Book Review – Ricki Nash and NPA Environmental Book Club
The Age of Seeds – How plants hacked time and why our future depends on it.
Author: Fiona McMillan-Webster. (2022) Publisher: Thames and Hudson Australia Pty. Ltd.
Fiona McMillan-Webster is a science writer with a Bachelor of Science in Physics and a PhD in Biophysics.
The background for the book title and subsequent chapters opens by describing the work of Elaine Solowey, a Californian horticulturalist who spent the best part of 40 years involved with land reclamation and revegetation of Arava Valley in remote Israel. Apart from managing extensive orchards at Kibbutz Ketara, she also experimented with seed from a variety of non-endemic wild plant species and succeeded with germinating and growing the plants. In early 2005 the Director of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Centre in Jerusalem asked her to attempt to grow 2000-year-old Date Palm seeds discovered at Masada during an archaeological excavation and thought to be from a now extinct variety of the Judean Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera). A few months later Solowey noticed that one of the date seeds germinated and although the first leaves were initially pale in colour, it eventually started to produce chlorophyll and a male tree grew. After advising the Director of her success, she was sent another 32 seeds from nearby regions some of which also germinated and grew. This time some of the palms were female trees and eventually pollen was collected from the original male Date Palm and used to pollinate the flowers of a slightly older female Date Palm. This tree produced 111 dates all of which tasted as one would expect despite the age of the parent trees!
McMillan-Webster describes seeds as “packets of genetic material” as they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, colours and textures. Some are spiky and prickly like wild Carrot, while others have structures like feathers, such as those produced by the Golden Paper Daisy (Leucochrysum mole), or wings to help them float using the wind for dispersal. Seeds experience various periods of dormancy only awakening when the surrounding environmental conditions are suitable for germination, and whilst waiting for this moment, most seeds are sustained by a nutritious food supply stored in the endosperm.
The book covers seed evolution, from the earliest cryptospores discovered, onto the rise of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), gymnosperms (conifers) and angiosperms (flowering plants). The impacts of fire and particularly the chemicals in smoke responsible for germination are discussed with reference given to the thousands of pink flannel flowers (Actinotus forsythii) found on Narrow Neck in the Blue Mountains following the 2019-20 bushfires. However, it’s not just the environment which affects the life of seeds, but also interference by humans, dating from Neolithic times right through to the present, especially using cross breeding to improve crop varieties and resilience. Research undertaken by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew found there were 7,039 plant species fit for human consumption and of these 417 were crop varieties. Today, according to the author, “90% of humanity’s caloric intake comes from 15 crop plants with just wheat, maize and rice accounting for around half of our calories globally”. As the world’s population continues to grow towards 2050, so too will global seed production to meet rising food demands.
Human induced climate change will only add to seed woes through the effects of increased temperature and flooding, in turn weakening the plants’ ability to defend themselves against pathogens and pests. Likewise, land clearing and habitat loss is threatening many plant species worldwide and this is deteriorating with increased urban expansion, population growth and the rise of intensive agriculture.
As McMillan-Webster points out, global food security is currently a real concern, with widening malnutrition and famine set to become worse in the years ahead. Strategies to tackle the problem include the collection of wild crop seed and preserving this in seed and gene banks. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault located in the Norwegian archipelago contains three chambers artificially cooled to -18 deg C, where each vault contains 1.5 million seeds all sealed in watertight aluminium seed packets, each containing 500 seeds. The primary objective of the vault is to preserve the seed for global food security. Although located in a remote part of the world, it is important because other seed vaults have been destroyed by natural disasters or been targeted during armed conflicts. The final chapters of the book discuss the mystery of seed longevity and the culture surrounding seeds, particularly with indigenous people.
Indeed, the story of seeds and how plants “hacked time” is truly amazing!
Although the book is not an academic text, there is sufficient information in each of the pages that if readers want to explore more on the subject matter being discussed, this is easily achieved. The addition of a few maps, photos and graphics may have greatly enhanced the book, but the author’s descriptive style allows the reader to use their imagination quite effectively. An index is included, but sometimes it is difficult if looking for further information and this is where a reference list might have been helpful.
Finally, most Book Club members agreed that securing the future of food was far more urgent than winning wars and what humanity needs is for everyone to cooperate in preserving biodiversity.
NPA Book Club – Recent Books and Upcoming Meetings
The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence
Underground Lovers: Encounters with Fungi by Alison Pouliot
Next meeting 19 June. Email email@example.com for more information.