Take a Closer Look at What’s Inside a Seed

Seeds are full of potential, but did you ever stop to think about what else they're made of? See what's inside a seed and how incredible they truly are.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Elis Alves/Flickr

Did you ever look carefully at a seed and think about all the potential such a tiny little thing can hold? Sometimes as hobby farmers, we get so tied up in trying to get everything planted that we forget to slow down and appreciate how special something as simple as a seed really is. Winter is the perfect time to contemplate the little things, so today, let’s look a little closer at what’s inside a seed and what makes it so darned special.

Seed Parts: What’s Inside a Seed?

You may not think about it very often, but seeds are awe-inspiring. Surrounded by a protective seed coat are two very important things. The first is the embryonic plant. It consists of the first leaves of the future plant (called the cotyledons) and the initial root of the plant (called the radicle). Also inside of every seed is a food source for that future seedling. This food source is called the endosperm, and it is produced soon after the ovule has been fertilized. After germinating, the seedling uses the food contained in the endosperm until it can establish a root system large enough to access nutrients on its own. The nutrition provided by the endosperm is primarily in the form of starch.

When you eat a peanut, bean, pea, corn kernel or a grain of brown rice, you’re eating a seed, including the seed coat, the endosperm, the cotyledons and the radicle, too. Next time you crack open a peanut, remove the papery husk around the peanut and split the individual seeds in half. Look carefully and you’ll see a tiny little pair of fan-like leaves at the end of one of the peanut halves. Those are the cotyledons. The tiny nub at the end of the peanut is the radicle.

There’s Potential in Each and Every Seed

It’s also pretty incredible to think that seeds can lie dormant for generations before germinating, waiting until conditions are just right for growth. Some seeds need to pass through one or more winters in order to break dormancy. Others need to be exposed to a wildfire or pass through the gut of an animal before the seed coat will crack open and allow the seedling inside to emerge. It’s fascinating to think that each different seed seems to “know” exactly what the correct conditions are for it to begin to grow.

Though plant breeders have worked hard over many generations to stabilize plenty of plant varieties and make growing from seed very predictable, there’s always the chance for a random mutation to take place, especially when cross-pollination occurs. This is part of what makes seed saving and growing from seed so exciting to many gardeners. I like when I get a surprise seedling popping up in the garden, even when I was trying to grow a specific variety. Whether it’s a pink flower that’s supposed to be blue, or a striped squash that was supposed to be solid orange, it always fascinates me.

The value of seeds is astounding because the potential in each of them is tremendous. It’s sad to think that as more and more heirloom vegetable varieties fall from popularity, they may disappear forever. You may one day not be able to find seeds of that tomato your grandmother used to grow or the corn cultivated by the Native Americans who used to walk across the soil you now tend.

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Acknowledging the value of seeds isn’t just about the act of planting them. Just as with people, it’s also about taking a closer look at what’s inside.

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