Seeds. You buy them in packets. You sow them in the soil and they turn into living beauty, and the very source of our survival. Understanding a plant’s family history can offer clues to how its seeds will act in the garden.
Beans and Peas
The wild ancestors of beans had a dispersal technique that has been bred out of cultivated varieties: their seeds literally exploded from the pods and landed about 10 feet from the parent plant. After a short latent period, they germinated over the next couple of years. Modern
cultivated varieties of beans and peas maintain their viability for several years.
Beets, Chard, and Spinach
Broccoli, Cabbage, Radishes, Turnips, and Mustard Greens
In nature, brassica seedpods shatter. When seeds become ripe, their pods split open and scatter their contents onto the ground in the vicinity of the parent plant. This mechanism has advantages in nature—it allows
the plant to shed seed over a period of time. The sheer numbers of seeds and the various weather conditions that occur at the times of their dispersal ensures that the next generation of plants will persist.
Carrots, Fennel, Parsnip, Parsley, Cilantro
The beautiful flower aggregates of carrot family plants, known as umbels, attract large numbers of pollinators. Once an insect completes the job of pollination, each individual flower contained in an umbel matures
into two seeds. Seeds of the wild carrot have developed bristles, which cling to the fur of animals. The seeds are also lightweight and borne on tall stalks, so they are easily distributed by wind. Cultivated members of the carrot family lack the bristles of their wild relatives.
Lettuce and Sunflowers
Lettuce is related to both sunflowers and dandelions, but the seeds have more in common with those of dandelions. Gardeners tend to pull lettuce plants out when they bolt, but if you allow the bolting plant to
follow its course it will produce a mass of small daisy-like yellow flower heads. Each flower (like sunflowers and dandelions) contains many florets, which mature into seeds. The trait lettuce flowers share with dandelions is that the narrow seeds are topped with tufted hairs, allowing them to drift in the wind and land far from the parent plant.
Lettuce seeds require light to germinate—this makes sense, considering that they land lightly on top of the soil.
Onions, Chives, Scallions, and Shallots
Onion flowers rise up from the base of the plant, and are cross-pollinated by various types of bees, flies, and other insects. Each umbel bears capsules containing many seeds, which drop to the ground when the
capsules dry and split.
Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplants, Melons and Squash
A fruit, such as a tomato, eggplant, or squash, is nothing more than a reproductive aid, when you look at it from the plant’s perspective. The starchy flesh protects the seeds until they mature. At that point the
starch is converted to sugars and the fruit becomes highly attractive to animals, which eat the flesh and wander off, depositing the seeds elsewhere. Protected by an outer shell, the seed of a fruit will pass through the digestive tract of its consumer unharmed. What’s more, the animal’s feces provide it with a warm, moist environment that contains
mineral nutrients necessary for its growth. The four-legged method of dispersal guarantees that, in nature, some of the seeds will germinate at a distance from the parent