Farmer’s Companion and Horticultural Gazette 3(6): 165-167 (June, 1854)

Practical Experiments upon the Germination of Grain.
By M. Duchartre, Professor of Botany, in the Royal Agricultural College, Versailles, &c.
(Translated from the French.)

(IN a late number, we mentioned that we had on hand an interesting article on the power of seeds to grow, even if harvested before being ripe; and we now present it to our readers. The original is long, entering into the philosophy of the subject, and requires for its illustration many wood cuts of the microscopic appearance of the seeds in the various states of growth. We shall, therefore, confine ourselves to the more practical part of the article; only observing that the writer is a gentleman of high scientific reputation, who has for score years devoted his attention to this subject, and whose conclusions are, in every respect, worthy of credit. It would not be one of the least benefits to be derived from Agricultural Colleges among us, that men trained to investigation, with all the necessary books, information, apparatus, and knowledge, would be able to take in hand and determinately solve many of the present enigmas of Agriculture—facts of great pecuniary value, but too difficult, or requiring too much labor, for any individual to study at his own risk. Directly and indirectly, before ten years were over, the WEST would be repaid a thousand fold, for all the money-cost of sustaining such an Institution, by the certain knowledge which we should acquire; while now we blunder on in guessing, too often mistaking a Will o' the Wisp for a fixed star of truth and by every positive error, or indirect want of information, losing money, individually and nationally, year after year. May the day soon arrive, when we can say that we KNOW, positively and determinately any one agricultural fact, from our own certain investigation and proof!)

"Are seeds capable of germinating before they are matured?" This question, interesting alike to the practical farmer and to the vegetable physiologist, has attracted attention only during the last few years. Duhamel, Seuebier, and others had observed certain imperfectly developed seeds to sprout; but the few observations, generally accidental, thus made, had not even disturbed the common belief that the germinative power exists only in seeds matured completely, or nearly so. Even recently, the value and significance of these facts have been contested by distinguished Botanists; especially by M. Treviranus, who, on the strength of some experiments of his own, maintains the necessity of perfect maturation. Nevertheless, since 1835, closer and more persevering investigations have been made in Germany, on this point. Messrs. Kurr, Seiffer, Goeppert, and especially Cohn, have experimented on about 30 different kinds of plants belonging to 15 families, and, in all cases, they recognize the power of the seed to vegetate at a period more or less in advance of ripeness.

But these labors are far from exhausting the subject: the more especially as the most interesting botanical family of the whole, that of the Cereals, has been almost neglected; and as regards these, the experiments that have been made, have been of the most vague character. I have, therefore, endeavored to supply what was wanting; and, profiting by the advantages offered by a botanical garden in connection with an agricultural Institution, I have made a series of careful observations.

The seeds experimented on were, 1. Two kinds of Fall Wheat, (a.) a smooth red sort; (b,) a bearded variety, called Poulard de Taganrock. 2. Spring Rye. 3. Two kinds of Barley, (a,) common Belgian variety, and (b,) 4-rowed spring Barley. One hundred kernels of each were sown daily, in the same bed in the garden, and carefully cultivated, throughout, in the same manner. The soil was a rich, light, garden mould in a high state of fertility. For the first crop, the seeds were in the ordinary condition; from the produce of those, the unripe seeds were gathered daily as they became sufficiently advanced. Suspecting that they might sprout more readily when fresh, owing to the moisture they contained, I gathered a head of each sort daily, and kept them in a warm room, from July to September 12th, trying the experiments over again with them, when they were dry. * * * * * *

I. Conclusions deduced from the, first series of experiments.

*It may be proper to state that the essential parts of a seed are. 1. The Embryo—which contains the life, known in corn as the Chit; and the albumen, or surrounding part, (kernel) which both protects, and feeds the Young Embryo, before it gathers nourishment from the air and earth. When a seed is ripe, both of these are perfect. If you cut a grain of corn, longitudinally through, both will be easily seen; or the same in a Hickory-nut or Acorn.
  1. The seeds of our Cereals (e. g. Wheat, Rye, &c.,) are capable of germinating along time—from 20 to 25 days—before their maturity; while the embryo is yet very imperfect, and while the albumen, or perisperme, is still almost in the milk.* Barley gathered more than 15 days before ripening failed to sprout.
  2. Germination appears to me to require a longer time in proportion to the immaturity of the seed sown; but I am unable to state this positively, owing to the want of comparative experiments.
  3. Nearly the same number of grains sprout when gathered very unripe as when gathered ripe, (rye, bearded wheat, barley;) or a greater proportion of the unripe sprout, (smooth wheat.) This result agrees with that of Mr. Cohn. This physiologist has even deduced from his experiments on various plants the general principle that seeds, the maturity of which is not yet perfect, germinate more easily than those quite ripe.
  4. The Barleys appear to have more difficulty in germinating before full maturation than rye, and especially wheat.

II. Conclusions deduced from the second series of experiments.

  1. Drying seeds imperfectly ripened, so far from being injurious, favors germination in a most striking manner. This very interesting result was uniform in all cases. In truth, I was much surprised by the abundant and uniform growth of the seeds of the 12th of September. I may say that nearly the whole of the seeds sown, constantly came up. This fact is more remarkable in the barley than in rye or wheat, in consequence of the great difficulty experienced by the first in its fresh or green state.
  2. The time required to sprout by the unripe seeds when dried, did not appear to be greater than requisite for the fully ripened seeds.
  3. The great proportion of water contained in the imperfectly ripened seeds so far from favoring the maturation and development of the young embryo, appears to injure it. The cause may be, that while drying, a process of growth is going on, and the embryo is able to nourish and develop itself at the expense of the moisture and albumen of the grain.

III. Conclusions deduced from all the above in relation to practical agriculture.

  1. In farming, if circumstances oblige us to cut the grain before it is fully ripe, even a very long time before—it is quite safe to use it for seed. In fact, it would appear to be the most economical plan to cut it thus early in order to secure a large number of seeds sprouting. It will only be necessary to delay thrashing as long as may be.
  2. Thence, it is possible to begin harvesting early, and continue the operation to the usual period. Not only will a smaller number of hands be requisite, but the straw will be better, and there will be less loss by shelling.
  3. It may be feared by some, that the plants grown from unripe seed will be so feeble that whatever may be gained in numbers at first will afterwards be lost. But the results of Messrs. Kurr and Goeppert's experiments on Rye appear to dispel any such idea. My own experiments are quite as satisfactory. In the first place, the plants grown from the unripe seed dried, were all remarkable for their vigor and luxuriance. In the second place, if the offspring of the seeds sown unripe and green, were at first visibly weak, they rapidly gained strength, and then their growth was very beautiful. On the 15th of October, the stalks of rye from seeds sown on the 10th July presented an average of 15 heads, already issued from the sheath, some past blossom, some still in blossom, and others still in the sheath, ready to burst forth. The heads were of remarkable beauty. The results were the same with the seed sown yet later. There was no difference perceptible between the plants grown from seeds in different stages of approach to maturity or ripened 5 or if any, it was in favor of the plants from the most unripe seed, as in the case of the red wheat. The growth of the barley was absolutely luxuriant. * * * * * *

Leaving our readers to draw their own conclusions, and try their own experiments: we copy the following curious calculation from Mr. Stephens, begging our friends to remember hew many thousands of bushels of wheat must annually be wasted in these United States, to say nothing of the other grains, where the loss is greater still: and then ask, whether it is not worth trying if the use of unripened seed cannot save us at least 10 per cent of what we now so laboriously produce but to throw away again? "Wheat, at 63 lbs. to the bushel, gives 87 seeds to the drachm, or 701,568 to the bushel, in apothecary's weight, or 865,170 in avoirdupois weight. Now, 3 bushels of seed are sown to the acre, or 2,595,510 grains of wheat. Suppose that each grain produces one stem, and every stem bears an ear producing the common number of 32 grains, the produce of the acre should be 96 bushels. But the heaviest crop in Scotland seldom exceeds 64 bushels to the acre, so that 32 bushels to the acre, or 32 per cent of the seed is lost in the best crops, and 58 per cent in an ordinary one of 40 bushels!" Who will try how much seed per acre may be saved, or what is the same, how much the crop may be increased by the use of unripe seeds, dried previous to use?