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The Triumph of Seeds

It has been my experience that the more I explore a hobby or research a subject of interest more comes my way. Since I first started exploring plant communication I have had articles, Ted talks, books, and much more come to my attention. My sister attended a talk given by Thor Hanson in Philadelphia. He was speaking on the remarkable history of seeds. My sister gifted me a signed copy of Thor Hanson’s book, The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. Now, you may not think this would be that exciting, but the journey and history of seeds is one of life, death, conquering, and triumph.

Thor’s writing invites you into his yard to talk, to walk with him as he studies the almendro (Dipteryx panamensis) tree, and to listen to the stories of seeds past, present, and perhaps future. I learned that seeds and rats have a long history. In times past, seeds had little in the way of a coating to protect that which would sprout and grow. Rats ate a lot of them. As time passed (centuries), seeds developed wings to take them farther afield or shells that were harder and tougher to get at the youngling inside. Rats developed stronger jaws and teeth that would allow them to crack a tough nut.

Some plants have developed a toxin to protect themselves and their offspring. One such plant is coffee. Caffeine is an alkaloid (as are many toxins). The coffee plants protect the leaves by producing caffeine in young leaves for protection from insects. As the leaves grow bigger, the caffeine is transported to the flowers and developing seeds. Seeds receive a huge amount of caffeine to protect them, but this same protection can also prevent the seed from sprouting. Hanson says that the seed gets past this problem by drawing a lot of water into itself so that the sprout can grow quickly away from the caffeine. As the seedling grows, the caffeine seeps into the ground preventing other plants from growing. Hanson goes on further to say that the caffeine in the coffee flowers act differently as the pollinators are not poisoned but rather become addicted to the nectar needing to return again and again to get their caffeine fix. I think about this as I drink my morning coffee.

Wars have come and gone over plants but the most notable in the United States is cotton. By itself, cotton is a silky, very tightly packed bole of seeds. Difficult to untangle and separate, it was the cotton gin that made cotton more feasible as a crop. When that happened, a greater work force was needed and, sadly, slavery was increased. The demand for cotton resulted in the kidnapping and suppression of people of color. A division of a nation and families broke out into war. It was a tragedy of human suppression that still resounds today.

Castor bean has been used in real life spy versus spy poisoning, and the wings of the Java cucumber seeds gave the design to the Stealth Bomber. While these are sad and powerful histories for these three plants, it denotes how important plants and their seeds are to humans.

Thor Hanson gives his readers a lot to think about. I have post notes placed in many places where I want to go back, reread, do more research, and think. Be sure to read the Notes sections of his book. Each chapter has a few extras listed there. I have always thought seeds to be interesting. Now I know that seeds, pips, pits, nuts, kernels and pulses are one of the wonders of the world.


The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History, Thor Hanson, Basic Books, NY, 2015.

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