Book review: “The Triumph of Seeds” by Thor Hanson

Neither thumbs up nor thumbs down for The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson. History/botany.

There are a couple of ways you could go here. You could talk about (1) the science behind the workings of seeds; (2) how they fit into ecosystems; (3) their importance to human culture and development; (4) their nutritive value; (5) the importance of, and methodology for, saving unusual seed varieties in viable form; or (6) their future in the face of changing agricultural patterns and genetic modification. Well, the author explicitly avoids (6), which is fine by me. (5) is well treated, but I was familiar with seed banks already; if you want to know, read the Wikipedia article. He skips (4) entirely. (3) is touched upon, but not particularly interestingly. There was some stuff about (2), which would have made a good article of 3-6 pages. (1) is what a lot of the book regards, and is primarily what I was curious about. How do seeds do what they do? The problem quickly became clear: we just don’t freaking know. And it’s all padded out by info about Mendel’s pea-breeding experiments that I hope you learned in high school. Skim, if you read it at all.

[The date palm tree grown from a 2,000-year-old-seed] Methuselah’s story ranks as the oldest known example of a naturally germinating seed. It’s a tale of incredible endurance that provides a fitting and peaceful complement to the heroic defense of Masada, and makes it possible that Judaean dates may once  again flourish in the Jordan Valley. But it’s hardly the only time that an ancient seed has sprung suddenly and surprisingly to life. In 1940, the study of seed longevity received a jolt when a German bomb hit the botany department at the British Museum. After firefighters extinguished the blaze and cleared away the debris, museum workers returned to find some of their specimens sprouting. Responding to the heat and moisture, the seeds from a silk tree collected in China in 1793 had germinated and sent up perfectly normal-looking shoots. (Three of the seedlings were planted at the nearby Chelsea Physic Garden, where another bomb hit them in 1941.) Ever since then, enterprising botanists have been pushing back the record for longevity–200 years for pincushion proteas and other African exotics discovered in a cache of privateer’s booty; 600 years for a canna lily seed preserved inside a Native American rattle; 1,300 years for Indian lotus seeds recovered from a dry lakebed. The most promising new developments come from the high Arctic, where a team recently transplanted live tissues from a tiny mustard frozen in a squirrel burrow for over 30,000 years. By itself the seed couldn’t germinate, but the fact that any of its parts stayed viable for that long suggests that Methuselah’s record is bound to fall.


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