buy up seed companies, something that has accelerated in the last twenty years. The three major chemical corporations heavily involved in GMO seeds have bought 20,000 seed companies among them. In addition, Monsanto is notorious for going into traditional farming regions and buying stored seeds from farmers as they introduce their altered seeds. By refusing to sell the traditional seeds they now own, corporations force farmers to buy their genetically engineered products.

Wheat field in South Dakota by Betsey Crawford

Wheat field in South Dakota

When they want to convince the public of the safety of GMO foods, genetic modifiers say that their work is a continuation and sophistication of the process of hybridization that has been in place since farming began. But all previous combinations, including the F1 hybrids, combined genes of the same or closely related species, using the methods of pollination the plants had used for millions of years. The insertion of flounder and trout genes in tomatoes and spinach, along with viral catalysts and a bacterial signature to identify the corporate owner, is entirely new. Which is exactly what those same modifiers say when they apply for patents.

In 1980 the United State Supreme Court ruled that life forms could be patented. This gives Monsanto and other companies the right to alter a single gene in a seed, claim the patent, and sue anyone who uses that seed for intellectual property theft, even if the use of that seed is unsought and unwanted. There are many examples of farmers whose crops were wind pollinated by nearby GMO seeds and ended up being sued for damages. In addition, and literally caught in the crosswinds, organic farmers can lose tens of thousands of dollars of value when their crops are contaminated.

Given its 117 year history of producing deadly poisons — DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs — and creating endless toxic sites, there is apparently no amount of damage that Monsanto is unwilling to do. It has also, ever since helping make bombs in both world wars, had close ties to the U.S. government. In every administration from Reagan through Trump, Monsanto lawyers and executives have held positions in the FDA, the USDA, and the Supreme Court. Next to the corporations, the U.S. government is the biggest booster of GMO crops, even to the point, during famines, of forcing supplies of GMO grain on African countries that don’t want them.

Corn field in western Kansas by Betsey CrawfordI can’t know for sure how the farmer of the field above treats his land. But the state of the soil — dry, sandy, colorless — suggests that he first drenched the ground with biocides to kill the microbial life. Then another biocide to arm the seeds and seedlings against insects whose predators may well have been killed in the first round. Since there are no weeds sprouting between the corn stalks, he likely applied another biocide, probably glyphosate, to kill them. This is the chemical in Monsanto’s Round Up. Handily, Monsanto’s Round Up Ready seeds are bred to grow into plants that aren’t killed by glyphosate. After seeding the farmer can keep spraying Round Up all season. To feed the plants growing in this sterile soil, repeated applications of petroleum-based fertilizer can be added to the list.

If this were a potato field, he would have followed the same path, adding fungicides, but instead used the eyes of potatoes with the inserted genes of Bacillus thuringensis, or BT. Eating the leaves would then be lethal to the notorious potato beetle. These thrive in monocultures of the potato bred, for example, to provide perfect french fries at McDonald’s. This leaves us with sterile soil, sick pollinators, poisons in the air and water, eating a potato that is, under the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules, technically an insecticide.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78. Photo by Immo Wegmann via Unsplash.

Earlier this year Monsanto merged with German chemical giant, Bayer, another company with a grim history. They join two other recent mergers: Dow and Dupont, Syngenta and Chem-China. These are chemical companies foremost, and what they want to sell are chemicals and seeds modified to grow into plants that can sustain repeated barrages of their chemicals. Journalist Mark Shapiro, in his book Seeds of Resistance, quotes a Monsanto executive who describes the ’stacking’ of as many as six different genes into a seed to create resistance to six different pesticides. “We work,” she said blandly, “to uncouple the farm from the environment around it.”

As Shapiro says, this is “a pretty succinct description of the industrial agriculture paradigm…that treats the seed as a foreign entity to be inserted into a chemically reconstituted environment.” It’s also insanity: trying to create life by killing everything around it. A thriving earth means one lively ecological niche after another. A seed and its environment are among the most crucially linked life forms on the planet; they are an ecosystem, intimate bonds that hundreds of millions of years of evolution, of both seed and soil, have created. Every breathing being on the planet has evolved because this relationship evolved first: a soil alive with microbial and fungal life, a brilliant seed, and the plant they produce. 

Soil should be full of life: dark, crumbly, full of decaying plant matter and fungi.

Soil should be full of life: dark and crumbly because it has lots of decaying plant matter, showing signs that fungi are thriving.  Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson via Unsplash.

Evolution is going to have its way. There are already superweeds that survive Round Up. BT, an important tool used sparingly in organic farming, quickly met its first BT resistant caterpillar in genetically engineered cotton. The companies will invent more chemicals. The organic farmers will be devastated. Thus it isn’t only about safety. There are layers and layers of complications. Pollution, health, farmers’ sovereignty over their own land. The ability to access and trust good science, and the education to understand it. A community’s right to say no to corporate demands. State and federal laws protecting corporations at the expense of those communities.

People assume there have been studies on the safety of GMOs for humans. But there haven’t been. Negative research exists but has been suppressed and ridiculed. The chemical companies say it’s not their business to determine the safety of their products, it’s the Food and Drug Administration’s job. The FDA is peppered with biotech industry insiders. One Monsanto executive went from writing the paper to gain approval for bovine growth hormone to being the FDA appointee who approved it. 

Will there be a safe role for transgenic organisms in medicine and food? We don’t know. It’s being ‘studied’ in real time. We, along with our children and grandchildren, are the long-term epidemiological experiment that may give us the answer. We may not know for generations. The same is true of the environment. There have been recent articles by one-time GMO skeptics who say they are now converts since we’ve been using them since 1994 and they “seem safe.” But twenty-four years doesn’t even register in the scale of human and plant evolution. If every word in this essay represents 500,000 of the one billion years since the first photosynthesizing eukaryotes showed up, homo sapiens’ 200,000-year history would be the last two letters. 

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27.

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27. Photo by Lance Grandahl via Unsplash.

Monsanto’s slogan is ‘Feeding the World.’ Well-meaning people and organizations believe genetically engineered seeds are the answer to the seemingly intractable problem of hunger, especially as the population explodes to a projected 10 billion people. But recent studies show that the combination of genetically engineered seeds and their companion chemicals actually produce lower yields than traditional methods. In the meantime, debt-burdened farmers the world over are trapped into a cycle of needing chemicals to produce high yields to pay for the chemicals. The companies and their stockholders are the only identifiable beneficiaries. 

People aren’t hungry because there aren’t enough vast agricultural monocultures being showered with poison. They’re hungry because our methods of growing and distributing food leave them out. The farm workers in California’s Central Valley work among the most abundant vegetable and fruit fields in the world. But they can’t afford the products they raise because they’re not paid enough, a worldwide problem.

We know so little, despite our brilliance. We’ve been here such a short time. The seeds we’re risking for the profits of a few people are our elders by hundreds of millions of years. We’re a young and rambunctious species, dazzled by our capabilities. But we have no idea what we don’t know. Too many have lost a once deep understanding that we are embedded in a vast fabric of being. Lost the knowledge, to borrow from Thomas Berry, that the earth is not made of objects, but interconnected subjects full of life, power, and wisdom. To the Mayans, corn was a goddess. Among those who remember such reverence, there’s a growing movement to save seeds. That’s what I will celebrate in the third part of this seed series.

A farm field on Prince Edward Island, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Prince Edward Island, Canada

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Related posts:

The brilliance of seeds

Micro images of seeds by Alexander KlepnevThese gorgeous seeds and their vast number of relations are the foundation of life. Certainly for the plants that grow from them. And for the entire animal kingdom, which is completely dependent on them for food. Herbivores eat their plants and the seeds themselves. Carnivores eat animals that eat plants. We human animals have a special relationship with seeds. First, as eaters. If you had oatmeal or toast for breakfast you ate crushed seeds. Coffee? Ground seeds containing the energizing alkaloid caffeine, which creates a mild addiction we share with bees. Raspberry jam? Fruit containing seeds. Hummus for lunch? Crushed protein-rich seeds from legumes. Walnuts for a mid-afternoon snack? Seeds themselves, packed with nutritious oil. Some chocolate with that? Seeds filled with luscious fat. String beans for dinner? Pods containing ripening seeds. Spicy salsa on the side? That the heat of capsaicin-containing pepper seeds.

Vivid peppers at the San Rafael farmers market, San Rafael, California by Betsey CrawfordOur whole life is one seed after another. But that doesn’t separate us from our non-human kin. What distinguishes us is that we consciously plant them, and the discovery that we could do that changed everything. Once we found out how to create a reliable source of food by cooperating with seeds, we changed from hunter-gatherer nomads to settled communities. We were launched on a revolution we are still living today. Our 10,000-year history with seeds, and what has happened to this most interdependent of relationships in the last hundred years will be part two of this essay. In part one, I want to celebrate their brilliance.

Here are some of the things that seeds know: they know that the twelve hours of daylight in early April in the northern hemisphere means it’s time to germinate, whereas the twelve hours of daylight in late September means it’s time to disperse themselves away from their mother plant. They know it’s the opposite in the southern hemisphere. 

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) seeds splitting out of their red pods in Stewart, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

As the ripe pods of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) split open, they curve away from the center, pulling tiny seeds with them, ready to be airborne.

Having waited in dormancy all winter, metabolism slowed almost to a halt, embryo protected inside a hard shell, they know how to measure the right mix of light, water, and oxygen. They know a passing shower is not the rainy season they’re waiting for. They know the forest they’ve lain dormant in for decades has burned and nutritious ash and volatile organic compounds have been made available, along with enough light to sprout and grow. When a drought ends, or a road is cut through, or a field plowed seeds know to grab their chance in the sun and air, take in water, begin to expand their cells, and wake up their sleepy metabolism.

They know to send out a tiny root that will find its way into the soil by the gravity sensors in its tip. They know their place well enough that many seeds can confidently do this in the fall to get a head start on the next spring’s growth. Many others know to resist the temptation of germinating in warm autumn soils and thus risk the winter freeze. Those wisely wait until spring. Seeds sense where they are, how deeply they are buried, whether the minerals, bacteria, and fungi they need are available. Some seeds wait years, even centuries, for the right moment.

The seeds of grasses are full of energizing starches that provide half the world's calories. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThey know to send out one or two ‘first leaves’, cotyledons, to begin the work of photosynthesis, adding to the nutrients in the seed itself. Long before that they know to take one of the two sperm that makes it into the ovary as a result of pollination and make nutritious food out of it, usually the endosperm. Until photosynthesis starts, that’s what nourishes the embryo and seedling. And us: the endosperm of grains accounts for over 50% of human caloric intake worldwide

In the long process of evolution, they have created a variety of endosperms and related ways to nourish themselves. Fat-filled avocado seeds have plenty of food for the slow time it takes them to start photosynthesizing in their native forests. The starchy seeds of grains and grasses give them the quick energy they need to take off in any open, sunny spot. Protein-rich nuts drive the long lead time it takes to launch a tree, and promise nourishment to the animals who handily spread them around and then forget where they put them. 

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to take off by Betsey Crawford

The wonderfully fluffy and prolific seeds of common mllkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

They’ve worked out arrangements with pollinators and predators. Hard shells protect against rodents eating too quickly. They carry the heavy nuts — and often bury them — away from the mother plant, enabling young plants to better establish themselves. Seeds create alkaloids like piperine in black pepper, terpenes in citrus fruits, capsaicin in hot peppers to make themselves too unpleasant to eat. Then they work out further deals. Birds, who don’t mind the heat of capsaicin, but whose digestive systems are slowed down by it, thus carry the seeds farther abroad, handily depositing them in a small package of fertilizer.

After a summer of ripening, they take off on wings, feathery filaments, parachutes. They hitch a ride on animals, including humans. They drop at the feet of their parents to form colonies. The pods of lupines and other legumes pop open and shoot seeds away from the mother plant. Seeds can ride ocean currents for thousands of miles to establish themselves on far-off lands. Many know to ripen alongside the flesh they are encased in, which changes from protective bitterness to such sweetness that more and more dispersers are lured to them. Birds, bats, bears, monkeys happily spread apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries far and wide. Humans take fruit seeds and plant them in orchards. Dispersal to a good place for eventual germination is crucial to the survival and evolution of a species. Seeds know how to enlist the help they need, even from the tiniest creatures.

An ant carries seeds in the Anza Borrego Desert in photo by Betsey CrawfordThis varied and amazing wisdom has inspired 90% of plants to evolve the use of these protective, easily dispersed packages of nutrition, embryo, and intelligence to ensure the viability of the next generation. Of those, 80% are angiosperms, from the Greek for ‘seeds in a receptacle.’ The remaining seed producers are gymnosperms (‘naked seeds’) which predate angiosperms by 160 million years. They lack the protective seed coat of the angiosperms, important protection during dormancy. However, many of the gymnosperms, including all of the conifers, have evolved cones as a way to protect their seeds. 

White spruce (Picea blanca) cones protect their seeds. Photo by Betsey CrawfordGymnosperms, among our most ancient plants, are far less diverse than the angiosperms. Try parking your car near a pine grove on a windy spring day. Pines are pollinated by very fine, yellow pollen carried by the wind in fluffy clouds. Many angiosperms, especially grasses, rely on wind pollination, and it works wonderfully. But it’s a scattershot approach to reaching the precise spot you want fertilized, as you’ll see when you get back to your now yellow car. By tucking the egg deeply into the protection of the ovary, angiosperms created conditions for a multitude of goal-oriented pollinators: bees, butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, flies among them. This led to competition for the attention of these creatures, which in turn evolved into a large variety of shapes, petals, sizes, colors, scents, seeds themselves. 

The underside of a fern dotted heavily with spores. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Clusters of ripening spores on the underside of a fern leaf.

This explosion of diversity is possible because seeds efficiently combine the genes of two parents. Ferns mix them, too, via spores. But they use an ancient process so cumbersome that ferns are basically the same plant they were 180 million years ago. Seeds allow for evolution itself: the easy and continual mixing of the gene pool creates an endless array of subtle variations that allow plants to adapt to changes in the landscape, in pollinators, in temperature, in pests. Combining parental genes allows one species of wheat to become more drought tolerant than another, a flower to form purple petals from pink, a potato to better resist fungus.

How these multitalented beings do all this remains full of mysteries, though we have clues. Can seeds see light? Perhaps not the way we can, but they definitely see light and judge its strength and direction. Like us, they possess sensors and chemicals to allow this skill. Phytochrome enables seeds to register light energy, or the lack of it, at the red and far-red end of the spectrum. They judge the season by the length of the night, yet know if darkness comes from overhanging foliage because light filtering through green leaves switches from red to far red. Seeds also rely on knowing the temperature and moisture suitable for their species to judge when it’s time for the seedling to emerge. At that point, phytochrome switches gears, fostering growth and the increasing complexity of the emerging plant. 

The seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) bring to break off from their stalk. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) break away from their stalk.

Are seeds conscious? Not, so far as we know, the way we are, but they are keenly aware of and responsive to their surroundings. They make choices and decisions. One can say it’s a chemically-mediated response to stimuli, but that’s how our brains work, too. I doubt the seeds lying in wait in the brown hills surrounding me are ruing the exciting days of last spring, or planning for the coming rainy season. That kind of consciousness seems to be our unenviable lot. Instead, they have a way of holding the spring that launched them and trusting the rains to come that I would love to emulate.

Those dry, dozing seeds have their own type of awareness. More important, they, like all of creation, hold the consciousness of the whole. The same wildly creative, ardent energy that brought the universe into being flows through every seed, every plant it forms, every creature it nourishes. It flows through us as we spend our days sipping and munching them, or planting a flower garden, or sowing corn to be sure we can feed our families.

Western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) seeds ready to drop to the ground. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The heavy seeds of western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) will fall close to home.

As long as we treasure them, does it matter whether we think seeds have any kind of consciousness? The trouble is, too few people are treasuring them. By not regarding them as the vibrant, sacred trust that millions of years of cosmic evolution have bequeathed us, we’ve lost 90% of their vast diversity in the last hundred years. We’re stopping evolution in its tracks. That’s not just losing access to nourishment, which is devastating enough. It’s losing culture, history, connection, spirit. Far from treasuring them, we have given control of seeds to corporations whose only mission is profit at any cost. And the cost is unbearable.

Currently, seeds are treated as a commodity to be bought, traded, used, changed, profited from. That mindset will be explored in the second part of this series. If, instead, more and more of us see ourselves sharing with seeds the same co-evolved energy and wisdom that have made us partners for millennia, we will help prevent their destruction. There are many passionate people on this journey. Their hope and work will inspire part three of this essay.
Seeds in autumn in Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park, Revelstoke, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

[Top photo: Micro images of seeds. Photo by Alexander Klepnev via Creative Commons]

Related posts:

 

Spruce family planning

One of the first things we noticed when we drove into Alaska in July was that vast stands of spruce — and Alaska is full of vast stands of spruce — were dark brown at the top. Seeing them from a distance, as we drove through a valley, we wondered if they were suffering from a disease that was killing them from the tips. When we got closer, we realized they were laden with cones. At first, I assumed this was a normal approach to long summer days, but found, on a guided walk through the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, that 2015 was a mast year for white spruce.

White spruce (Picea glauca) with many cones during a mast year in Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Female cones tend to cluster toward the top of the tree, in this case white spruce (Picea glauca).

Mast refers to the products of trees — cones, acorns, catkins — and many species have mast years, when they produce an above-normal abundance of seeds. Spruce cones are the primary food of Alaskan red squirrels. The squirrels live on the forest floor, digging tunnels under and around the roots of the trees, where the cones can fall right at their doorstep. They eat the seeds at the base of the female cone scales, tossing the rest of the scale and the remaining ‘cob’, out their front doors, where the ever-mounting detritus becomes a whole environment in itself.

The den of a red squirrel (Tamiascuurus hudsonicus) in the roots of a white spruce (Picea glauca) by Betsey CrawfordEvery few years, to keep ahead of the voracious squirrels, who can each hoard up to 9,000 cones a season, the trees produce extra cones. When our guide, Ruth, was telling us this, we joked that spruce had family planning all figured out. And that got me thinking about what we actually meant by those light words. What had they figured out? How had they figured it out? What in the spruce had ‘noticed’ that producing more cones every few years meant they could insure enough offspring without spending the energy to produce extra cones every year?

redsquirrel_looking_over_shoulder

Thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for this photo. No squirrel would stand still for me.

We know, if only from watching our dogs go into a decline the second we pull out a suitcase, that animals have consciousness and an emotional life. We don’t put it on a par with our own, and don’t, as a rule, apply any concept of consciousness to plants, though there is a growing, and utterly fascinating, body of work dedicated to exploring what plants know and feel.

In my work as a landscape designer, I would ponder why gardens grew better for some people and not others, given that their care was basically the same. I had a client who was extremely ornery. I learned quickly to call him in the morning so I didn’t run into his afternoon drinking. Despite a sense of humor and a certain amount of charm, he could be hard to be around. But his landscape was one of my all-time favorite jobs. He was an artist and a bon vivant. He loved beauty. He had been a photographer for Life magazine, and his house was full of lovely things from all over the world. His garden, despite his routine grumpiness, grew like mad.

The leafy den of a red squirrel (Tamiascuurus hudsonicus) in the roots of a white spruce (Picea glauca) by Betsey Crawford

I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

A counterexample was a couple in their thirties, successful professionals, extremely nice, though not necessarily warm or charming. Their house was rather bleakly furnished. Every time we met, they both stood with their arms tightly folded the entire time. Their garden did the same thing. It dutifully grew, but it never took off into the kind of riotous abundance that my ornery client’s did.

Another couple with whom I worked for many years started out with a garden that grew grudgingly for a while. But, after both successfully recovered from cancer, it was fascinating to see how they and their garden changed. My clients seemed more at ease, more open. They renovated their house and painted every room a different luminous color from the sea and sky outside. Their garden grew more and more luxuriantly, and even unusually deep in color.

Blue flowers in an East Hampton, New York, garden. Designed and photographed by Betsey CrawfordThough the idea of sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of plants has enormous appeal, spruce will clearly never follow our example on family planning: make appointments, discuss options, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy, remember to use whatever we get there. Instead, every few years, usually following a warmer prior summer, they will produce extra cones. To do this they have to ‘know’ something. To grow riotously for one person and not for another indicates a capacity to respond. To grow toward the light indicates a capacity to see. Plants don’t have the neurology we use to translate vision into images, as far as we know, but the chemical process is not that far from our own, and some of the genes that direct it are the same. Nature can’t be bothered to give every living thing its own personal set of genes, so both humans and plants have inherited genes from our common, ancient, bacteria ancestors.

Many dens of red squirrels (Tamiascuurus hudsonicus) in the roots of a white spruce (Picea glauca) by Betsey Crawford

Squirrel apartment building

I love all this because I love to contemplate our interconnectedness. I love the idea that I am, literally, in the same family tree with the spruces I pass on my hike. That I share up to 80% of my DNA with the squirrel chittering at me, up to 25% with the branch she sits on and the cone she’s about to hide. The ferns brushing my shins, the moss on the edge of the path, the fungal mycelium strands winding through the soil under my feet — these are all kin, descendants, like me, of our unicellular forebears. And, as carbon-based forms, we are all descendants of the earliest stars, whose death launched carbon into the universe.

We live in a world where we differ from all other humans across the globe by less than 1% of our DNA. Nevertheless, we’re having a hard time convincing our very tribal selves that we are all related. Given that challenge, seeing spruce trees and squirrels as family may seem like a low priority. But I find that feeling embedded in the life force that is also the forest makes it easier to remind myself, in the constant brush of personality that makes up everyday life, that underneath our wide-ranging but superficial spectrum of differences, we are all — every one of us — intimately connected.

White spruce (Picea glauca) cones on the forest floor during a mast year in Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

 

 

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Related posts:

Going to seed

fireweed-seedhead-epilobium-angustifolium-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) about the send off its abundance of seeds.

Some years ago I took a photography workshop at the New York Botanical Garden. At the end of a day spent shooting the vast array of flowers in the perennial gardens, Allen Rokach, our teacher, told us to come back next morning with two favorites to share. Everyone else brought in pictures of flowers at their crispest and dewiest. I brought in a fading iris and the seedheads of giant alliums.

giant-allium-seedheads-allium-giganteum-New-York-Botanical-Garden-Bronx-New-York-by-Betsey-Crawford

Giant allium (Allium giganteum) seedheads

Allen was forbearing, even rather fascinated by this choice. It’s not that I don’t love flowers at their freshest. But there is something about the fading flower, the seed heads, the seeds themselves that I am drawn to. This is part of the life of the flower. In fact, this is the point of the flower. While we enjoy the exquisite beauty of form, the softness of petal, colors ranging from the subtlest to the wildest of shades, the whole design is to attract pollinators, get pollinated, and produce the next generation.

Seedheads found at Meadows in the Sky at Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia

Seedheads found at Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia

So all that beauty isn’t about the joy and refreshment of our eyes. We were 100 million years from the horizon when angiosperms (fruit producing plants) first appeared. It’s likely that we owe our eventually showing up to the benefits their nutritious fruits and seeds brought to the animal kingdom. The goal of floral beauty is to create structures for seeds to develop, and to lure bees, hummingbirds, flies, beetles, bats, butterflies and other pollinators to help with the task.

Color, scent, form, and those inviting, exquisite petals signal that sugar is available. While the nectar, deep in the flower, is sipped, the anthers at the end of the flexible stamens brush pollen on their guest. It’s common in spring and summer to see bees, their legs swollen with yellow fuzz, diving drunkenly into flower after flower, dropping some pollen off, picking up more.

western-columbine-with-seedhead-aquilegia-formosa-Valdez-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford.jpg

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) in bloom and beginning to form a seedhead

At each flower, the pollen brushes off the carrier onto the stigma, the top of the tiny stalk (the style, barely visible above) nestled in the center of the stamens. The pollen’s DNA information then proceeds to the ovary at the base of the flower. The ovary, often still small when the petals fall, like the columbine above, swells into fruit as the seed matures. Eventually the ripened, swollen fruits begin to dry and split open, emptying their abundance of seeds.

SeedheadsThe abundance can be staggering. That long curve of fluffy seeds in the fireweed at the top of the post is from one flower, on a stalk containing dozens of flowers, among millions of fireweed stalks.

Seeds must then move from pod to receptive ground. In the case of harvesting fruits and seeds for eating, farming or gardening, we have a huge role to play in this, and a minor role, which we share with our dogs and other local fauna, in carrying sticky seeds from place to place on our pants and socks. Other seeds simply fall at the feet of the flower stalk. Not content to wait for creatures to walk by, many seeds are attached to feathery filaments that allow the wind to disperse them.

creosote-bush-larrea-tridentata-Anza-Borrego-Desert-California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

All of this can be going on at the same time. The desert creosote above has a fresh flower, with its anthers full of pollen, a fruit at the top, and two stages of open pods: one with the seed filaments just emerging from the dried and split fruit, and one beginning to disseminate its feathery seeds.

monkshood-with-seedhead-aconitum-delphinifolium-Wynn-Nature-Center-Homer-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Monkshood bud and seed pod (Aconitum delphinifolium) at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

I like the tossed-aside-lingerie look of fading flowers, but it’s the pods, or seedheads — sculptural, often a bit wacky, with dried-in-place curves and unexpected twists — that I particularly like.  I love the way the designed-for-wind filaments catch the light before they fly off, and the increasing translucency of some pods as they dry.

desert-chicory-rafinesquia-neomexicana-Anza-Borrego-Desert-California-by-Betsey-Crawford

Desert chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) in the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California

Loving flowers takes a certain existential fortitude. They are a fleeting lot. This is especially true of wildflowers. In a garden, you can create bloom all season, all year in warm climates. You can make space for wildflowers, and even plant them, but you have very little control over what they do and where they go. This is why cultivars — flowers bred for particular traits — are so important to the garden industry. They are tamed wildflowers.

The truly wild ones come and go on their own tens-of-millions-of-years-old schedules. If it’s too dry, too cold, too wet, they may choose dormancy. If all is right, they will grow riotously. If there’s too much competition from invasive plants, they will bide their time, the seeds remaining dormant for years. Once they bloom, they slow or speed up their flowering and fading according to the weather.

wild-geranium-seedhead-geranium-erianthum-Hatchers-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford.jpg

Wild geranium seedhead (Geranium erianthum)

While they’re blooming, I don’t think much about all this. I just want to see them. It’s when they fade and the pods ripen that I remember that they’re not here for me. The seedheads remind me that we are part of their history, not the other way around. We have taken full advantage of this process to grow food, harvest seeds, enjoy gardens. But it’s not a cycle for us. It’s a cycle we fit into. Watching this ancient unfolding roots me in the history of the earth, in the forces that, with slow and infinite care, brought us here, blessed with the ability to see and love beauty.

cotton-grass-eriophorum-angustifolium-Wynn-Nature-Center-Homer-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium)