Seeds are a source of wonder…

Photos by Dave Smith

Many seeds are so small that their beautiful features escape us. Many others, although large enough to see easily, are such common, everyday objects that we do not really see them. They are, however, worth our careful observation.

The first and most obvious beauty in most true seeds is in the perfection of their simple forms. Their outlines or silhouettes exhibit endless variations in the curve of beauty. In their entirety, too, we find wide ranges of proportion and different graceful and simple masses that are pleasing to look upon.

The sphere is a thing of beauty in itself, although quite unadorned. Artists have tried to produce nonspherical “abstract” forms that possess such grace and proportion as to call forth a satisfying emotional or intellectual response in the beholder. Some of the nicest of such forms lie all about us, unnoticed, in seeds. The commonest are such basic forms as the sphere, the teardrop, and the ovoid and other variations of the spheroid.

Some of these curving shapes are flattened, elongated, or tapered in pleasing ways. Sometimes they are truncated or sculptured into somewhat rough and irregular form. They may bear prominent appendages, such as wings, hooks, bristles, or silky hairs. Most seeds show a smooth flow of line and surface that is perfection itself.

The details of the surface relief of many seeds are even more beautiful in design and precision than the mass of the seed as a whole. Often you can find minute surface characters of surprising kinds. Surfaces that appear plain and smooth to the unaided eye may be revealed under a good hand lens to have beautiful textures.

Surfaces may be grained or pebbled. They may have ridges like those of Doric columns. They may bear geometric patterns in tiny relief, forming hexagons, as in a comb of honey, or minute dimples may cover the surface. Some irregular surface patterns of surprising beauty sometimes appear under the lens. Surfaces may be a dull matte, or highly glossy, or anywhere in between.

Last but not least in the beauty of seeds are their surface colors. They may be snow white or jet black. The color may be a single solid one, or two or more may be scattered about at random. Colors may form definite patterns that are distinctive and characteristic of the species and variety. The colors may be almost any hue of the rainbow reds, pinks, yellows, greens, purples and shades of ivory, tan, brown, steely blue, and purplish black.

Look for all you can see with the unaided eye. Then look at smaller seeds and the surfaces of large seeds with a good hand lens. You will be delighted with what you find.

There is still another beauty, a potential beauty in seeds, that can be seen only as the seed fulfills its ultimate purpose the production of a new plant possessing its own beauty. This is perhaps the greatest of all: Beauty of general form; grace of stem; the shape, sheen, and color of the leaf; and finally the loveliness of the flower or the lusciousness of a fruit. The cycle is complete, and so we are back to the beauty of a seed.

SEEDS are a symbol. They color our language and habits of thought.

From prehistoric times man has understood the role of seeds. Ancient languages, ancient cultures, and our own contain many words and concepts based on this understanding. The Bible contains several such examples, including the parable of the sower, the use of the word “seed” to mean offspring or progeny, and references to good and bad seed.

Our language contains both common and technical terms involving “seed,” although the meanings are quite unrelated to the subject of plants.

The meanings recognize, however, some metaphoric connection in one way or another. “Seed” is a noun, an adjective, and a verb.

Watermen speak of seed oysters, seed pearls, and seed fish. The optician speaks of seeds in glass. The chemist seeds a solution with a crystal to induce crystallization. We speak of the seed of an idea or a plan.

WE KNOW a great deal about how seeds are formed and what they do, but we know only a little about why that is so. Many purely practical questions still cannot be answered. We wonder about many features of seeds and their behavior.

Scientists study seeds for two kinds of reasons. It is desirable to learn everything possible about seeds in order that man can produce and use them more efficiently and effectively. Seeds or parts of seeds are especially convenient forms of living material for the study of the fundamentals of life processes in plants.

RESEARCHERS are conducting more inquiries into seeds today than ever before, and still our wonder grows.

Why does a very dry seed become so well protected and so insensitive that it can tolerate sharp, deep-freeze temperatures for years, with no harm and no loss of vigor?

A light-sensitive seed, while dry, may be so well protected and so insensitive that it is quite unaffected by daylong exposure to sunlight, yet, after it becomes moist, it may respond to a light exposure from a flash lamp as short as one one-thousandth of a second. Exactly what chain of events is set in motion by that flash, and how?

Why do some seeds require alternating temperatures in order to grow, while others do not?

Why do some seeds live for decades and scores of years, while others, apparently as well protected, die in 2 or 3 years?

Why do some small plants produce seeds that are much larger than the seeds of some much larger plants?

Why does one kind of seed develop completely in a few days while another takes years?

How is it that seeds are so wondrously different among species, and yet all are quite evidently evolved to accomplish exactly the same thing?

Seeds are a source of wonder.

Seeds are many things.
Victor R. Boswell is a horticulturist with special interest and experience in vegetable plants. He is Chief of the Vegetables and Ornamentals Research Branch in the Crops Research Division of the Agricultural Research Service. He received his undergraduate training at the University of Missouri and his graduate training at the University of Maryland.