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July 25, 2000

120-year-old experiment sprouts new gardening knowledge

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Old seeds - really old seeds - may grow into answers for farmers, gardeners and others, thanks to the world's longest continuous experiment on seed germination.

Researchers at Michigan State University are growing and examining seedlings that have sprouted from seeds buried 120 years ago on campus. They've been doing this roughly every five years since 1879, when William Beal, a professor of botany at what then was Michigan Agricultural College, buried them in anticipation of learning how long seeds can remain viable.

It's more than just a curiosity, explained Frank Telewski, curator of MSU's Beal Botanical Garden.

This information explains why there are so many weeds which can germinate in a freshly plowed field," Telewski said. "Plowing also mixes fresh seed into the deep seed bank. This information is also of interest to plant ecologists who study regeneration of disturbed land from existing seed banks in soils. If a site is disturbed by fire, flood, wind or any thing else, vegetation can recover from the existing seeds in the soil, which can remain viable for years. The area doesn't need to have seeds blown in or carried in from other vegetated areas."

The 20 clear glass bottles containing 50 seeds of each of 20 different kinds of plants were mixed with sand and buried in the Beal Garden 20 inches below the soil with the mouths slanting downward so that water would not collect in them. A map was left diagramming their location for future scientists.

The bottles were dug up by Telewski and Jan (pronounced Yan) Zeevaart, a professor of botany and plant pathology.

The original plan was to dig up a bottle every five years to test the seeds. However, in 1920, it was decided to change the interval to 10 years to prolong the study. Then, in 1980 the interval was extended to 20 years.

The Beal experiment represents the oldest continuing experiment at the nation's oldest college of agriculture.

The bottle of seeds dug up in April of this year has yielded only one species of plant -- Verbascum blattaria, a weed commonly called moth mullein.

"In 1980, there were three species which germinated," Telewski said. However, the fact that moth mullein is the only one to survive the test of 120 years is not unexpected. "It is the only plant to consistently germinate in all of the tests. It will be very interesting to see if the seeds will still germinate 20 years from now."

Five of the original 20 seed-containing bottles buried by Beal remain in their hidden location on the MSU campus. The slumber of the seeds will remain undisturbed for another 20 years until 2020, the 140th anniversary of Beal's experiment.