The California Culturist, 1: 471-472 (1859)
VITALITY AND PROPERTIES OF SEEDS.
VERY many farmers and gardeners are of opinion that the newer and fresher the seed for planting, the better; and thus, to meet the demand for such seeds, men not unfrequently advertise their stocks as of last year's growth. There is an error here, if the object is fruitfulness, instead of running to top or vine. It is a well known law in vegetable physiology that the nearer a plant or tree approaches a condition of decay and death, the greater is the effort of nature in the tree to continue its kind. Thus we see in very young fruit trees, if from any cause they become injured in their vitality, to that degree that a premature death is inevitable, they almost invariably cease their production of wood, but greatly increase their efforts at fruitfulness.
The same will apply to seeds; when new and fresh seeds are employed, we may expect a strong, vigorous growth of wood, stalk or haulm. If the seeds are old—and the older the better, so that they retain their vitality—the plants, whatever kind they may be, will exhibit a tendency to the production of that portion of the plant or tree that contains the seeds. The intelligent culturist takes advantage of this singular law in vegetable physiology, in the use of seeds that shall be best adapted to the production of seeds, fruit, stalk or haulm, as may be desired. We are by no means advocating the purchase or use of old seed indiscriminately, for we are well aware that it will not do to trust to the vitality of such seeds in all cases; and yet, if they will grow, the older the better if the object is seed or fruit. There are many kinds of seeds that retain their vitality much longer than others, and among these can be reckoned all the pumpkin, squash, cucumber and melon family. The seeds of any of these can hardly be too old if properly preserved; for not only do they retain their vitality, but they produce less vine and more fruit, the older the seed.
On the other hand, there are some kinds that, though it might be desirable to use old seed upon the principle we advance, it will not do to trust them beyond two years; among these are peas and beans, a large majority of which lose their vitality after the second year. Onion seed—not the bulbs—should never be more than one year, as not one out of five will vegetate if kept beyond two years; and for another reason, that the object is the bulb as a product, rather than seed. Parsnep seed should never be more than one year old, because they will produce finer roots and are less inclined to run to seed. Beets, though the seed will vegetate when two or three years old, are better for being new; old seed producing plants more inclined to run up to seed the first season at the expense of the root.
The rule to be observed is this: if stalk or haulm is desirable, as with Chinese sugar-cane, alfalfa, clover and all the grasses and bulbous roots used as food, get the newest, freshest seed that can be obtained; but where you would desire the fruit or berry, as in every description of melons and cucumbers, as well as the cereals and Indian corn, the older the better, so that its vitality or power to vegetate is preserved. Flax seed is somewhat remarkable in this respect; beyond two years old it is hardly worth the gift to sow; for, besides having almost entirely lost its vitality, the product of that which does vegetate is of meager growth, full of seed-bolls upon a slender stalk.
Farmers and gardeners are everywhere complaining that some of their vegetables are prone to run too much to seed. In most cases it will be found that they have sprung from old seed. In the case of melon vines, often that they run too much to vine, here the seeds are too new; for, as in many instances they are from melons of their own saving of the last year's growth, when they should never be planted before three or four years old. We throw out these hints as a guide to the inexperienced in the choice of their seeds for field or garden purposes: knowing that by a little attention to the laws of vegetable physiology in this department a great deal of unnecessary vexation may be avoided, and a real benefit secured.