Now that I’ve described how plants have sex (see last post on Plant Porn), it wouldn’t be a sex education lesson without also stating the consequences of such activity. Yes, plants get pregnant as well! Seeds are described technically as “the fertilized ovule containing the plant embryo.” If these terms don’t sound familiar you weren’t listening back in middle school health class.
When these seeds sprout they are birthing new plant babies — seedlings. How adorable! I find this miraculous, topped only by witnessing the birth of my own children. No wonder plants flowering, fruiting and going to seed are as beautiful as a glowing pregnant woman and gardeners are like doting proud parents. Plant starts are often helpless dependents. They need us as much as we need them to survive. Co-dependence, constant nurturing, vigilance and the trials and tribulations of raising offspring – it’s very similar to parenting, where being self-centred, lazy or unavailable caregivers results in more complications.
There are two main types of seeds – monocots and dicots. Without getting into too much detail, they predetermine traits such as types of flowers, stems and leaves. Hybrids “occur by crossing two genetically different yet compatible plants.” Their offspring will contain genetic traits from both their parents and recessive genes from their ancestors, creating glaring differences. Just like a litter of mutts. Its’ all in the DNA. Just as every child is an individual, so is each plant. Humans, however, have been able to purposely cross-breed many plants until the desired traits are achieved. The hybrids can then be stabilized by crossing it with itself many more times or by propagating clones. The idea is to produce better and better strains over time, creating higher yielding, more attractive, disease-resistant and drought-tolerant plants. Heterosis is “the tendency of the progeny to outperform both parents.” I see this in my own children, in that my son is more athletic and my daughter is more academic than both myself and their mother. Perhaps their great-great grandparents were similar, but most likely they are evolving by learning advanced concepts and doing extreme sports that didn’t exist back then. Environments, botanical science and technology are also constantly changing for plants. Humans play a huge role.
We have also the technology to genetically modify almost all species further by inserting the DNA of sexually incompatible species as well as animals, chemicals and diseases. There is great debate about the unknown ramifications of this technology. Although I love horticulture and botany, I’m not a fan of GMOs. I feel that whenever we get too involved with screwing with Mother Nature, she bites back to put us in our place. It’s still taboo to alter or clone human DNA, but for some reason it’s common in the plant sciences. Good luck with that Monsanto.
Seeds themselves are a great protein-rich food source for birds and animals, including humans. Such creatures provide many dispersal methods from spilling, burying and forgetting them, digesting and excreting or purposefully sowing them, as we do. Seeds have evolved to drift or fly in the wind or stick to the fur of animals. It’s all about spreading those genes as far as possible and finding other suitable environments. Natural selection dictates that the strongest, most resilient and adaptable species thrive. We get to witness evolution in action on a scale we can observe and actually participate in. Creating and witnessing the miracle of life!
Watching a plant sprout, flourish, mature, reproduce and die is a metaphor for all living creatures. There is nothing but hope encapsulated in that tiny speck of life. Seeds patiently wait for the optimum conditions before they sprout. Each seed species intuitively knows the perfect temperature, light cycle, humidity, time and other environmental factors to germinate. Some need fire, floods or being digested by animals. After all they are designed to re-establish themselves even after natural disasters. They offer the advantage for a species to store ancient memory and to preserve its own survival. There are many seed banks that are providing future security by storing frozen seeds to hopefully prevent extintions of species. You never know – some exotic plant may help save the world by providing a future cure to a disease, become a new nutritious food source, natural resource or environmental solution.
To think that a tiny seed could eventually become a majestic oak, a delicate flower, a delicious fruit, or a new medicine at a future time is nothing short of a miracle, to me. It gives me great pleasure to be involved in fulfilling my purpose in life. I’m a breeder and nurturer and there’s something about babies that tugs at my heartstrings.