Earth Matters: In awe of the evolution of seeds: Seeds have lives and ecosystem roles far beyond their use to humans

Ears of glass gem corn (aka Zea mays), colorful ears of corn that are bred and grown to be used for decoration, popcorn, and grinding into cornmeal and cornflour.

Ears of glass gem corn (aka Zea mays), colorful ears of corn that are bred and grown to be used for decoration, popcorn, and grinding into cornmeal and cornflour. PHOTO BY KIM SNYDER

Bright yellow ears of corn on display at the 2023 Minnesota State Fair.

Bright yellow ears of corn on display at the 2023 Minnesota State Fair. PHOTO BY BILLY SPITZER

By LAWRENCE WINSHIP

For the Gazette

Published: 03-07-2024 1:10 PM

February in New England brings longer days, uncertain weather … and seed catalogs! We gardeners pour over highly anticipated pages of glossy photos offering the promise of gorgeous fruits and flowers, all for the small price of a seed packet.

Seed companies work hard to provide reliable uniformity. Their seeds will readily germinate, rapidly and with a guaranteed percentage. Their promises will come true — plant a radish, get a radish! Many are said to be disease resistant and adapted for local conditions of soil and climate. We take for granted that the horticulturists and farmers behind the catalogs know their trade, turning out crops of seed for us each year. More and more, many of us save our own seeds; taking the responsibility for seed quality into our own hands.

But let’s remember — the annual cycle of plant growth, flowering and seed set predates human existence, seed catalogs and online ordering. Seeds have lives and ecosystem roles far beyond their use to humans.

In fact, our existence in extensive and dense populations rests upon one of those critical ecological roles of seeds. The “seed habit” of plants evolved millions of years ago, allowing new forms of plant life to colonize dry land. Unable to run around as we do, plants use seeds to travel far and wide, so that at least a few of the thousands of seeds produced each year will find fertile ground.

Luscious fruits induce animals to carry seeds. Some seed pods explode, scattering seeds widely. Pollination by wind and animals supports genetic diversity and buffers plant species against habitat and climate change. This seed rain covering the earth has been evolving and adapting for millions of years before the beginnings and rise of Homo sapiens.

Wild seeds are different from those in catalogs. They do not always germinate quickly or easily. They maintain dormancy in many ways. I worked for a while on the ecology of native lupines. Simply soaking and planting the little bean-like seeds did not work — they needed to first be scarified by gentle rubbing on sandpaper and then would take up water and swell. I wanted to grow Ceanothus, a perennial shrub of western chaparral. The trick to getting those seeds to germinate was to toss them into boiling water! In the wild, the seed would be heat treated by ground fires, germinating into open spaces among fire-killed shrubs.

Yet tens of thousands of years ago, ancient humans paid attention to the localized and seasonal abundance of seeds and migrated to places rich with ripening plant food. In many places and times around the globe, people began to gather, save and learn how to plant wild seeds, particularly those weedy annuals that eventually became wheat in all its forms, rice and particularly in Mesoamerica, maize. Each year of growth, flowering and fruiting followed by selection by humans shaped and coalesced virtually all of the genetic information we still use today to improve crops.

It is not an exaggeration to claim that we owe our lives to those ancient ecologists. We are the beneficiaries of thousands of hands through which seed passed into tilled soil, directed water from streams and floods, then gathered seed heads and stored them in terracotta pots for the coming year. I have been fortunate to know a few Indigenous seed savers who carry on traditions and practices developed over millennia. I continue to be moved by their skill, dedication, preservation efforts, and spiritual connection to seeds.

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I visited the seed collection at Native Seeds in Tucson, Arizona, a nonprofit that conserves and promotes the arid-adapted crop diversity of the Southwest in support of sustainable farming and food security. I saw rows upon rows of beans, corn, and squash seeds in climate-controlled rooms. I was overcome by the majesty and power encapsulated there.

So let us consider one of the most significant contributions by Indigenous peoples to our current food system: maize. Yes, beans, squash, potatoes, and tobacco are economically, ecologically and nutritionally important. Soybean, a contribution for ancient Asian peoples, now has acreage in the U.S. about the same as maize. Still, maize stands out as an exceptional plant.

Domesticated from a wild grass called teosinte about 9000 ybp (years before present) in the Balsas River Basin in what is now the state of Guerrero, Mexico, maize spread along the Pacific coast to reach Peru by 6700 ybp. It was taken up into Mexico’s highlands where it hybridized with yet another teosinte variety about 4000 ybp and traded and carried into the southwestern U.S. Adaptable to both low and high rainfall, high temperatures and high sunlight, maize agriculture could support large populations. In modern times, with the onset of hybridization, fertilizer and pesticides, maize yields skyrocketed as it became our most abundant industrial crop.

Consider for a moment what we have done with this most important gift brought to us by Indigenous farmers. Corn is planted on 90 million acres in the U.S., subsidized by over $7-billion producing grain worth $92-billion in 2022. Yet 33% goes for animal feed, 27% for ethanol production (think gasohol), and 41% is exported, generating foreign exchange. Food? We consume maize primarily via animal feed and corn syrup. I personally enjoy sweet corn.

On the one hand, maize cultivation is a tremendous success story, providing food and economic security to millions of people at serious environmental cost. And yet? Here is the paradox in a handful of seeds. For a few of today’s dollars, I can purchase history, a tangible continuous connection with the distant past. I am utterly dependent on the living technology that comes down from that history. But I cannot directly thank those responsible. So I stand in my garden, over freshly tilled ground, seeds in my hand, and I pause. I pause in awe and gratitude and hope for the future. Then I joyfully put another season’s promise in the ground.

Lawrence J. Winship (he/him) is emeritus professor of botany at Hampshire College and a former board member of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 14 years. HCE’s mission is to educate and to inspire action for a healthy planet. Our Living Building and trails are open to all at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit hitchcockcenter.org.