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MSU Research History: Longest Running Seed Germination Test?

1879 – Botany professor W.J. Beal buries 20 bottles, each with 1,050 seeds from 21 species, instructing that one be dug up periodically and that the seeds be planted to determine the length of time the seeds of some of the most common plants would remain dormant in the soil, yet germinate when exposed to favorable conditions.

In 2000, plant biologists Frank Telewski and Jan Zeevaart unearthed bottle number 15 and planted the seeds. Only one species, moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), grew.

Bottle from Beal's buried seeds

Bottle from Beal’s buried seeds

According to Telewski,

“Beal selected lots of fifty freshly grown seeds from each of twenty-one different species (Agrostemma githago, Amaranthus retroflexus, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, Anthemis cotula, Brassica nigra, Bromus secalinus, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Erechtites hieracifolia, Euphorbia maculata, Lepidum virginicum, Malva rotundifolia, Oenothera biennis, Plantago major, Polygonum hydropiper, Portulaca oleracea, Rumex crispus, Setaria glauca, Stellaria media, Trifolium repens, Verbascum thapsus, Verbascum blattaria).

“A total of twenty lots were prepared by mixing the seeds in moderately moist sand and placed in pint bottles. The bottles were buried on the Michigan State University campus, uncorked and placed with the mouth slanting downwards to prevent accumulation of water in the bottles.”

The experiment is still running, with the next bottle due to be tested in 2020; the experiment will be completed in 2100.

W.J. Beal, The Vitality of Seeds (August 1905), 140
Frank W. Telewski and Jan A. D. Zeevaart, “The 120-yr period for Dr. Beal’s seed viability experiment,” American Journal of Botany August 2002 vol. 89 no. 8 1285-1288

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