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Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture

Seeds and Seedage. A seed is a ripened embryo, and its integuments and storage supplies, resulting from fertilization in the flower. Seedage is a term used to include all knowledge respecting the propagation of plants by means of seeds or spores. The word was first used, so far as the writer is aware, in 1887. It is equivalent to the French semis, and is comparable with the words graftage, layerage, and cuttage. See Spores.

In general literature and common speech, a seed is that part of the plant which is the outcome of flowering and which is used for propagating the species. In the technical or botanical sense, however, the seed is the ripened ovule. The seed contains an embryo, which is a miniature plant. The embryo has one or more leaves (cotyledons), a bud or growing-point (plumule) and a short descending axis (caulicle). From the caulicle or stemlet, the radicle or root develops. This embryo is a minute dormant plant. Each embryo is the result of a distinct process of fertilization in which the pollen of the same or another flower has taken part. The ovule is contained in the ovary. The ripened ovary is the seed-case or pericarp. The pericarp, with the parts that are amalgamated with it, is known technically, as the fruit. In many cases there is only one seed in the fruit; and the seed and its case may adhere and form practically one body. Many of the so-called seeds of horticulturists are really fruits containing one or few seeds. Such are the seeds of beet, lettuce, and sea-kale. The winged seeds of elms, hop-tree (Fig. 3591), and ashes are really fruits containing a single seed. Acorns, walnuts, butternuts, and chestnuts are also fruits; so are grains of corn, wheat, and the "seeds" of strawberry. The keys of maple are double fruits, with two seeds (Fig. 3592). Beans and peas are true seeds; the fruit part is the pod in which they are borne. Seeds of apples and pears are also true seeds, the fruit being the fleshy part that surrounds them.

Germination is the unfolding and the growing of the dormant or embryo plant. The first visible stage in germination is the swelling of the seed. Thereafter the integument is ruptured, and the caulicle appears. When the caulicle protrudes, the seed has sprouted; and this fact is taken as an indication that the seed is viable (Fig. 3593). Germination is not complete, however, until the young plant has made vital connection with the soil, has developed green assimilative organs and is able to support itself (Fig. 3594). See, also, Figs. 3595 and 3596. Seeds that have sufficient life to sprout may still be too weak to carry the process to complete germination. The ideal test for the viability of seeds is to plant them in soil in conditions that somewhat nearly approach those in which they are finally to be planted. This test eliminates the seeds which are very weak and are not able to grow under ordinary conditions and to push themselves through the soil. The sprouting test made in a specially prepared device, in which all conditions are regulated to a nicety, may be of the greatest value for purposes of scientific study and investigation and for the making of comparative tests between various samples, and the greater the sprouting test, the greater the germinating power; but one must not expect that the actual germination will always be as great as the percentage of sprouting. The test for sprouting shows only which seeds are alive. In many cases, the differences in results between the sprouting test in a specially prepared device and the germination tests in well-prepared soil in the open may be as great as 50 per cent. Viability varies with seasons and other conditions. While it is true as a general statement that the older the seed the less the viability, yet the reverse may be true within narrow limits. Sometimes lettuce and melons that germinate only 50 per cent in December, germinate 70 to 80 per cent in April. For a discussion of technical methods of seed-testing, see Vol. II, "Cyclopedia of American Agriculture," and other works.

In order that seeds shall germinate, they must be supplied with moisture and be given a definite temperature. The requisite temperature and moisture vary with the different kinds of seeds, and these factors are to be determined only by experience. Seeds may be planted in any medium that supplies these requisite conditions. Although seeds are ordinarily planted in the ground, such practice is not necessary to germination. They may be planted in coconut fiber, moss, or other medium. However, the ground may supply the requisites for germination, and it also supplies plant-food for the young plantlet when it begins to shift for itself; and, furthermore, the plants are in the position in which it is desired they shall grow. In the case of many seeds, germination is more rapid and certain when the seeds are sown in coconut fiber or other medium, for the conditions may be more uniform. As soon as germination is fairly complete, the plants are transplanted to the soil.

The depth at which seeds shall be sown depends on many conditions. Out-of-doors they are planted deeper than in the house, in order to insure a uniform supply of moisture. A depth equal to twice the diameter of the seed is an old gardeners' rule. This applies well to the sowing of most seeds under glass when the soil is well prepared and is kept moist, but in the open ground three to four times this depth is usually necessary. The finer and moister the soil, the shallower the seeds may be planted, other things being equal. Better results in germination are secured when the seeds are sown in a specially prepared seed-bed. The conditions may then be better, the gardener is able to protect the young plants from cold and from insects and fungi, and he is enabled also to economize time and labor. In transplanting from the seed-bed to the field, the gardener unconsciously chooses only the best plants and thereby the crop is improved. The seed-bed may be in a forcing-house or hotbed, or in the open. If it is in the open, it should be near the buildings, where it can be visited frequently and where water may be applied as needed. If the bed is to be used late in the season when the soil is naturally dry, it is well to cover it the previous spring or fall with a coating of not too rich manure. This retains the moisture, and the leaching from the manure adds plant-food to the soil, thereby enabling the young plants to secure an early start. When the seeds are to be sown, the manure is removed and the surface is then in perfect condition. In the handling of young plants in seedbeds, one must take pains that the plants are not too thick and that they do not suffer for light, else they may become "drawn" and be practically worthless. In greenhouses and hotbeds, it is well to handle common vegetables and flower seeds in gardeners' flats (Fig. 3597). These flats are easily handled, and the soil is so shallow that it can be kept in uniform conditions of temperature and moisture. The seeds of some of the finer and rarer kinds of ornamental plants require special treatment. These treatments are usually specified in the articles devoted to those plants. Details of the handling of very delicate seeds are well discussed in the article on Orchids; see the article Palm and others, and the discussion of propagation of conifers, page 360, Vol. I.

As a rule, seeds germinate best when they are fresh, that is, less than one year old. Some seeds, however, of which those of melons, pumpkins, and cucumbers are examples, retain their vitality unimpaired for a number of years, and gardeners do not ask for recent stock. Seeds of corn-salad should be a year old to germinate well. Very hard bony seeds, as of haws and viburnums, often do not germinate until the second year. In the meantime, however, they should be kept moist. Seeds of most fruit and forest trees should be kept moist and cool, otherwise they lose vitality; yet if kept too moist, and particularly too close or warm, they will spoil. Nuts and hard seeds of hardy plants usually profit by being buried in sand and allowed to freeze. The freezing and the moisture soften and split the integuments. Sometimes the seeds are placed between alternate layers of sand or sawdust: such practice is known technically as stratification.

Seed-breeding and -growing.

Seed-breeding may be considered from at least two very distinct viewpoints: first, the origination and development of new and improved varieties, either through selection or cross-breeding; and second, the development and raising of truer purer stocks of strains of proved value. See Breeding of Plants, Vol. I.

The first, as a rule, seems the most attractive inversely to one's knowledge and experience, but the growing of better and purer strains of the sorts which have proved best suited to one's local conditions and individual requirements is of far greater practical value. An important consideration of success in raising new varieties is the widest obtainable knowledge not only of the varietal forms of the species generally grown, but of the many stocks which at different times and in different locations have been found to be of so little practical value that they have never come into general cultivation. A second requisite is familiarity with the growing habits of the plant, and those of similar species, and the dexterity which can come only through practice in the crossing of the flowers and securing good growth and development of the fruits. There should also be developed a capacity for a quick judgment as to the probable correlation between conspicuous variations with others less discernible by the eye but which may effect the cultural value. Lastly, the development of new varieties of real value can come only through the practice of almost infinite patience which makes one content to throw into the dump thousands upon thousands of plants, many of which had seemed most promising, and to be satisfied if after years of labor one secures but a single variety or marked form of real value to the cultivator.

The second, and perhaps the most important branch of seed-breeding, is the raising of purer strains of stocks of proved value. An illustration of the need of work in this direction can be drawn from a recent trial planting of garden beets in which it was found that practically every root grown from 2-rod plantings of each of 214 samples of seed purchased under distinct varietal names from the most reputable seedsmen of America and Europe could be grouped into not over twenty distinct forms, and the roots so thrown together show as little variation as the crop from any one of the twenty most uniform samples in the trial. Often the only difference between two lots sold under different names would be in the proportion of the roots of each lot that conformed to the same varietal form. It is thought that seed-stocks of most species of garden vegetables would show similar variation, though possibly not to the same degree, and this is not so generally due to carelessness in growing or handling as to the want of adherence on the part of the seed-grower to clear-cut ideals of varietal form. Every plant grown from seed has a certain definite and changeless character which was inherent in the seed from which it was grown and is made up of a balanced sum of different tendencies, potentialities, and limitation of development inherited in different and varying degrees from each of its ancestors for an indefinite number of generations, plus more or less influence from climatic and other conditions effecting the development of the seed-producing plant. Generally the influence of the immediate parent is the dominant one, but not infrequently a characteristic of an ancestor which has been transmitted unexpressed for many generations appears in such strength as to change the whole character of the plant.

Under these conditions, a necessary preparation for the growing of better stocks is the formation of a very clear and comprehensive conception of the exact varietal character of the stock to be grown, and a rigid adherence to that ideal in the selection of seeding plants from year to year, never giving way to the ever-present temptation to use some superlative individual which differs in any respect from the original ideal of the stock. A most important aid, if not a requisite, for such persistence is the writing out and placing on file for frequent reference the fullest practical description of the exact varietal character of the sort. With this in hand, a few plants which come as near as possible to that ideal are selected, and the seed of each saved separately. The next season samples of each of these lots are planted in a preliminary trial. As they develop, and with the written description of the desired form in hand, they are carefully compared and the lots which most uniformly adhere to the described form are selected. The next season the reserved seed of the lots which seemed the best in the preliminary trial are planted in blocks as far as possible from each other, or any plants of the species, and the seed raised used for larger plantation for use as stock seed, in the meantime starting another selection from individual plants to take the place of the first, as it deteriorates. An illustration will show the value of careful selection and the necessity for constant renewal of even the purest of stocks. A very carefully bred strain of a variety of watermelon was used to plant a 20-acre field grown for seed. When about three-fourths of the fruit was ripe, several hours were spent in looking over the field for "off" stock and less than fifty fruits were found which should be removed. Fully 75 per cent of the fruits were so near alike that they could not be distinguished from each other. Seed from this field was used for planting seed crops and it was so good that little attention was paid to the stock; as a result, some years later, a crop grown in the same vicinity from seed of the same strain, but several generations removed, instead of less than fifty "off" fruits on 20 acres, had fully 75 per cent of the fruits more or less distinctly "off” and less than 20 per cent were as uniformly ideal of the variety as were 99 per cent of those of the first crop.

The seed trade of America.

The history of the seed business in colonial times is largely one of importation from Holland and England, when small hucksters carried a few boxes of popular seeds with an assortment of drygoods, foodstuffs, or hardware. Corn, barley, peas, onions, fruits, and vegetables, necessaries in fact for direct use, first claimed the attention of the colonists. Toward the end of the eighteenth century we begin to find references to the saving of stock seeds, and in the newspapers of the day are a number of advertisements of shopkeepers who dealt in seeds. Agricultural seeds were an article of commerce as early as 1747 (Pieters), clover, onions, beans, peas, carrots, cabbage and cauliflower, and others, being raised for seed in the colonies at that time, though chiefly imported. At that time Boston did most of the business. Among the earliest advertisers of seeds for sale were Nathaniel Bird, 1763, a book-dealer of Newport, R. I.; Gideon Welles, "on the Point," 1764; Samuel Deall, a dealer in general merchandise in New York in 1776: William Davidson of New York in 1768, while in Philadelphia, in 1772, we find one Pelatiah Webster advertising clover and duck-grass seed; James Loughead, "colly-flower" seed in 1775, while David Reid kept a general assortment.

It was not until the opening of the nineteenth century that America began to find that seeds could be grown here as profitably as they could be imported. Grant Thorburn, in New York, and David Landreth, of Philadelphia, seem to have been the largest dealers at that time. Thorburn's was perhaps the first business of importance devoted entirely to stock seeds, although this honor is disputed by the descendants of David Landreth. Thorburn, in his autobiography, says that he began his business by buying out the stock of one George Inglis for $15, Inglis agreeing to give up the market and to devote himself to the raising of seeds for Thorburn. This is but one of many small beginnings from which has grown a trade which now amounts to many millions; and this relation between seedsmen and growers is largely typical of relations which have obtained in the trade ever since.

With the development of the railway and the postal service the business grew rapidly, new land was found suitable for different varieties of seed, and a letter could carry to the countryman the garden seeds for his yearly consumption. There is probably no trade which has been more widely benefited by cheap postage and improved mail facilities, but of late years the distribution by Congressmen has tended to negative this benefit. The originally beneficent distribution of free seeds to pioneers and needy settlers was a form of agricultural encouragement against which there could be no criticism, but it has degenerated into an abuse, which is estimated to have taken a trade of some $4,000,000 during the past two or three decades out of the hands of the men who have built up the business.

Grant Thorburn's catalogue of 1822 was the first to be issued in pamphlet form, and it was the pioneer of the many finely and carefully illustrated catalogues with which we are familiar today. These catalogues have been largely instrumental in facilitating the specialization of the industry and its subdivision in the hands of the country dealer, who buys seeds at wholesale, combining as they do the most complete lists and illustrations of varieties with directions as to methods, conditions, and seasons for planting. They are distributed in hundreds of thousands. Up to 1844 the wording on the bags was written by hand, a laborious and expensive process, which of itself is an indication of the small volume of the trade at that date.

With regard to the export of seeds, A. J. Pieters' admirable report for 1899 in the Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture may be taken as the best information up to that date, and it indicates the development of the business in its earlier years. He says in part: "The statistics of exports date from 1855, and no separate records of imports of seeds were kept before 1873. Clover and grass seeds, especially timothy, have always taken the lead in the seed export trade, and until recent years garden seeds have not been a considerable factor in the total values. In 1825 some 10,000 bushels of clover seed were exported to England within a few months. How long this trade had existed we do not know. From 1855 to 1864 there is no record of any seeds exported except clover, but the value of exports increased from $13,570 in 1855 to $2,185,706 in 1863, the war apparently having no effect on the trade. The total value of the clover seed exported during this period aggregates $5,393,663. In the ten years ending with 1880, clover seed was not separately entered except in the last year, but the total exports of seeds amounted during that period to $20,739,277. The aggregate was increased by more than $3,000,000 before the end of 1890. From 1891 to 1898 there has been a slight reduction in the average annual value of seed exports and also in the amount of clover and timothy seed sent abroad." The value of "flower and vegetable seeds" reported in the Thirteenth Census (for 1909) is $1,411,013 as against $826,019 for 1899, an increase of above 70 per cent. Aside from this are grass seed to a value of $15,137,683 in 1909, not including beans, peas, and miscellaneous seeds. "Other grains and seeds" altogether (aside from "cereals") had a value in 1909 of $97,536,085. (See Tracy, page 3135).

The importation of staple garden seeds had largely decreased by 1870, and with the exception of a few staples in agricultural and flower seeds, America may be said to have become to a great extent self-supplying. The greatest development of this industry has taken place since the close of the war. In 1878 J. J. H. Gregory estimated that there were in all 7,000 acres devoted to garden seeds, while the census of 1890 showed that there were 596 seed-farms, containing 169,850 acres. Of these farms, 200 were established between 1880 and 1890, and it is likely that about 150 more were started during the same period. The census returns, however, do not give the actual acreage devoted to growing seeds. As many seeds are grown by those not regularly in the business, it is probable that census returns as to acreage are under rather than over the mark. The statistics available in the United States Census are very imperfect, partly owing to the lack of a continuous system in presentation, both in the returns of home industry and also in custom-house returns, but chiefly to the reluctance of seedsmen and growers to make public the results of their business methods or even the methods themselves.

The seeds usually offered by seedsmen in their catalogues, or in the seed-stores throughout the country, are secured from various parts of the world, and the seedsman who sells seed at retail to the planter direct seldom grows his own seed, although some of the larger firms now conduct seed-farms on which they grow certain specialties, and most of them conduct trial and experimental grounds.

The wholesale seed business is divided into two distinct lines, one of so-called grass-seed dealers, who buy from the farmers such things as grass seeds, clover seeds, and farm seeds used for planting large areas; the other line is the general seed-dealer who carries a limited stock of grass seeds, clover seeds, and the like, and specializes on vegetable seeds and flower seeds. He is usually not a grower of seed, but buys from seed-growers who specialize on a few things.

A large part of the vegetable and flower seed used in America is imported from England, France, Germany, Holland, and Denmark, especially such things as beets and mangels, cabbage and cauliflower, turnip and rutabaga, and the small flower seeds. In Germany, the seed-growers usually own or lease their own seed-farms, while in other countries, especially France, much of the seed-growing is conducted on the subcontracting plan, the grower keeping an agent in a certain locality and letting out small contracts with the farmers. The finer vegetable seeds and flower seeds, as well as the larger lines, are grown in this way.

In America, the smaller vegetable seeds and sweet peas are grown principally in California, where the growers own or lease their seed-farms, and practically all of their capital is invested in the seed business. What are considered the "smaller vegetable seeds" and "California specialties" are carrot, endive, leek, lettuce, onion, parsnip, parsley, radish, satisfy, and flowering sweet peas. The preeminent California specialties are lettuce, onion, and sweet pea seed. There are no less than 5,000 acres, principally in the coast counties of central California, devoted to these three things. Pole beans, culinary peas, and some vine seeds are also produced in central California. These are grown on the subcontracting plan, much as in other places. Peas are now grown largely in Utah, Idaho, and Montana, as well as in Wisconsin, Michigan, and northern New York. Sweet corn and vine seeds are grown largely in Nebraska, northern Ohio, New York and New England. Watermelon seed is grown largely in the South; also okra. The best cabbage seed is produced in Long Island and to some extent in the country about Puget Sound in Washington. Pepper and eggplant, and some tomato seeds, are grown in New Jersey, and tomato seed is also grown in Michigan and California. Various other items are grown in greater or less quantities in various sections, such as beet and parsnip in New England, radish in Michigan, turnip in Pennsylvania, but the main sources of supply of these last-named articles are the European countries previously mentioned.

Such crops as are subcontracted are "rogued" and inspected throughout the season by the grower's agent. Seed-growing, as it affects vegetable and flower seeds, is conducted more or less scientifically and represents a very high state of intense farming, perhaps the highest known out-of-doors.

Seeds must be produced in regions where they can be grown not only profitably on account of climatic conditions and abundant labor, but also in sections where the quality can be maintained. Climates with a cold winter are usually required for biennial crops, such as carrot, beet, onion; when grown in California, the strains must be often renewed. Certain other crops require a dry summer climate, such as lettuce and sweet peas; other kinds require a moist or wet summer climate, as cabbage and cauliflower.

Many seed-growers now specialize on one or two lines, and there are large growers who raise nothing but tomato; others nothing but cabbage; others who raise only sweet corn; others field corn; and others confine themselves to watermelon. Owing to the frequency of crop failures in seed production, as in other farm crops, most seedsmen contract with at least two sources of supply and usually both widely separated.

Commission box assortments comprise one of the principal methods pursued in America for the sale of seed. This plan places with merchandise and grocery stores an assortment of staple seeds in flat papers and cartons. These assortments are usually sold on commission, but some firms sell the assortments outright. The boxes and unsold seed are collected every year and returned to the home firm, where the papers are torn, the seed tested and repapered with a proportion of new seed. Some twenty firms are engaged in this line of seed distribution, and one firm has nearly 150,000 customers to whom it consigns these assortments. Many of the merchants who take these commission boxes also carry small lots of staple seeds in bags to sell in bulk and are therefore seed merchants in a small way. They usually rely for their base of supply on the seed-houses who consign them the box.

Dealers in garden seeds are also large dealers in flowering bulbs, such as hyacinths, tulips, narcissi, crocus, and the like. These are chiefly imported from Holland, south of France, Italy, and Japan.

The trade is divided into the main branches of garden and flower seeds and bulbs, and agricultural seeds. The latter is practically a business by itself, devoted to such seeds as blue-grass, timothy, clover, red-top and alfalfa, some of which are exported or imported as the exigencies of the season's product demand.

Flower seeds are subjected to no import duties, while on garden seeds there is a tariff figured on a specific basis. It is a moot point whether this tariff at the present time operates to the advantage of the trade, the principal seedsmen being generally of the opinion that it tends to stimulate over-production in this country.

The main business of the country is in the hands of about 150 firms, but practically every groceryman in country towns and villages carries a stock during the spring season. These men, however, deal as a rule with the larger houses, and constitute the principal class of middlemen for retail trade.

The seed-growing and merchandizing industry is represented by the American Seed Trade Association. CH

The above text is from the Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture. It may be out of date, but still contains valuable and interesting information which can be incorporated into the remainder of the article. Click on "Collapse" in the header to hide this text.


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