Reflecting on Seeds, Part One

Seeds are one of nature’s miracles; the whole history of the plant, the evolution of a species over millions of years, is encased in this often tiny  package !  

A seed is an earthbound spaceship; it is a time capsule, with a tiny, embryonic plant waiting in suspended animation until conditions are suitable for its optimum growth, and the only time that a plant is not auto-trophic.

A seed is a package enclosing a living embryo.

A seed contains a food supply; for the embryo, and lots of other creatures.

The seed coat offers protection.

The seed coat is a sensory organ, and a critical interface with the environment, able to respond to changing conditions.

The seed coat regulates the uptake of water and exchange of gasses.

A seed is a means of distributing the plant species in both time and space.

Seeds are also food for lots of creatures; including humans; just think of all the foods we eat that are seeds of one plant or another.  Try opening any cupboard in your kitchen and inventory the seeds you find, whole or in altered forms.  Our 'staff of life', bread and cereals are basically grass seeds; nuts are seeds, too, and so are lots of the spices, like black pepper, cumin, and mustard. We eat sunflowers seed, and pumpkin seed; and we make oil for cooking out of various seeds. We eat seeds before they ripen, like green peas; sometimes we also eat the pods, as in green beans. Often times seeds are dried to provide humans with a wealth of nutrious food; as in the great variety of beans we have to choose from.

The native peoples of California harvested lots of seeds; everyone knows that acorns were their 'staff of life'. They also harvested the very large pine 'nuts' of the Ghost Pine (Pinus sabiniana), and seeds of the Buckeye and the Bay trees. The native peoples harvested a variety of wildflower and grass seeds to make a 'pinole'; they made a variety of different basket styles to make the job easier. Seeds of Elegant Madia (Madia elegans) were thought to be the best tasting of all; and I am absolutely charmed by the idea of people eating wildflower seeds!

So, always remember, especially when collecting seeds for horticultural use, that seeds are food for many, many creatures; insects, birds, deer, rodents and other mammals; all rely on seeds as source of valuable nutrients. 

Seeds are also a means of distribution for the plant species. Since plants are obviously stationary, seeds have evolved in many ingenious ways to ensure distribution of the species over both time and space. Some seeds remain viable for decades; a portion of seeds produced one year may lay dormant, hidden, or camouflaged, for many years as insurance against disastrously bad years for the species.

Seeds can, and have, traveled easily with humans all over the world; perhaps Homo sapiens is just another agent cleverly employed by the plant world for its own benefit! 

Starting plants from seed puts the whole horticultural world at your fingertips, is well worth the extra time and planning, and is incredibly rewarding. Now, with a growing interest in native plants, experimental home

propagators, with the freedom of trial and error, can perhaps help to fill the gaps in the common knowledge of propagation, and cultivation of some of the less commonly grown California native plants.

Gathering seeds is an act of trust, and an investment in the future.

But, let's keep in mind that seeds are there not just for our purposes, but for much more expansive reasons; to that end please be conscientious when you see seeds worth collecting.


Always get permission first if collecting seeds anywhere but in your own garden, and even then, collect sparingly.

If you see more than ten fruits on a plant; take only one in ten.
If you see nine: take none.

I'm not a trained Botanist, but I have taken a number of classes in Botany, plant ID (both in the classroom and in the field), and plant propagation over the years; and I also love to read, and to experiment with plants, so mostly, I am self-taught.

Peter Loewer coined the phrase I love; A seed is an earthbound starship. His book - SEEDS - The Definitive Guide to Growing, History and Lore; (Timber Press, 2005) is well worth the time to read cover to cover.