Deeply rooted

19th-century seed experiment influences 21st-century plant biology

Nearly 134 years ago, one of Michigan State University’s most influential botanists buried 20 glass pint bottles on a sandy knoll in a secret location on campus. Each was filled with moist sand and exactly 50 seeds from each of 21 common plant species.

With the intent of “learning something more” about seed viability, William James Beal accomplished this and more in 1879 when he began what is now the world’s oldest continuing plant biology experiment.

Although well known because of its mysterious pint glass excavations (now conducted every 20 years) and extreme longevity, the Beal seed viability study is the most meaningful part of the experiment. It delves deeper than mere scientific curiosity, providing insights and serving as inspiration to countless researchers.

Botanists have long studied how weedy plants respond to common agricultural practices. Much of this work involves seeds in the soil, an obvious connection to Beal and his novel approach to addressing a major challenge in agriculture.

For generations, farmers and gardeners have tried—almost always unsuccessfully—to eliminate weeds from their land. Further complicating the issue is the fact that new weed species often flourish as cultural and control practices evolve.

The basic understanding of these phenomena can be traced to Beal’s recognition that seeds can lie dormant in the soil for extended periods of time, and then suddenly spring to life under optimal conditions. Though longevity varied among species, this early finding prompted a multitude of valuable experiments and models that have shaped present-day thinking and management practices.

In a recent lecture, Frank Telewski, MSU professor of plant biology and curator of the MSU W. J. Beal Botanical Garden, noted one of Beal’s most famous maxims: “Be a keen observer of the world around you.” MSU continues to honor this charge by maintaining Beal’s botanical garden, which he founded in 1873, as a “living laboratory.”

Telewski speculates that Beal envisioned his work and its impact outliving him and that he established the garden to facilitate collections-based research, teaching and outreach. Today Telewski works to ensure that those goals continue to be met.

As he explains, the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden forges people-plant connections. When visitors stroll through the garden, they are inspired to learn more about plants. Telewski, his staff and dedicated volunteers cater to that desire with interpretive labeling, beautiful displays, tours and educational programs.

Besides being a teaching tool, Beal’s work is an example of MSU’s impact as one of the first institutions to study agriculture. From the start, MSU has been fueled by researchers interested in understanding basic scientific principles that could be applied to real-world problems.

Since its founding as the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station in 1888, MSU AgBioResearch has operated in the same vein. There are different challenges, technologies and techniques today, but, like Beal and the many MSU researchers who have made significant research contributions over the years, MSU AgBioResearch scientists remain committed to using the best science to unearth the best solutions.

Beal was one of the first botanists to approach the problem of seed longevity in a scientific way. He innovatively explored challenging issues, contributing insights that continue to be referenced and celebrated to this day.

Undoubtedly, the work of Professor Beal will inspire plant scientists for years to come. And as leaders in food, natural resources and energy research, MSU AgBioResearch scientists will continue to do the same.

Reprinted with permission from MSU AgBioResearch “Futures” magazine.

Story by Doug Buhler, director of MSU AgBioResearch and senior associate dean of research in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Design by Deon Foster. Photos by Kurt Stepnitz and Derrick L. Turner. Historical images courtesy of the University Archives and Historical Collections.

the future

Joan Kirby, a 1956 graduate of MSU, believed that her life changed one cold, February afternoon when she found herself in the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden. Kirby, who died in 2007, left a bequest to create the Joan H. Kirby W. J. Beal Botanical Garden Endowed Fund in thanks for what the garden had given her.

“My story is about the day I found that I mattered—that what I did mattered,” she wrote. “I walked from the reality of my life at the time, which was made up of disillusionment, pain, sorrow, cold, loss, bereavement, abandonment and emptiness into a deeper reality of light, love, warmth, richness, acceptance, community, purpose, truth, abundance and unity...This amazing garden was just for me.”

Joan and Herb Kirby

Read Joan Kirby's story

My Story
Joan Heflin Kirby
Class of 1956

My story is about the day I found that I mattered—that what I did mattered. I walked from the reality of my life at the time, which was made up of disillusionment, pain, sorrow, cold, loss, bereavement, abandonment and emptiness into a deeper reality of light, love, warmth, richness, acceptance, community, purpose, truth, abundance and unity. They existed side by side.

I walked along, empty of thought, moving by autopilot, not registering any conscious notion of what was going on around me. I was just tired, sad, hungry and cold down to the bone. I thought to take a shortcut through Beal Garden.

Maybe ten steps down into the ravine, I realized the icy wind could no longer touch me. Grateful for that, I lifted my head and was surprised to note sunshine warming my face. There had been no sun a moment ago. I reached the bottom of the stairs and looked about the garden. Several trees were wrapped in burlap to protect them from wind.

But, the garden was in full bloom. Impossible! It was February! Nevertheless, a riot of spring flowers and fresh green leaves swayed gently in the breeze. The sunlight was brilliant, too brilliant to be the sun. My nearsighted eyes could not believe what they were seeing. My glasses were in my pocket.

With perfect clarity, some part of me saw and heard, details so rich and beautiful, that I cannot find words to describe them. The grass blades were singing with tiny, jeweled tongues. Everything was singing.

I was transfixed. My heart was pierced through and through, with waves of love, coming and going, from the light and to the light. Every atom of my being was vibrating with love.

I mattered. I was important. I was part of this beauty and this creation. Could I be less beautiful than a single blade of grass? This amazing garden was just for me.

I was still me, though everything about my view of life had changed. In the space of a heartbeat, time had stopped. The thought came to my mind, that this was the way it was supposed to be. I was accepted, just the way I was.

Confused and ignorant of the holy ground I was standing on, the empty places in me filled up to overflowing, until I could hold no more.

Dazed, I began moving on the walk and up the stairs on the other side, into the cold February afternoon. Everything was as it had been before—everything, except me. I have never been the same since.

William Logan writes, “The truth when really perceived and not simply described, is always a wonder. Moses did not see a Technicolor fantasy. He sees the bush as it really is. He sees the bush, as all bushes actually are. All that is living burns. That glimpse of the real world—of the world as it is known to God is not a world of isolate things, but processes in concert.”

And so, even as I describe my story to you, I lose the wonder of it for you, because God cannot be contained or captured in words, dogma or ritual. It cannot be encompassed or transferred to another. I do believe that it can be perceived as a group and glimpsed in one another.

The endowment is used to maintain and support the garden so future Spartans can enjoy the beauty of this unique space that also serves as a living laboratory. Kirby felt strongly that her afternoon in the garden transformed her view of life and self.

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