A simple history of flower seeds from ancient gardens to the seeds produced by present-day commercial flower seed companies.
The history of mankind and the history of the seed have gone hand in hand for some ten thousand years. Without the discovery of agricultural practices, our idea of civilization would certainly never have come to pass. Understandably, the first seeds collected, saved and planted were for food crops - grains and beans. With these species the seed served as both the food and the source of next year's crops. Indeed, the seed seems an ideal little package, light in weight, easy to store, able to travel across continents and across oceans for sowing in new lands. It is for this very reason that Asian plant species grow wild along the California coastline, and South American banana trees can be cultivated in the greenhouses of Europe. The seed is a tough, resilient traveler and eager to sprout wherever it lands.
Ornamental Gardens of the Ancients
Though the first subjects of human agricultural were, for obvious reasons, grain and vegetable seeds, evidence of purely ornamental gardens dates as far back as 1500 BC. Archaeologists have found depictions of beautiful pleasure gardens, complete with lotus ponds, lines of acacia and palm trees, on the walls of Egyptian tombs. The Chinese cataloging and cultivation of flower seeds is truly ancient and in Persia, Paradise Garden of Darius the Great and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon served as inspiration to the later Greeks. As the Greeks approached nearly all subjects in the heavens and on Earth from a scholarly viewpoint, the study of Botany was seen as a fit occupation for the great minds of the age. The Academy of Athens maintained a garden on its grounds, and one student of botany, Theophrastus, was apparently bequeathed a garden by Aristotle. Ptolemy's gardens at Alexandria were widely famed, and as the Romans so admired much of Greek life, Lucullus had little trouble in popularizing the cultivation of gardens amongst the Roman elite. Upper class Romans created luxuriant pleasure grounds, full of fruits and flowers, attested to by both the murals of the time and by the ruins which are left to us today.
It seems like common knowledge to us now - every public school student takes a crash course in botany at some point, studying the reproductive cycle of flowers, but there was a time when mankind had to observe flowering plants closely to comprehend how seed became plant, and then bud, and then fruit, falling to seed again. In the 1st Century AD, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella wrote an astonishing treatise, consisting of the 13 volumes, devoted to the science of agriculture and the cultivation of gardens. And as mighty Rome marched its empire on to ever-widening outposts, they took seeds with them and returned from their expeditions of conquest with samples and seeds from the strange plants they found growing in foreign lands. It is also very well-documented that one plant in particular - the saffron crocus - reached such a height of value during the age of the Roman Empire that the bulbs of the plant were used as currency. Accounts remain of lavish Roman banquets at which the host had the floors spread with saffron which gave off a distinct, spicy fragrance when trod upon - and impressive way for a Roman dignitary to boast of his wealth.
How botany and the seed survived in the darkness after The Fall
Though the art of horticulture remained alive and well in China and in the Zen gardens of Japan after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the ensuing chaos of this world-changing event did not create an environment in which pleasure gardens could be at the forefront of any European's mind. Famine, disease, invading Huns, and an overall lack of organization led to a population that focused mainly on the here and now, the immediate need to survive. The last vestige of the classical civilization of the past was the bishop - the Church official who was responsible for seeing to the spiritual well-being of his flock. As the advisor to the petty kings and nobles of his day, as well as the representative of Christ in the Dark Ages world, the bishop was a figure of considerable power. And, in most cases, he was the only person left in his culture who was literate.
With few opportunities for personal or financial advancement available to him, religious life became greatly appealing to the Dark Age and Medieval European. Because of this, monasteries became central to the new, and often shaky, civilizations which began to arise. They became the centers of learning, and the monks gathered whatever fragments of classical learning had survived the sack of Rome, and put them to good use. Fortunately for us, botany and horticulture were among the branches of science that the monks 'saved' for us. They planted gardens on the monastery grounds. Though writings show that they took great pleasure in this occupation, their goal was extremely practical. The seeds they prized and cultivated were mainly of herbs used for medicines. From monastic records, we know that they grew numerous plants for their healing properties including basil, garlic, arnica, hyssop, leeks, ivy, lemon balm, nettles, mallow, mint, sorrel, parsley, rosemary, sage, valerian, tansy and a host of other wonderful herbs. The seeds of these valuable plants would have been carefully collected and stored for sowing, and some of the monks began experimenting with hybridization.
In the 12th Century, a Franciscan monk named Bartholomaeus Anglicus composed his work, Liber de Proprietatibus Rerum, which served as an encyclopedia of trees and herbs, catalogued alphabetically, giving the medicinal attributes of each. Perhaps the most famous medieval treatise on the cultivation of flowers, herbs and trees was written in the 14th century by Pietro Crescenzi, an Italian scholar. It was printed many times and was studied carefully by farmers and gardeners. For the most part, the study of plants in the Middle Ages was driven mostly by the need for reliable food sources and medicines, but the western world was headed for another change that would, again, effect the history and life of seeds.
The seeds of civilization bloom anew
The black plague of the Middle Ages drastically reduced the population of Europe. At the same time, farming practices became more settled, consistently producing more than enough grain and vegetables to feed the people. These two circumstances resulted in a very new environment, in which not every man needed to be a farmer. Europeans found themselves with leisure time on their hands, and began to devote themselves to studying the arts and sciences which had all but disappeared after the collapse of the Roman Empire. For the first time, people began to think of personal and societal pleasure again, and the planting of gardens came into fashion once more. The Renaissance was, if anything, a celebration of the mind of man, and Europeans set to work creating both formal and informal gardens for their own enjoyment. Not only did people collect and exchange native flower seeds, but the age of exploration had begun and sailors eagerly brought home seeds and cutting from wonderful plants they found growing in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Again, because flower seeds travel so well, it was easy to carry them across the seas, back to the old world or on to the new.
By the Elizabethan age, the favored form of gardens was highly formal, laid out in a geometric pattern with flower beds being divided by paths or low hedges. By this time, the variety of ornamental plants available to the discerning gardener was become truly extensive. A visit to one of these pretty pleasure grounds might have offered a view of all of the following plants, grown from prized seeds: Monkshood, Anemone, Columbine, Violas, Dianthus, Nicotiana, Solanum, Calendula and Marigolds. Some flowers were loved for their beauty, others for their fragrance and one can imagine the men and women of this time eagerly saving the seeds of the plants they loved in hopes of enjoying their charms again the following year. Though tulips are grown from bulbs and not seed, it is interesting to note that in the 1600's, Holland found itself in the grip of Tulip mania with a single bulb being worth an exorbitant price, paper vouchers for tulips being worth more than money and the government having to enact laws in an attempt to curb the Tulip hysteria sweeping the country. Shakespeare's works mention numerous flowers including buttercups, carnations, crab apples blossoms, daffodils, daisies, iris, primroses, honeysuckle and lilies. We can see the roots of our own romantic feelings about flowers stemming from this era.
A flowering of ideas
Perhaps no people in the history of humankind have had quite the same extravagant love of flowering plants as the Victorians. The 19th century saw the introduction of organized horticultural societies, beautifully illustrated books and catalogues for gardening and even the attributing of various virtues and vices to individual flowers. It was the Victorians who created the language of flowers, asserting that rosemary was for remembrance, forget-me-nots for true love, pansies for thoughts, and zinnias for constancy. Flowers embellished the humblest fabrics and the greatest works of fine art of the age. And women, increasingly confined to the home front, became some of the greenest thumbs at the art of cultivating fabulous gardens. They commonly catalogued all of the plants they grew, carefully recording the successes and failures they had with each variety, often creating beautiful botanical sketches to embellish these diaries of flowers. The Smithsonian Institute has an amazing collection of seed catalogues dating from the 1830's-1930's and this serves as an incomparable documentation of the history of the commercial seed industry in America, as well as a very strong source of information about the kinds of plants that were popular in the 19th and early 20th century. Farmers browsed agricultural catalogues from cover to cover during long winters, and women eagerly scanned the pages of elegant seed company publications for information about newly hybridized varieties of old garden favourites.
Commerce blossoms in the hands of commercial seed
Modern Americans have numerous seed companies to choose from when they want to get digging in the flower garden. Though some seed companies do produce their own varieties of seeds which are specific to their business, most of today's seed companies purchase their seeds from large-scale seed suppliers. These smaller seed companies carefully observe, test and discern which seeds they will pick to package under their name. Customer demand and satisfaction guide the way. Tastes in flower seeds are ever-changing and the modern seed company owner must keep abreast of the market, anticipating what their customers will be interested in growing. Meanwhile, seed producers continue to create new hybrids with appealing qualities, such as larger flowers, longer bloom time or improved disease resistance. Still other businesses devote themselves to the saving of heirloom varieties of seeds, though this can be a tricky undertaking as the open pollination techniques employed by seed saving companies inherently limit the control over how the plants are pollinated, thus making it questionable whether the resultant seed produced is actually 'true' to the parent variety they are attempting to preserve. At present, the sales of annual flower seeds seem to be at a height in the U.S., with so many delightful varieties available. Vegetable seeds, perennial flower seeds and herb seeds make up the rest of the picture.
Through their own trial and error, modern gardeners may develop loyalties to particular seed companies because they have good success with their products. One of the key issues in the production of seeds is the germination rate... basically, whether the seeds sprout or not. Nothing is more disappointing than putting in hours of work preparing a garden plot and sowing the seeds, only to have nothing grow. Because of this undesirable outcome, different seed companies use different techniques to try to ensure higher germination rates. There is a big difference between poor and high quality seeds. Just like milk or eggs, seeds are graded. Most gardeners prefer to purchase the highest quality of flower seeds or vegetable seeds they can find, in order for their efforts in the garden to pay off. At 2B Seeds, for example, all the flower seeds and vegetable seeds are foil packed in a trademarked packet called Sow'n'Seal. This packet keeps the seeds safe from moisture, and also prevents them from drying out, and this leads to a superior rate of germination. Customer satisfaction must be the goal of any good seed company.
3 Main Categories of Flower Seeds
The modern gardener has three main choices when it comes to planting flower seeds:
- Annual flower seeds must be planted each year, and their life span is generally only one year long. They are valued for their vivid color. Examples of Annual flower seeds include asters, dianthus, nasturtiums and pansies.
- Perennial flower seeds are valued for the fact that, when planted, they produce plants which live for years. Perennial plants generally have a woody base. They die back in winter and grow and bloom anew the following year. Planting perennial or herbaceous borders has become especially popular during the past century. Examples of Perennial flower seeds include salvias, coreopsis, lavender and columbine.
- Biennial flower seeds are a smaller group of plants which only grow and flower every second year. One of today's most popular biennials is Lunaria which produces tall spikes of lavender and white flowers, followed by round, papery seed heads which are prized in floral arrangements.
How to have success with flower seeds
Depending upon the planting zone they live in, many gardeners prefer to start their seeds indoors before the last frost. By sowing your seeds in trays or containers, you have a good opportunity to monitor their germination, and also, to thin out the seedlings if they have come up too thickly. Seed trays should be kept free of weeds, and for best results both soil temperature and soil nutrition should be regulated. The seedlings can then be transplanted outdoors once the last danger of frost has passed. Each variety has its own specific planting time, and a good seed packet will give you directions. It is very important to pay attention to the light requirements of each flower seed variety, whether it be full or partial sun, or full or partial shade. The proper amount of water is also key to healthy growth.
Flower Seeds - the stuff of dreams
The purpose of this article was to give a general overview of how valuable seeds have always been to humans; first, as a source of food, and later as an endless source of pure pleasure. Today, gardeners have almost unlimited options when it comes to gardening with flower seeds. Whether you fancy native plants, exotics, or the exciting new varieties of annual flower seeds that fill up the seed catalogs each year, you can sow the garden of your dreams with what's available today.