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Symphony of the Seed, Part II: The Spawning of the Seed

As our end of the Earth tips closer to the sun and the frost migrates southward, the gardeners among us begin transplanting our coddled babies outside. One by one, we tuck them into freshly prepared soil, give them a hearty drink of water, and reluctantly retreat like nervous parents waving good-bye on the first day of Kindergarten.

The world is immense for a tiny seedling as the shelter of the greenhouse gives way to the outside world beyond it. Now, it is literally a baby in an orchestra that becomes, in Wendell Berry’s words, “a music so subtle and vast no ear hears it, except in fragments.” Delicate, bright white roots touch the soil of their new home for the first time, tickled by literally millions of teeming soil micro-organisms. The harsh sun baptizes its leaves and the wind whips at its stem. So much could go wrong in such a vulnerable state.

It learns, as all beings must, how to occupy a seat at this incomprehensibly interconnected table with strength and grace. It must etch food from rocks and to grow strong but flexible in the wind, like the hardened trunks of trees that still sway in the breeze. To share of itself, but not too much.

We humans have a distaste for bitterness, so we have over centuries bred it out of our beloved garden vegetables, transforming bitter, wild plants into sweet, cultivated ones. As we’ve taken away our plants’ natural bitter defenses, we too must play an important role in protecting them. Thus, we’re inducted into the concert as our cultivated gardens become members of the orchestra, working alongside the ladybugs and mantises to keep someone besides us from eating our dinner.

By D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

Sun-eating leaves multiply rapidly when roots can drink from the soil, and our baby plants soon grow voluptuously large. Their breath and ours intertwine in the elegant exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Yet the seed has a higher purpose–to make more seeds.

The method the plant employs is the stuff of sonnets, the very definition of beauty for some. While some plants like tomatoes can pollinate themselves, the majority of our cultivated vegetable crops need help. Without the ability to move, a plant must lure in an unwitting accomplice to aid it in the act of copulation, to move its sperm to another plant’s egg.

Thus, plain green stems birth garish flowers splaying petals, pistils, and stamens open for the taking, wafting alluring scents into the air, hoping to catch the attention of a passing pollinator. Guided by ultraviolet maps on petals unseen by human eyes, a pollinator reaches the sweet cache of nectar the plant generously provisions, in the process covering her hairy body with sperm-filled pollen. Plants don’t get insects to do their bidding through force or violence–they do it through irresistible sweetness and beauty.

And through unique mechanics. Umbellaceae family plants like dill and carrot shoot up umbrellas of tiny flowers on tiny stems, attracting tiny pollinators like solitary bees and small flies. Big squash flowers are better suited to big pollinators like honey bees and squash bees. Scrophulariaceae plants provide a little pedal of a petal for the bee to land on, releasing the pollen-drenched anther on a long filament to bop her on the bum while she drinks. Tomatoes shed pollen only for bumblebees who can buzz correctly. Thus the intrigue continues for the curious gardener, who passes awed summer hours observing the ingeniousness of flowers and the industriousness of bees.

Often we think of germination as something that only happens to seeds, but pollen grains germinate too! When a pollen grain lands on the sticky stigma of the female flower, it grows a pollen tube that stretches down the style of the female, unleashing the sperm to swim in and fertilize the eggs inside. The fertilized eggs will grow to become the seed babies of the plant, housed variously in an ovary as large as a pumpkin or as small as the button of a chamomile flower.

Now that the sexy work of pollination is done, there’s nothing to do but wait for the seed to ripen, which is the very definition of summer’s bounty. The juicy tomatoes, spicy peppers, and buttery squashes we covet are simply the houses for hundreds of ripening seeds, seducing us as the flowers seduced the bees into doing their bidding. We feast in their excessiveness as we await the autumn’s chill.

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Symphony of the Seed, Part 1: The Sprouting of the Seed

At first, the process is intimate. You, alone in your greenhouse, bundled up against the cold, seeding alliums. Outside the window, the world is still sleeping. A brave bird calls forlorn, oddly exposed on a naked branch, perched over the patchy snow. You scatter a small scoop of hard little lumpy seeds across the top of each pot and cover it lightly. The whole thing just seems so implausible, flat after flat of plain brown soil stacking up on the shelves.

“There’s no way this can work again!” you think.

You water and wait. A week goes by, sometimes more, and you’ve almost forgotten there was anything in those pots. But then, a single blade, bent against itself, pushes through the soil, like a lone oboe squeaking out clearly in a quiet theater while the entire orchestra waits in captivated silence behind it. It creeps taller, millimeter by millimeter, finally breaking free, heaving the shell of its seed out of the ground and lofting it overhead like a  trophy. Others follow, first timidly, then boldly by the thousands, waving the black pompons of their seed skeletons in the air like chaotic fireworks dancing in chorus. Flat after flat, they sprout and grow–Brassicas, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, filling the shelves and saturating our dull winter eyes with impossible vibrancy.

Of course, the real magic happened underground, before that first blade showed itself to the world above. As the water seeps in to soak the soil around the waiting seed, it begins to soften the seed’s protective shell. The parched seed, which has lain dormant and thirsty for so long, starts to drink in water through its hilum bellybutton. As the water quenches the seed, its radicle root starts to grow, and soon it busts through the seed coat, springing the plant to life once again. That radicle plunges deep into the soil, anchoring it and beginning to slurp up food from the soil. The plumule shoots steadily upward until it bursts through to the light, unfurling its cotyledon leaves to bask in the sun and be nourished. And thus, the seed is born a plant.

Seeds have a  way of knowing when the time is right. It’s a matter of life and death, whether the world is ready to support the seed once it sprouts, so each seed carries a built in intelligence to know when it’s time. Some seeds in the desert will lie dormant for months, years, or even decades, waiting for the perfect conditions to make a go at their one chance at life. Garden seeds, having co-evolved with doting human caretakers, are more trusting. As long as we place them at the right depth, and provide them the right temperature and moisture, they’ll sprout, throwing their survival into our hands. “I trust you,” they say with each sprouting cotyledon. And so we engage in the centuries-old dance between faith and doubt that is agriculture, partnering across vast kingdoms of life to nourish another species.

                It’s happening outside now, too. Spring is the whole world waking up, sprouting seeds dotting every available surface, from the furrows in the fields to the cracks in the sidewalk. It’s such a blindly optimistic thing to do, putting hard little lumps into rows of bare brown ground. Yet here they come, by the hundreds, then the thousands, almost invisible at first. Then one day you arrive at your farm and the whole thing wears a blanket of soft green. The symphony is in raucous crescendo now, all the horns and the toms and the violins have joined in fully and are climbing toward the joyful cacophonous climax of summer.

Charles Darwin once counted 527 individual seeds in a single teaspoon of pond soil, each with the potential to create millions more of itself over generations. Though each one is precarious in itself, as a whole, the process is unstoppable, seeds cracking open and leaves climbing insatiably forward, eating the sun and multiplying ever more surely as roots do the same. It’s one of the grandest feats on earth, and one of the most miraculous for the gardener to behold–the humble seed splitting apart and bursting forward into the light.  As author Cynthia Occelli describes, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. For someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.”

And yet all around us, countless spring seeds coming undone bring the promise of another bountiful season. Thanks be to the sprouting seeds!