Trans. State Ag. Soc. (California) 1874

Translation of Louis Walkhoff's The Practical Sugar Manufacturer and Refiner, 1871

Steeping Beet Seeds

The so-called seed of the beet has a peculiar rough appearance, and consists of a shell, or thick capsule, in which are contained several (from three to five) little separate kernels covered with a brown skin; and from each of which a plant is developed. Nature appears, therefore, to have provided that, in all cases, at least one beet shall spring up whenever one of these seed capsules falls into the ground. As soon as the seed germinates, a scale comes off from the capsule, and permits the root to penetrate into the earth, as well as the leaf germ to grow upward, in doing which it frequently, if very lightly covered, raises the shell, with it from the earth. We sometimes supply the requisites for germination to the seed in Spring, before putting it into the ground, in order to induce its coming up more quickly and certainly. We supply to the seed the necessary moisture and heat by soaking it in 'water, on by moistening it with water, at a temperature of 10° to 15° R. It is evident that the seed requires this moisture, for it takes up the equivalent of its own weight of water (that is, one hundred per cent, sometimes, indeed, over one hundred and seventy per cent.) We can even effect, in this way, supplying also the requisite heat, the complete germination of the seed, without putting it in earth. Soaking in plain water entails, however, certain disadvantages. If we examine the water in which the seed is soaked, we find that it soon becomes brown; the water has, therefore, dissolved some substances from the seed--has actually macerated it. If we pour off this brown water and let it stand exposed to heat, it soon gives off the smell of ammonia, proving that the water has soaked out nitrogenous matter, which nature has evidently stored in the seed for the nourishment of the young germ. This seems to prove at least its being easily soluble. The young plant will, moreover, be correspondingly weaker, and of a paler color, from seed that has been soaked in water; and the longer the action of the water has continued, the more evidently will this be the case. After soaking three or four day the difference is plainly seen. I know of many experiments where almost an entire failure of growth was brought about by repeated soaking of the seed, and consequent extraction of its nitrogenous matter. There is, also, another objection, from the fact that seeds soaked in water very quickly dry, and the evaporation of the water leaves them even dryer than before. Such seeds, therefore, frequently perish in dry, or in a continuance of warm weather.

The evils which ensue from soaking in pure water may easily be avoided by moistening the seed with liquid manure or urine. Liquid manure, in consequence of the quantity of salts which it contains, can dissolve but little from the seed, but, on the contrary, completely impregnates it with its fertilizing material, so that the young plants from seeds so treated appear decidedly stronger and darker in color. Moreover, the seed is not rendered liable to dry up by this steep, but, in consequence of the hygroscopic properties of the saline substances which it contains, always continues moist. Experience seems, therefore, to show that soaking for two or three days, at 16° R., best promotes the coming up of the seed. In experiments, seeds soaked two and three days came up, under unfavorable conditions, on the seventh day, while those soaked four, five, and six days did not come up until the eighth and ninth day.

The objection has been made to this plan of soaking, that it is unnatural. To those who are inclined to maintain this opinion, I will only suggest that the beet seed upon the plant becomes ripe in Autumn, and in its natural state, growing wild, then falls off, and, lying in the ground during the Winter, takes up the necessary moisture to enable it to grow strongly in the Spring. Nature shows this on the beet seed field that has been left to itself. On the contrary, what do we do? We gather the seed and lay it up in a dry place until Spring. It is evident it must become dry, and I ask, therefore, is it unnatural to supply to the seed the moisture of which it has been deprived? The only question, then, is as to the choice of the medium by which it is to be moistened, and the liquid manure is to be recommended because it is the most suitable which the farmer has at command, and in my experiments, proved superior to all artificial preparations.

In Dr. Grouven 's experiments, in eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, the best results were obtained by a use of the following, out of a large number of materials:

I would, however, further observe, that the seed in the saline solutions employed sank on the third day, while those in pure water continued to float—a plain proof that they had in this time absorbed a large portion of the specifically heavier salts.

The quantity of moisture which the seed absorbs depends also on the temperature. Haberlandt states that the seed, after twenty-four hours steeping, absorbed water as follows:

At 3.76° R. 69 per cent
At 8.36° R. 91per cent
At 12.49° R. 95 per cent
At 14.08° R. 97 per cent.

Coating the seed steeped in manure water may prove beneficial if substances are employed which are not too powerful, and, therefore, injurious to germination. Saltpeter gives good results; and pulverized lime has also proved beneficial, especially in destroying insects.

I sowed, on May sixteenth, six seed grains which had been steeped twenty-four hours in urine, and then coated with charcoal dust; and the same number similarly steeped, but not dried with charcoal dust. From the former, on May twenty-first, nine plants had come up; on the twenty-second, thirteen; and, on the twenty-third, two more, making fifteen in all. From the latter there were, on the twenty-first, five plants; on the twenty-second, eight; on the twenty-third, thirteen. It thence follows that the seed kernels treated with charcoal dust produced more and stronger plants than without. That fifteen plants should be produced from ix kernels (planted one fourth inch deep) is in consequence of the size of the capsules. A large seed capsule may produce five plants; only a single plant sprouts from a very small one.

That manuring the seed by means of steeping effects a decidedly quicker and stronger growth of the young plant in the first fourteen days is certain, and easily to be proved by experiments. The advantage thus gained is not inconsiderable. The young plant quickly outgrows dangers from insects, and, at the very beginning, lays a sure foundation for its subsequent growth. since its organs for absorbing nutriment develop earlier and stronger. Its infancy is the critical period; if the young beet plant once passes that, the battle is half won. The most advantageous method in practice is, therefore, to steep the seed one or two days in manure water; then to keep them moistened for two or three days in thin layers, four inches deep, in bags for instance, so that an aggregate temperature of 50° B., by exposure for five days at a temperature of 10°, or four days at a temperature of 12°, may be attained without heating. Bow important such treatment is for effecting the quick as well as certain germination of the seed, is proved by a comparative trial which I made in eighteen hundred and sixty, in which I planted, on the twelfth of April, seeds which were unprepared, and on the eighteenth seeds treated according to the above directions, otherwise under precisely the same conditions, side by side, in the field. The unprepared seed came up May second; the prepared seed as soon as April twenty-sixth. There were thus twelve days gained for the growth of the plant by this treatment of the seed. If rainy weather should prevent sowing, the prepared seed may be kept without injury as long as desired in cold water (cooled with ice). The practical inconveniences are, therefore, not insurmountable.

Especial care is to be taken that the seeds, after having been steeped, and while lying in small heaps, do not become heated, since this elevation of temperature would impair its vitality, instead of steeping, it is frequently preferred to spread the seeds in thin layers, and to sprinkle or water them, in order to induce a more gradual, natural effect on the embryo. In this case, also, the temperature must not rise too high. The sprinkling may then be frequently repeated or continued during several days.

Whichever of those methods the manufacturer prefers, at all events the long continued practice of many other countries sets the example of, similar preparation of the seed. Humboldt, for instance (Travels in Equatorial Regions, vol. 2, p. 234), states "that in America they leave the seeds of the coffee tree, or the bean with part of the pulp still adhering, to germinate in heaps between banana leaves for a space of five days, and do not plant the seeds until germinated. Plants reared in this way, will stand the heat of the sun better than those grown by planting in the ordinary way."

The pulp, the berry, and the banana leaves are here evidently to be considered as a source of fertilizing material, which, under this treatment, promotes a more vigorous growth. The seeds of the Chinese sugar cane (sorghum saccharatum) are also steeped twenty-four hours in water to advantage before planting. (Navara, Travels Around the World).

It would seem, then, that more importance should be assigned to seed manuring than has been, commonly, hitherto. Seed manuring supplies directly to the young plant the nutritive substances which it requires for its vigorous development, at the time it is just beginning to grow and while its organs are yet unfit to seek its nutriment over a wide range of soil. The vigorous development of the plant while young is, moreover, a sure guaranty of its full perfection and ripening, and it is for this reason I specially refer to it. An experiment which I made, of covering with charcoal. powder seeds that had been steeped in manure. water, gave very surprising results. It is known that charcoal has the property of accumulating a large quantity of ammonia in its pores, and can thus furnish an abundant supply of nutriment to young plants. It is possible, however, that other substances may prove still better; and it remains a task for the agricultural experimental stations to determine which is the beat fertilizer for this purpose, and to publish the result. In order to cause a larger quantity of fertilizing material to adhere to the seeds, there might be a kind of fluid mucilage made from potatoes, the seed kernels sprinkled with it, and them shoveled over with fertilizing substances. At all events, the idea of seed manuring, as applied to beet seeds, seems to me not yet to have been sufficiently tested, and these observations are designed to call attention to it.