Seed Longevity


Beans and peas often have good seed longevity.

I’ve discussed the issue of seed longevity before. In many cases, it’s worth trying to germinate older seed. But just how old? Thereby hangs a tale…
One of the benefits of the internet is that you can often find scanned copies of old books and articles you might otherwise never lay eyes on. (Of course, you can also find everything from junk to outright c**p.) What I found was a handy little booklet published by the USDA in 1978 titled “Principles and Practice of Safe Seed Storage.” Its 259 pages are crammed with data on seed saving, seed longevity and seed storage. It includes research from back in the day when Big Ag hadn’t started to sway studies with money – meaning the data is much more likely to be honest.

Setting up for seed germination testing.

Among the studies the authors mention were the following:
A researcher named A. J. Ewart tested seeds sent from Kew Gardens in England to Melbourne, Australia, in 1856. They had been stored in a dark, dry cabinet for at least 50 years. Many of the seeds germinated and grew. Scientists G. Aufhammer and U. Simon proved that barley and oat seeds 123 years old could be germinated successfully. In 1906 and 1934, Paul Becquerel conducted germination tests of seeds collected as early as 1776. He successfully germinated seeds 158 years old.
I discovered in my reading that the stories of seeds from the Pyramids are just that – stories. No one has ever successfully germinated wheat from a pyramid. However, a seed from a date palm found in 1973 at the ancient Jewish fortress of Masada was germinated in 2005. The date palm seed was from an extinct species, the Judean date palm, and was estimated to be 1,900 years old. The seedling that resulted was named Methuselah. The Anasazi cave bean was discovered in ancient ruins in the early 1900s. It may have been as much as 750 years old, but the original seeds were apparently never carbon-dated. Researchers have found that hard-coated seeds typically have the greatest longevity – members of the legume family tend to be the winners in this race.

An overnight soak often helps in germinating hard-coated seeds like legumes and morning glories.

When you buy seed, you should consider these facts:

  • A seed packet sold this year may contain seeds that are several years old. The packet says “packaged for 2020.” It doesn’t tell you when the seeds were grown.
  • Germination tests vary according to the state. Your seed might have been tested as early as six months or as long as 18 months after harvest. The seed may have been tested as long as 36 months prior to sale. By the way, flower seeds are exempt from testing regulations.
  • You may store your seeds properly, but you have no way of knowing how they were stored by the grower, seed company, transporter or store from which you bought them.
  • Wish books!

    If you buy new seeds every year, how you store them probably doesn’t matter as long as you don’t allow them to get wet. If you save your own, store them in the coolest, driest conditions possible. The best option is to place seeds that are carefully labeled and very well-sealed in a glass jar in the fridge. Scatter desiccant packets in the jars to take care of any residual moisture. You will know exactly how old they are. If you do the job right, it may be that your great-grandchildren will know as well.

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