Investigating the Soil Seed Bank

Near the top of the world, deep inside a snow-covered mountain located on a Norwegian island, a vault houses nearly a million packets of seeds sent in from around the world. The purpose of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is to maintain collections of crop seeds to ensure that these important species and varieties are not lost to neglect or catastrophe. In this way, our food supply is made more secure, buffered against the unpredictability of the future. Seed banks like this can be found around the world and are essential resources for plant conservation. While some, like Svalbard, are in the business of preserving crop species, others, like the Millennium Seed Bank, are focused on preserving seeds of plants found in the wild.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault via wikimedida commons

Outside of human-built seed banks, many plants maintain their own seed banks in the soil where they grow. This is the soil seed bank, a term that refers to either a collection of seeds from numerous plant species or, simply, the seeds of a single species. All seed bearing plants pass through a period as a seed waiting for the chance to germinate. Some do this quickly, as soon as the opportunity arises, while others wait, sometimes for many years, before germinating. Plants whose seeds germinate quickly, generally do not maintain a seed bank. However, seeds that don’t germinate right away and become incorporated in the soil make up what is known as a persistent soil seed bank.

A seed is a tiny plant encased in a protective layer. Germination is not the birth of a plant; rather, the plant was born when the seed was formed. The dispersal of seeds is both a spatial and temporal phenomenon. First the seed gets to where its going via wind, water, gravity, animal assistance, or some other means. Then it waits for a good opportunity to sprout. A seed lying in wait in the soil seed bank is an example of dispersal through time. Years can pass before the seed germinates, and when it does, the plant joins the above ground plant community.

Because seeds are living plants, seeds found in the soil seed bank are members of a plant community, even though they are virtually invisible and hard to account for. Often, the above ground plant community does not represent the population of seeds found in the soil below. Conversely, seeds in a seed bank may not be representative of the plants growing above them. This is because, as mentioned earlier, not all plant species maintain soil seed banks, and those that do have differences in how long their seeds remain viable. Depending on which stage of ecological succession the plant community is in, the collection of seeds below and the plants growing above can look quite different.

Soil seed banks are difficult to study. The only way to know what is truly there is to dig up the soil and either extract all the seeds or encourage them to germinate. Thanks to ecologists like Ken Thompson, who have studied seed banks extensively for many years, there is still a lot we can say about them. First, for the seeds of a plant to persist in the soil, they must become incorporated. Few seeds can bury themselves, so those with traits that make it easy for them to slip down through the soil will have a greater chance of being buried. Thompson’s studies have shown that “persistent seeds tend to be small and compact, while short-lived seeds are normally larger and either flattened or elongate.” Persistent seeds generally weigh less than 3 milligrams and tend to lack appendages like awns that can prevent them from working their way into the soil.

The seeds of moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria) are tiny and compact and known to persist in the soil for decades as revealed in Dr. Beal’s seed viability experiment. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Slipping into cracks in the soil is a major way seeds move through the soil profile, but it isn’t the only way. In a study published in New Phytologist, Thompson suggests that “the association between small seeds and possession of a seed bank owes much to the activities of earthworms,” who ingest seeds at the surface and deposit them underground. Later, they may even bring them back up the same way. Ants also play a role in seed burial, as well as humans and their various activities. Some seeds, like those of Avena fatua and Erodium spp., have specialized appendages that actually help work the seeds into the soil.

Not remaining on the soil surface keeps seeds from either germinating, being eating, or being transported away to another site. Avoiding these things, they become part of the soil seed bank. But burial is only part of the story. In an article published in Functional Ecology, Thompson et al. state that burial is “an essential prelude to persistence,” but other factors like “germination requirements, dormancy mechanisms, and resistance to pathogens also contribute to persistence.” If a buried seed rots away or germinates too early, its days as a member of the soil seed bank are cut short.

The seeds of redstem filare (Erodium circutarium) have long awns that start out straight, then coil up, straighten out, and coil up again with changes in humidity. This action helps drill the seeds into the soil. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Soil seed banks can be found wherever plants are found – from natural areas to agricultural fields, and even in our own backyards. Thompson and others carried out a study of the soil seed banks of backyard gardens in Sheffield, UK. They collected 6 soil cores each (down to 10 centimeters deep) from 56 different gardens, and grew out the seeds found in each core to identify them. Most of the seeds recovered were from species known to have persistent seed banks, and to no surprise, the seed banks were dominated by short-lived, weedy species. The seeds were also found to be fairly evenly distributed throughout the soil cores. On this note, Thompson et al. remarked that due to “the highly disturbed nature of most gardens, regular cultivation probably ensures that seeds rapidly become distributed throughout the top 10 centimeters of soil.”

Like the seed banks we build to preserve plant species for the future, soil seed banks are an essential long-term survival strategy for many plant species. They are also an important consideration when it comes to managing weeds, which is something we will get into in a future post.

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Dr. Beal’s Seed Viability Experiment

In 1879, Dr. William J. Beal buried 20 jars full of sand and seeds on the grounds of Michigan State University. He was hoping to answer questions about seed dormancy and long-term seed viability. Farmers and gardeners have often wondered: “How many years would one have to spend weeding until there are no more weeds left to pull?” Seeds only remain viable for so long, so if weeds were removed before having a chance to make more seeds, the seed bank could, theoretically, be depleted over time. This ignores, of course, the consistent and persistent introduction of weed seeds from elsewhere, but that’s beside the point. The question is still worth asking, and the study still worth doing.

When Dr. Beal set up the experiment, he expected it would last about 100 years, as one jar would be tested every 5 years. However, things changed, and Dr. Beal’s study is now in its 140th year, making it the longest-running scientific experiment to date. If things go as planned, the study will continue until at least 2100. That’s because 40 years into the study, a jar had to be extracted in the spring instead of the fall, as had been done previously, and at that point it was decided to test the remaining jars at 10 year intervals. In 1990, things changed again when the period was extended to 20 years between jars. The 15th jar was tested in 2000, which means the next test will occur in the spring of next year.

In preparing the study, Dr. Beal filled each of the 20 narrow-necked pint jars with a mixture of moist sand and 50 seeds each of 21 plant species. All but one of the species (Thuja occidentalis) were common weeds. He buried the jars upside down – “so that water would not accumulate about the seeds” – about 20 inches below ground. Near each bottle he also buried seeds of red oak and black walnut, but they all rotted away early in the study.

After the retrieval of each bottle, the sand and seed mixture is dumped into trays and exposed to conditions suitable for germination. The number of germinates are then counted and recorded. Over the years, the majority of the seeds have lost their viability. In 2000, only three species germinated  – Verbascum blattaria, a Verbascum hybrid, and Malva rotundifolia. There were only two individuals of the Verbascum hybrid, and only one Malva rotundifolia. The seeds of Verbascum blattaria, however, produced 23 individuals, suggesting that even after 120 years, the seeds of this species could potentially remain viable long into the future.

moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria)

In the 2000 test, the single seedling of Malva rotundifolia germinated after a cold treatment. Had the cold treatment not been tried, germination may not have occurred, which begs the question, how many seeds in previous studies would have germinated if subjected to additional treatments? Dr. Beal himself had wondered this, expressing that the results he had seen were “indefinite and far from satisfactory.” He admitted that he had “never felt certain that [he] had induced all sound seeds to germinate.”

There are also some questions about the seeds themselves. For example, the authors of the 2000 report speculate that poor germination seen in Malva rotundifolia over most of the study period could be “the result of poor seed set rather than loss of long-term viability.” The presence of a Verbascum hybrid also calls into question the original source of those particular seeds. A report published in 1922 questions whether or not the seeds of Thuja occidentalis were ever actually added to the jars, and also expresses uncertainty about the identify of a couple other species in the study.

Despite these minor issues, Dr. Beal’s study has shed a great deal of light on questions of seed dormancy and long-term seed viability and has inspired numerous related studies. While questions about weeds were the inspiration for the study, the things we have been able to learn about seed banks has implications beyond agriculture. Seed bank dynamics are particularly important in conservation and restoration. If plants that have disappeared due to human activity have maintained a seed bank in the soil, there is potential for the original population to be restored.

In future posts we will dive deeper into seed banks, seed dormancy, and germination. In the meantime, you can read more about Dr. Beal’s seed viability study by visiting the following links: