The Gardener’s Chronicle Nov. 11, 1843, pp. 787-788

Mummy Wheat

Mummy-Wheat in the first
year of its revivification.

No subject in Vegetable Physiology is more interesting, both for theoretical and practical reasons, than the power which seeds undoubtedly possess, under certain circumstances, of preserving their vitality for an apparently indefinite period. It is doubtless true that many of the statements on this subject, to be found in books, are apocryphal; but certainly some are founded in fact, such as the famous case of the Raspberry-seed taken along with the corns of the Emperor Hadrian from an ancient barrow in Dorsetshire, the offspring of which is now to be seen in the Gardens of the Horticultural Society. None among the so-called instances of this excessive longevity have excited more doubt and discussion than what is called Mummy-Wheat; that is to say, Corn taken from mummies, and therefore of the highest antiquity, which has grown when sown. Every year produces cases of this sort about the harvest season, and even this season at least 20 specimens have been sent us of Wheat-ears, purporting to have had a mummial—pardon the word—a mummial origin; and strange to say, they have all proved to belong to the Egyptian Wheat, or Blé de Miracle, called by Botanists Triticum compositum. We have never, however, succeeded in satisfying ourselves that the Corn from which such Wheat is said to have been produced was really taken from mummy-cases. There is always some defect in the evidence; as was the case with the Tynningham Wheat, mentioned in the Mark Lane Express of Oct. 9, 1842, which had been raised from seed said to have been produced in Egypt, from plants said to have grown from grains said to have been taken from a mummy-case. Now all such statements may be true, but there is no proof that they are so; and when we are told that Onions taken from similar receptacles have also grown, which is impossible, we may be pardoned for requiring very decisive evidence before we accord our belief in those prodigies. Nevertheless they may be true; because we have before us an instance, in the evidence concerning which we find no flaw whatever. We have had it on our table for some months, and produce it now, in order to satisfy the I many inquiries that are made about such things.

The history of this Wheat was given by Mr. Martin Farquhar Tupper, a most exact and conscientious man, in the Times of September, 1840; and to that gentleman we are indebted for the additional facts which we are now able to communicate.

Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, when in the Thebaid, opened an ancient tomb (which had probably remained unvisited by man during the greater part of 3000 years) and from some alabaster sepulchral vases therein took with his own hands a quantity of Wheat and Barley that had been there preserved. Portions of this grain Sir G. Wilkinson had given to Mr. Pettigrew, who presented Mr. Tupper with 12 grains of the venerable harvest. In 1840 Mr. Tupper sowed these 12 grains, and to show the care with which he preserved their identity we shall quote his own account of his proceedings thereupon. "I ordered," he says "four gardenpots of well-sifted loam, and, not content with my gardener's care in sifting, I emptied each vet successively into an open newspaper and put the earth back again, morsel by morsel, with my fingers. It is next to impossible that any other seed should have been there. I then (on the 7th of March, 1840), planted my grains, three in each pot, at the angles of an equilateral triangle, so as to be sure of the spots where the sprouts would probably come up, by way of additional security against any chance seed unseen lurking in the soil. Of the 12 one only germinated, the blade first becoming visible on April 22; the remaining 11, after long patience, I picked out again; and found in every instance that they were rotting in the earth, being eaten away by a number of minute white worms. My interesting plant of Wheat remained in the atmosphere of my usual sitting room until change of place and air seemed necessary for its health, when I had it carefully transplanted to the open flower-bed, where it has prospered ever since. The first ear began to be developed on the 5th of July; a second ear made its appearance, and both assumed a character somewhat different from all our known varieties. Their small size and weakness may, in one light, be regarded as collateral evidence of so great an age, for assuredly the energies of life would be but sluggish after having slept so long; however, the season of the sowing—spring instead of autumn—will furnish another sufficient cause. The two ears, on separate stalks were respectively 2 1/2 and 3 inches long, the former being much blighted, and the stalk about 3 feet in height,"

"If, and I see no reason to disbelieve it," says Mr. Tupper, in conclusion, "if this plant of Wheat be indeed the product of a grain preserved since the time of the Pharaohs, we moderns may, within a little year, eat bread made of Corn which Joseph might have reasonably thought to store in his granaries, and almost literally snatch a meal from the kneading-troughs of departing Israel."

Here we have no link lost in the chain of evidence. Sir Gardiner Wilkinson himself opened the tomb, and with his own hands emptied the alabaster vase of its contents he gave a portion to Mr. Pettigrew, who gave it to Mr. Topper. who himself sowed it, watched it, and reared it. What better proof can we require? Unless it be alleged that the grains, after all, may have been changed somewhere on the road between the Thebaid and Mr. Tupper's garden. But, upon this point, Mr. Tupper expressly says, in a passage that we have not quoted, that the grains which he sowed were brown and shrunk; which is a just description of some that we too have seen from Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, but which would not apply to any modern Wheat. They looked, indeed, as if they had been scorched.

But there are other proofs, less direct, but equally conclusive, as to the antiquity of the seed sown by Mr. Tupper. Out of twelve grains one only grew that one produced but two ears—small, blighted at the base, and yielding altogether only 27 grains. Mr. Tupper has favoured us with a drawing of one of them. But in 1841, the second year, when the Wheat was recovering its constitutional vigour, the ears were perfect, and averaged 4 1/2 inches each. In 1842, the renovation being complete, some of the ears measured 7 1/2 inches in length. This, as Mr. Tupper observes, corroborates the idea of a reawakening from so long a sleep, as if the Wheat had been gradually returning to its pristine vigour. One of these ears of 1842 is now before us, and is so like a good sample of Colonel Le Couteur's Bellevue Talavera, that even the experienced eye of that gentleman is unable to detect a difference. It proved a most abundant bearer: 18 grains in Mr. Mitchell's Nursery Garden, Brighton, having produced 625 cars, which Mr. Hallett of Brighton considers to have contained on an average 55 grains. And this (685, multiplied by 55, divided by 18 gives a productiveness equal to two thousand and ninety-three fold.

But with the quality of this Wheat we do not wish to concern ourselves just now. The important question is what were the circumstances which preserved the growing power of Sir Gardiner Wilkinson's Wheat from the days of the Pharaohs down to our own time. For if that can be ascertained, a light will necessarily be thrown upon the very important art of preserving seeds artificially. To us it appears that we must ascribe the result entirely to the DRYNESS of the air where the Wheat was kept. And we believe that dryness will have been the true cause of similar results in all other instances. Such is the conclusion at which we long since arrived. ("Theory of Horticulture," pp. 79 and 189). Daily experience confirms our opinion; and reasoning, in the absence of experience, would almost have led to it. Decomposition, which in seeds is the cause of death, can only occur in a damp atmosphere; therefore to keep off a damp atmosphere is to prevent decomposition, and consequently to arrest the approach of death. Aid yet how little is this regarded by persons interested in such flatters. In a damp country like England no precaution should be neglected to ventilate, at least seed-rooms, if not seeds themselves. And yet what is the practice? The seedsmen pack them in large sacks or huge casks, in close ill-ventilated granaries; and gardeners place them in drawers or bags in the damp and miserable sheds with which some masters so thoughtlessly provide them; farmers in damp barns or outhouses. What can possibly happen with such management except the speedy destruction of vitality, especially when we know how badly our home-grown seeds are in almost all seasons ripened, and how much free moisture they necessarily contain. What wonder that French seeds, ripened in a dry climate and preserved in dry buildings, should often be found so much better than English seed? Our climate offers so litany impediments to the preservation of seeds that we cannot afford to neglect a single precaution; and we trust Mr. Tupper's Pharaonic Wheat will have the effect of turning those whom these observations May concern to wiser and better ways.