Gift of Life
Seeds are an often overlooked gift of life. From these small perfectly designed packages emerge an endless array of tomato plants, blackberry bushes, oak trees, flowering poppies, water lilies and the entire botanical world. Without them, you would have no oranges to eat, no wood to build a table and no flowers to give to those you love.
The Author of Life blankets the earth with thousands of different seed-bearing plants. Each seed produces a plant adapted to thrive where it grows, whether in the rain forests of Central America or the dry deserts of Arizona. It is equipped with everything it needs to sprout, feed itself and produce leaves that use the sun’s energy to nourish the growing plant. Without the food and shelter seeds provide, we could not survive on the earth.
Seeds remain one of the world’s great riddles. Scientists study these powerhouses of life, but no one can yet explain exactly how seed germination and seedling growth occur. Research papers detail the chemistry, enzymes and processes happening within and around the seed as it grows. But how the growth occurs, how a seed—by itself—produces life, baffles even the greatest botanical minds. It’s like Jesus said in a parable about the Kingdom of God: “He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear,” Mark 4:27-28 ESV.
One of the earliest known plants eaten as food were date palms. Dates are a one-seed fruit that grow in bunches of up to 1,000. Their sugary taste comes naturally–dates are 50 percent sugar by weight.
The Lifespan of a Seed
When we tuck a radish seed into the ground, our thoughts aren’t focused on how long that seed could survive outside of soil. Mostly we’re counting the days until we can bite into that crisp, spicy flesh. We’re interested in the immediate harvest, but God created seeds to contain an essence of life that remains viable for decades—even centuries.
The oldest intact seed that has successfully sprouted is the once plentiful Judean date palm, a staple crop in the kingdom of Judea. The date palm was wiped out by an invading army around 500 AD. The seed was roughly 2,000 years old—it came from a tree that existed during the time of Jesus—when archaeologists in 1963 recovered a small pot of seeds during excavations at Herod the Great’s palace on Masada in Israel. The ancient seeds were kept in a drawer at Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University until 2005 when a researcher decided to plant one. That seed has produced a date palm that’s been dubbed Methusaleh, a fitting name considering its ancient beginnings. At 10 years old, it is flowering and pollinating.
The second oldest seed to sprout is 1,300 years old—a sacred lotus unearthed in a dry lakebed in northeastern China. In Denmark, 600-year-old mustard seeds excavated from a monastery have yielded crops of mustard. In our own backyards, buried weed seeds live for decades. That’s why when we till soil for a new garden, weeds sprout. The buried seeds grow when they receive life-giving light.
Forest Fires and Jack Pines
Forests circle the globe just this side of the Arctic tundra. These forests are home to evergreen trees, including sweetly scented balsam fir and towering black spruce. In forests of the far north, fire commonly and necessarily triggers rejuvenation, releasing valuable nutrients, stimulating new growth and providing new habitat. A lightning strike ignites the deep layer of fir and spruce needles on the forest floor, and soon flames tear through the trees. The destruction seems intense, but it’s vitally needed for the jack pine to grow. These pioneering pines produce their seeds in cones sealed shut with resin. Fire melts the resin, the jack pine cones pop open and seeds tumble free.
When the scene looks its bleakest— the forest is charred and a thick layer of ash paints a lunar landscape— jack pine seeds sprout, and quickly. These short, stocky trees can’t compete with the towering fir and spruce, but they provide food and cover for birds, squirrels, deer, caribou, snowshoe hares and moose. Later fir and spruce trees take root, and as they soar skyward, they block the sunlight from the shorter jack pines, which slowly die. On the forest floor lie jack pine cones, divinely sealed to keep their seed cargo safe, waiting until fire blazes through the forest again and they spring to glorious life. Utter devastation lays the foundation for new life. It’s the lesson of the tomb, told by a jack pine.
Seeds on the Move
How many times have we picked burrs out of the dog’s coat or our own socks? Those prickly balls—they inspired Velcro—are seedheads that hitch a ride on whatever happens by. Hooked ends catch fur, fabric and even feathers to gain mobility. The end game of the prickly burrs is seed dispersal—moving seeds as far from the parent plant as possible before they take root and grow into a new plant.
Burdock, the plant responsible for producing burrs, showcases just one clever way that plants send forth seeds to multiply. Some methods of dispersal inspire a sense of wonder, like the ever-present dandelion. Who hasn’t blown those seeds into the air and marveled at their readiness to fly? Or watched as the wings of maple seeds twist and spin in the wind, a marvel of technical engineering? The wings of modern helicopters and planes are designed in a similar way.
Some seed dispersal methods are ostentatious, like the 18-inch seed-filled cones of sugar pines. Others, like the time-telling four-o-clock plant—its blossoms open daily at 4 o’clock—are gentle and sweet, awaiting a helping hand. The seeds sit in little green tea cups on the plant, awaiting a jostle or a set of fingers to ferry them on their way to new homes. Pretty shade-loving impatiens and weedy hairy bittercress form explosive seed cases. One touch, and these plants fling seeds the plant equivalent of a few miles.
Ever notice how quickly mulberries seem to spread along suburban walking trails? Blame the birds, among the most effective dispersers of seeds. They thrive on the quick energy in sweet berries, digesting the fleshy part and scarring the seeds before eliminating them, sometimes miles away. The seeds need this scarring to germinate.
Mangrove seeds begin to germinate on the tree, then drop and float on the water, waiting to be flung onto a beach where they will take root, protecting the shoreline from being washed away by the waves. Coconuts covered in a buoyant waterproof shell drift hundreds of miles to take root on newly emerging tropical islands, offering valuable food and shelter.
God’s creative genius shines in seed packaging and dispersal. Seeds contain the mystery of life, but it’s often hidden in an unassuming package. This seems to be one of God’s themes, hiding important things, such as the Gospel, inside humble messengers, like a carpenter from Nazareth or our own hearts of clay.
As God Intended
Today, genetics can be manipulated and unrelated genes can be transferred into seeds in a way that is not possible in nature. Vast acreages are planted with GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds, while surrounding plants are killed with herbicides. Since 1900, 75 percent of genetic seed diversity has been lost— an unintended result of today’s farming practices. Gardeners flock to locally preserved heirloom seeds. Unlike hybrids, heirlooms yield seeds that, when planted, reproduce the plant they came from. At their heart, heirlooms are the plants of Psalm 126:6, where farmers are in tears as they sow seed but are joyful at harvest.
Milkweeds & Monarchs
Common milkweed plants grow along country roads, on hillsides and in meadows. The transformation from golf ball-size flower clusters to floss-filled pods to seed parachutes is fascinating. In the spring, the blooms showcase pink hues and beckon insect visitors. Monarch butterflies are regulars, coming to sip nectar from the blooms and lay eggs on the leaves. The eggs hatch into striped caterpillars, which munch their way up and down plants before spinning cocoons.
Milkweed flowers undergo a remarkable change as they shift to chubby seedpods with soft prickles. Rip open a pod before it’s ripe and you’ll see what resemble fish scales. Those scales are milkweed seeds, neatly arranged in rows to fit the maximum number into the pod. Each seed eventually develops a feathery parachute, much like a dandelion, so that it can float away.
In early fall, the seedpods dry and burst open. Autumn winds coax the seeds free and set them adrift. The change from flowers to pods to seed parachutes is mind-boggling. It takes the creativity of the divine to orchestrate that type of transformation.
The monarch caterpillars that feed on the milkweed plant undergo a similarly stunning transformation, changing into brightly colored butterflies that migrate thousands of miles to winter in southern Mexico and California. One seed becomes one plant; one caterpillar becomes one butterfly. Together, they showcase divine design.
Beyond the story of milkweed in nature, people would one day discover that the Creator had hidden practical uses for milkweed. During World War II, children gathered milkweed pods and harvested the unripe parachutes (known as floss) to be used for floatation stuffing in soldiers’ life jackets.
A Living Legacy
Saving seeds from this year’s harvest to plant next year’s crop is traditional Farming 101. Colonists carried seeds sewn into dress hems. Johnny Appleseed toted a bag full of apple seeds in his venture to help settlers stake claims. Modern gardeners have rediscovered the art of seed saving, giving rise to heirloom gardening.
The heirloom movement is about preserving the wildly diverse and proven plant genetics found in seeds around the world. Local, national and international seed banks preserve our seed legacy. Some, like the Seed Saver’s Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, started as individual efforts to identify, grow and preserve heirloom varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers. You can buy seeds from them each year. Large scale seed saving is done at such places as the Svalbard Global Seed Bank in Norway, and the National Center for Genetic Resources in Fort Collins, Colorado.
In the world of heirloom plants, each fruit and vegetable seed not only carries the genetics to produce an explosion of taste, but it’s also endowed with a history that’s told as seeds change hands. Pepper seeds saved by Italian immigrants, potatoes grown by Andean natives, beans raised by farmers in Burkina Faso—heirloom crops are part of every nation, tribe and tongue.
Perhaps the most famous among historical plants are heirloom tomatoes. These tomatoes are nothing like the uniform, monochromatic fruit produced for mass distribution on today’s factory farms. Instead, heirloom beauties burst with complex flavors, shapes and sizes. And the colors? Only the Creator could imagine tomatoes painted with such dazzling hues of red, yellow, green and purple.
Tomatoes and all other forms of plant life are the natural seed legacy that God created for the earth. The original design has allowed all creatures to thrive across time. His plan is self-sustaining as it works with nature to support life.
Seeds and Faith
Jesus often spoke of plants and seeds. He knew what scientists would learn long after His death: When a 2,000-year-old date palm seed is planted, it can produce a flowering tree, called the Methusalah.
When He said faith is a like a mustard seed, maybe he was also suggesting that acts of faith are able to continue producing life generations later. One act of faith today— a whispered prayer, an encouraging word—can be the seed for a miracle generations later.
But Jesus also saw in seeds a warning for all who hear the Gospel. In the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4, He used sowing seeds as an analogy for the word of salvation sown in hearts. "The sower sows the word," He explained to the disciples. Some hear the Gospel, but Satan snatches it away. Some receive it with joy but it doesn't take root. Some hear but fall because they let the cares and desires of the world choke it out. But others are good soil and the seed of the Gospel grows. Those who accept it "bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold" Mark 4:22 ESV.
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