Winter Musings: Seed Stratification

Christine Maccabee

Through the many days and nights of this long, cold winter, trillions of seeds lay sleeping. They rest in their icy cradles of soil and stone awaiting the warmth of spring. Offspring of grasses, flowers and trees, +hese seeds, though inactive, are changing nonetheless, are being prepared by moisture and essential freezes which we humans must endure by piling on layers of clothing. Naked, these small seeds lay exposed to all the elements, without one word of complaint. They are in a state of dormancy, yet being prepared for germination by a process we humans call stratification. Many seeds would not sprout a root without such preparation.

Stratification, though a perfectly natural process, is often used by botanists under controlled conditions in order to germinate the toughest of seeds. Some large nurseries start their fruit and nut trees, and shrubs such as dogwood and holly, from seed by use of this method. It is a bit more trouble than you and I would go to, requiring these hard seeds to be layered in damp sphagnum moss, peat, or vermiculite and chilled for 1 to 4 months. Many wildflower seeds also need this freeze period. I have learned through trial and error that germination rate of wildflower seed mixes is much higher if the seeds are sown in the fall or winter. With seed mixtures you might order through the mail, frequently you will see instructions to place your seeds in the freezer for a period of time, prior to sowing them in the spring. As for vegetable seeds, simply keeping them in a cool place, not freezing, is usually sufficient. All seeds will suffer if too warm and too dry.

As human beings, we experience many cold, even difficult times in our lives, perhaps as a form of "human stratification". Surely out of struggle and depth of feeling have come some of our greatest symphonies, art master-pieces, writings and other human accomplishments too innumerable to list here. Against all odds, such as Beethoven's deafness or Van Gough's madness, even out of the depths of depression, and frequently through sheer determination, creative potential and genius are released through the cracking of a sort of protective epidermis. One of my very favorite songs to perform is by Dottie Rambo whose pain nearly drove her to suicide. "Beside Still Waters" is a powerful song expressive of her pain, and yet the faith and hope she had in order to overcome it. Humm ...

As I sit by my window, gazing out onto frozen gardens, fields and mountains painted in shades of grays and browns, I acknowledge my own need for this "down" time. For many of us January and February can be too cold: too solitudinal, even depressing. No one is exempt from those feelings at this time of the year. To comfort myself, I reflect on all those seeds I scattered on a large prepared area in front of my home, an area that was once wasted space, unused lawn. If all goes well, those seeds will stratify and manifest into a beautiful, as well as useful, community of mostly native plants such as black-eyed susan, ox-eye daisy, pinks, coneflower, corn-flower, lupine, cinquefoil evening primrose, vervain, moth mullein and larkspur. Each perfect bloom which I will witness throughout the warm months ahead will have come forth as a result of successfully prepared seeds, some of which are even tinier than a grain of mustard seed.

Time passes, all too swiftly some say. Even lonely, frozen days in January will pass more pleasantly if we contemplate the flowers to come, the potential within the soil, and the potential within ourselves. All we need, like the seeds, is to weather the elements of our lives with patience and hope.

'Christine is president of the Friends of Nature Garden Club, which is actively seeking new members for community projects involving wildflower meadows, as well as formation of nature programs in the area. Call her at 301-271-2307 if interested

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