The Experimental Darwin, Tuesday Edition: Darwin and His Seeds

I was researching something different when I encountered some, previously unknown to me, experiments Darwin did with seeds.

The sea-water has been made artificially with salt procured from Mr. Bolton, 146, Holborn Bars, which has been tested by better chemists than men, namely, by numerous sea animals and algæ having lived in it for more than a year. The seeds were placed in separate bottles, holding from 2 to 4 oz. each, out of doors in the shade: the mean temperature has during the period been about 44°, rising during one week to a mean of nearly 48°. Most of the seeds swelled in the water, and some of them slightly coloured it, and each kind gave to it its own peculiar and strong odour. The water in which the Cabbage and Radish seeds were placed became putrid, and smelt offensively in a quite extraordinary degree; and it is surprising that any seeds, as was the case with the Radish, could have resisted so contaminating an influence; as the water became putrid before I had thought of this contingency, it was not, and has never been, renewed. I also placed seeds in a quart bottle in a tank filled with snow and water, to ascertain whether the seeds kept at the temperature of 32° would better resist the salt water; this water, like that in the small bottles, to my surprise became turbid and smelt rather offensively. In the following list I have no reason to suppose, except in the cases where so stated, that the seeds have endured their full time.
(1) Seeds of common Cress (Lepidium sativum) have germinated well after 42 days’ immersion; they give out a surprising quantity of slime so as to cohere in a mass. (2) Radishes have germinated less well after the same period. (3) Cabbage seed: after 14 days’ immersion only one seed out of many came up; I think this is rather strange considering that the Cabbage is a sea-side plant; in the ice-cold salt water, however, several have come up after 30 days’ immersion. (4) Lettuce seed has grown well after 42 days; (5) of Onion seed only a few have germinated after the same period; (6) Carrot and (7) Celery seed well after the 42 days; (8) Borago officinalis, (9) Capsicum, (10) Cucurbita ovifera, have germinated well after 28 days’ immersion; the two latter, rather tender kinds, were also tried in the ice-cold water, and have germinated after 30 days’ immersion. (11) Savory, or Satureja, has grown somewhat less well after 28 days. (12) Linum usitatissimum: only one seed out of a mass of seeds (which gave out much slime) came up after the 28 days, and the same thing happened after 14 days; and only three seeds came up after the first seven days’ immersion, yet the seed was very good. (13) Rhubarb, (14) Beet, (15) Oracle,4 or Atriplex, (16) Oats, (17) Barley, (18) Phalaris canariensis, have all germinated excellently after 28 days; likewise these six latter after 30 days in the ice-cold water. (19) Beans and (20) Furze, or Ulex: of these a few survived with difficulty 14 days; the Beans were all killed by 30 days in the ice-cold water. (21) Peas germinated after seven days, but were all dead after 14 days’ immersion out of doors, and likewise after 30 days in the ice-cold water. (22) Trifolium incarnatum is the only plant of which every seed has been killed by seven days’ immersion; nor did it withstand 30 days in the ice-cold salt water. (23) Kidney Beans have been tried only in the latter water, and all were dead after the 30 days.

3 Responses

  1. The interesting thing about these experiments was that Darwin was trying to account for the distribution of plant species and was unhappy with the postulated ‘land-bridges’ between continents. With hindsight we can see that plate tectonics accounts for much of the obseved distributions, rendering much of this work moot. (I remember this from the Desmond & Moore biography, although I couldn’t look it up since my copy is out on loan at the moment.)

  2. Check it out: new hominid fossils found in Ethiopia

  3. The slides for a powerpoint presentation I did for my paper on Darwin’s seed experiments is available here:

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