David Lowry was impatient for the very old seeds to wake up. For days, Dr. Lowry, an assistant professor of botany at Michigan State University, walked into a basement room of the school, looked into the growth chamber and saw only dirt.
But on April 23rd he checked again and there it was: a tiny plant with two leaves reaching up. “It was an amazing moment,” he said.
This wasn’t your average spring sprout. As early as 1879, botanist William James Beal plucked this seed and thousands of others from various weed plants in and around East Lansing, Michigan. Then he put them in bottles and buried them in a secret location on the Michigan state campus, with the aim of learning whether they would still grow after years, decades, or even centuries of silence. In mid-April, Dr. Lowry and four colleagues went out under cover of night to dig up one of the bottles and plant its contents, continuing one of the longest-running experiments in the world.
More seedlings peeked across the ground by late April and early May – 11 from Tuesday. One thing is a bit of a mystery, with leaves that are hairier and more sharp-edged than those of the other sprouts.
The rest is most likely Verbascum Blattaria, a large herb with brisk flowers that turned out to be the undisputed champion of the experiment. Commonly known as the moth mullein for its antenna-like stamens, this species was introduced to North America in the 19th century and lives a modest life in fields and meadows.
This plant’s victory is a godsend because it probably shouldn’t be part of the experiment. Apparently, Dr. Beal intends to obtain another species, Verbascum thapsus. This was present in the first eight bottles and fared less well as few of its seeds grew after only 20 years of rest.
V. Blattaria first appeared in the ninth bottle, sneaking through a false identity case from Dr. Beal. It has been quite successful since then – of the 50 seeds of V. Blattaria originally placed in each bottle, 31 germinated after 50 years, followed by 34 after 60 years, and so on. In 2000, when the previous bottle was dug up and tested, almost half of V. Blattaria’s seeds were successfully growing.
It will take the team some time to determine exactly what is germinated and conclude that the other seeds are not viable. In the coming weeks, they’ll be giving all the seeds in the bottle additional clues that could stimulate them to germinate: a cold treatment, a smoke bath, and a spray with a plant growth hormone. (In 2000, cold treatment resulted in the germination of a single Malva pusilla seed, the only non-Verbascum plant launched that year.)
You can also make small cuts on some of the larger seeds. “Roughen the outside of it because it will germinate some,” said Marjorie Weber, team member and assistant professor of plant biology at the university.
While it is difficult to draw many conclusions at this point, the fact that plants have grown at all after such a long period of rest is “amazing,” said Dr. Lowry.
Margaret Fleming, postdoctoral fellow and member of the team, said the germination readiness of the seeds showed their health. “Some of them just chug along like no time has passed,” she said.
The apparent persistence of V. Blattaria – a weed, alien species – also has conservation implications. If species like this can survive underground for decades, or even centuries, they may emerge on land that humans are looking to turn into native plants – “which presents surprises and perhaps even challenges for restoration projects in the future,” said Lars Brudvig. another team member and associate professor of plant ecology at the university.
After the latest seed bottle is successfully harvested, the team is eager to sew new ones. While this experiment isn’t slated to end until 2100, “now is the time” to start preparing for a follow-up, said Frank Telewski, professor of plant biology at the university and the longest-running member of the Beal experiment team .
The core of the experiment will stay the same – seeds, bottles, time – but there are a few things this group would like to do differently to protect their followers from the confusion and temptation they currently face.
They will check how many seeds of each species will germinate if planted right away – something Dr. Beal did not when he buried the bottles in 1879. The current team therefore has no basis for comparing long-term tests.
They also plan to bury twice as many bottles, leave one to plant, and investigate which is “the coolest question” when excavated – even if it involves destroying the seeds, said Dr. Brudvig. Strict semen identification protocols also help them ensure they are not spotting species like Dr. Confuse Beal.
You might even say goodbye to the secret location: the ones since Dr. Bea’s time established “actual, long-term ecological research sites” could be safer places to keep an important experiment, said Dr. Lowry.
As they consolidate their plans, they also compile a seed recruitment list. While the new experiment, like the original, will include some invasive, weed plants, it will also include native plants and some known to have unusual germination traits such as smoke and cold.
And Verbascum Blattaria is “naturally” being tapped again, said Dr. Telewski. The team could even include some seeds from this year’s sprouts which, after their time in the growth chamber, may find a place in the university’s WJ Beal Botanical Garden. There these patient plants could finally feel the sun after more than 140 years underground.