One fine morning this summer I looked out the second-floor window of my study and discovered a 1-foot tall tomato plant growing a few feet away in the gutter of the back porch. Just one more example, if one were needed, of the amazing, millennia-long saga of seed dispersal on the planet. Thor Hanson offers more examples in his newly published The Triumph of Seeds.
Why do plants grow where they do, puzzled Charles Darwin and other 19th century scientists? When Darwin reached the Galapagos Islands during his 3-year-long voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, he discovered numerous oddities, including cotton. How did it get there?
Since a cotton boll can float, it is now believed that “Darwin’s cotton” (Gossypium darwinii) rode the waves the 575 miles to the Galapagos from the South American mainland. And how did cotton come to South America in the first place? “American cotton species contain the genes of two distinct African ancestors…” writes Hanson.
It boggles the mind.
Seeds not only have the capacity to stay alive during monumental trans-oceanic trips, they also survive over time. Lots of time.
Hanson recounts the story of the siege of the 1,000-foot-high Masada Fortress where Jews resisting Roman rule had taken refuge in CE 72-73. The Roman contingent comprised a legion of soldiers plus thousands of slaves and camp followers, so it was inevitable that food and water supplies would eventually be exhausted and the Jews defeated. But before that could happen, the Jews moved all of their remaining possessions and food stores into a building, which they set ablaze and then committed mass suicide.
In the 1960s, archaeologists picking through the rubble found coins, olive oil, salt, wine, grain and dates with scraps of fruit clinging to the seeds. Remarkable enough, but then in 2000, a researcher in Jerusalem decided to plant one of the seeds. To her great surprise, it germinated, grew up to 10 feet tall and flowered for the first time in 2012. Now named Methuselah after the Old Testament character who lived 969 years, the date palm has its own gated garden with a watering system, burglar alarm and security camera.
In other words, seeds are pretty remarkable and deserve a closer look. As we stroll our gardens this fall lamenting the waning flowers, remember that the once-pink coneflowers have formed seed heads that can feed goldfinches, and those black seed pods of larkspurs will pop open to drop seeds that will sprout into new plants next spring. Life is continuing, just in another form. For a tantalizing sampling of what’s out there, be sure to take a good hard look at the photos by Ron Capek and Jeff Rugg in our cover story.