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The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 14: The Beauty of Seeds

By Birgitta Jansen

Fall 2022

A closeup of a dandelion seedhead

At the first hint of spring, we venture outdoors yearning to see eager sprouts as they emerge from soil still damp from the last remnants of snow. Everything seems to harbour the promise of new life as fresh leaves and needles start to dress brown trees and shrubs in vibrant green. Yellow glacier lilies are among the first to welcome the new season, even when snow is still heaped around them.

Plants and animals alike appreciate the increasing warmth and light of the sun. On Sunflower Hill, the balsamroot leaves start to unfurl. Sometime in May, buds open and brilliant yellow flowers spread their petals wide, inviting pollinators to come hither. Many human feet make the annual pilgrimage up The Hill to pay homage to this famous member of the sunflower family. Famous? Well, in Kimberley anyway.

A closeup shot of a seed head

Wikipedia tells me that the concept of beauty usually refers to something that is lovely to see. Indeed, while gazing at flowers, poets and painters alike have felt a stirring to the depth of their souls. Georgia O’Keeffe for example, is known for her dramatic, exuberant paintings of flowers.

But once the flowers start to wilt and dry, pollinators know that for them, the party is over. Most of us humans tend to think so, too. But it’s not. What is yet to follow is the season of seeds. The seed plays a vital role in cycle of life, yet oddly enough, I have never heard of anyone going to pay homage to a field of seeds. But when we stop and take a moment to get up close and personal, we may find that they, too, have their own astonishing beauty. And wait, there’s more.

A closeup shot of a seed head

There really is an inner beauty of seeds that has been discovered by Professor George Bassell and his team of the University in Birmingham in the UK. I have taken some literary license here because I am referring to recently discovered mechanisms that play a significant role in germination and therefore in plants’ survival. Even though I am stretching the meaning of the word “beauty” a little bit, the scientists’ findings are truly amazing.

We know that seeds respond to “the right” external conditions, such as water, oxygen, light, temperature, and so on. When conditions are right, the sprout emerges from the seed and up it goes. But the story is not as simple as it may seem. The right conditions vary for different plants. For example, some seeds require a vigorous storm to scrape their seed coats off before they can germinate.

A closeup shot of a seed head

During a telephone interview on December 6, 2022, Bassell, who was in London, UK, mentioned that other seeds respond well to alternating cold and warm temperatures before they “decide” to germinate. What Bassell and his team discovered is that the mechanisms involved in germination are incredibly complex.

After ten years of meticulous research, the scientists found that in addition to external stimuli, plants themselves seem to determine when they germinate, and I quote from their publication, “they are effectively making a decision through the interaction of two groups of cells that constitute an analogue of a brain.”

The reader might recall from the previous essay, “The Time of Seeds,” that most seeds consist of an embryo, an endosperm (nutrients), and the seed coat. In the embryos of thale cress seeds, the plant Bassell’s team studied, there are two types of cells: one group promotes dormancy while the other drives germination. They discovered that these two groups of cells together function as “a decision-making center by moving hormones from one group to the other.” These hormone exchanges lead to the decision when to initiate germination. This process, which interacts with the responses to environmental stimuli, allows the plant greater control of the timing of germination.

Bassell has been interested in seeds for a long time and emphasized that, “They are the underpinnings of humanity; they lie at the heart of our civilization.” Without them we would not have food. With passion audible in his voice he continued, “What is really interesting is the complexity of the mechanism used by plants to maximize survival. Survival depends on the timing of germination and therefore is most critical.” Bassell added another fascinating finding, “Plants retain memories of past conditions, such as prolonged exposure to negative conditions, that become encoded in their DNA.”

The research was one step at a time as the scientists followed their intuition and interesting observations. And it continues. Bassell explained, “We are investigating how to make plants used in crops more resilient during this time of climate change.” Once the plants’ functioning is understood genetic modifications can be made in the DNA that will facilitate survival under challenging conditions.

A closeup shot of a seed head

It’s interesting and perhaps somewhat surprising that Bassell does not view plants as very sophisticated. He does not support the notion of plant intelligence, but his final comment was, “Plants are very good at not dying.” Considering that plants are critical to the survival of all creatures, that is a very good thing. Perhaps some of us might venture up The Hill next fall and pay homage to the beautiful seeds.

All photos by Birgitta. The dandelion photo was taken in July, the others at various times in October 2022.


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