Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Viability of Seeds
Nature Bulletin No. 507-A   November 17, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

A viable seed is one capable of germinating and producing a new plant, The question of how long seeds can remain dormant and retain their viability -- still be able to sprout -- has interested botanists, naturalists, foresters, and gardeners for many years but there is much more to be learned about it. A great deal of misinformation has been given to the public, such as fanciful yarns about wheat sprouting after its discovery in ancient Egyptian tombs. The maximum viability of wheat is about 30 years -- usually far less.

Actually, many seeds are notoriously short-lived. Those of willows and poplars must lodge in a favorable spot and germinate within a few days after ripening, or they will not germinate at all. Nurserymen say also that cottonwood, silver maple and American elm seeds should be planted within two weeks after ripening, and their ability to germinate decreases rapidly. Ash seed may be stored until the following spring. White oak acorns must be planted as soon as gathered, whereas bur, red, black, and pin oak acorns need not be planted until the following spring if stored under proper conditions of temperature and moisture.

The Garden Dictionary lists corn, dandelion, onion, and parsnip seeds as having an average viability of two years. Beet, carrot, lettuce, squash, turnip, and watermelon seeds remain viable for an average of 5 or 6 years but under ideal conditions may exceed 10 years. Cucumber and endive seeds are good for 10 years at least.

Our forest preserve plantsmen have found that hickory nuts and black walnuts remain viable after two years or more in storage and should be planted, as they are buried by squirrels, shallow. Their germination depends not only upon the moisture and warm sunshine in spring but is benefited also by freezing. That seems to be true of other plants. In our nursery the seeds of the Kentucky coffee tree, linden, cherries, and viburnums are "stratified" in autumn: layers of those seeds are placed between alternate layers of sand in an open pit. Exposure to the rain, snow and freezing during winter causes them to germinate more readily when planted in spring.

Seeds with hard coats tend to be long-lived. That is noticeable among the legumes -- which include the Kentucky coffee tree -- the mallows, and especially, the lotus. In the Illinois River Valley there used to be colonies of American lotus in swamplands now included in drainage districts which have been levied, pumped dry, and cultivated for decades. The farmers often uncover lotus seeds that are as hard and viable as they were 50 years ago. Lotus seeds collected from ancient lake beds in Manchuria have been established, by the Carbon 14 method, as being from 830 to 1250 years old. After thinning the shells with a file, they were planted, some sprouted, and some produced flowers.

It has been demonstrated that, under ideal conditions of temperature, air and humidity, other kinds of seeds may remain viable after lying dormant for a long, long time. During the air raids of 1940, the Natural History Museum in London was badly damaged. Due to heat from fire and water used to put it out, a number of seeds -- stored there in drawers -- germinated, including some from a silk tree which had been collected in China in 1793.

In 1879, at Michigan State College, a lot of seeds were buried 20 inches below ground in uncorked bottles. Fifty years later, they were taken up and what kinds of seeds germinated .

Mostly weeds.

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