The persistence of seed

I’ve been growing things from seed for decades.  Odd things such as tuberous begonias and eucalyptus, which aren’t odd in themselves but which might be for the average teenager.  A Saturday trip to the movies for ‘The Return of the Jedi’ and then a Sunday spent wondering if all his begonias will die from damping off disease can get complicated #teenproblems1983.  As usual I digress, but one thing so often repeated is how much patience I must have and how complicated it must be.  I just want to take a moment to say I don’t and it’s not.  To prove that point lets take a look at the seeds I started over a year ago which have been sitting in the refrigerator ever since.  A few days ago I finally made the effort to go through them and to be honest it speaks more of laziness and absentmindedness than anything else.

deno method rose seedling

A single Rosa moyesii seedling sprouting on damp paper towels.  Nearly perfect after a full year in a plastic baggie in the fridge.

The scene was not pretty.  Many of the seeds had molded up (or even sadder) sprouted and then died from my neglect, but one ziplock bag contained an amazing surprise.  A single pale yet perfect Rosa moyesii seedling had edged its way out of the folded paper towels and was just waiting to be freed from its cold, dark prison.  Better gardeners check their baggies every few days and not every few years, but luck was on my side this time and I now have a seedling of something I’d been hoping to sprout for several years.  Of course luck would also have it that my fat clumsy fingers snapped the delicate little stem during planting (so we will never speak of this seedling again) but fortunately I also found a few hellebore seedlings, one of which still had enough flicker of life in it to plant.

hellebore niger seedling

A single hellebore niger seedling.  Given another three years it may amount to something, but for now I’m just happy to see it alive.  Note the other healthier hellebore seedlings in the pot behind it.  These were sown last summer and then sat neglected for three months on the driveway, a method which I’ll have to recommend from now on.

Some seeds wait for other triggers to start the germination process, and for a few baggies the warmth of the dining room table was just what they were waiting for.  Within a week of taking the seeds out of the fridge I had three seedling of the hard to find, yet hopefully amazing, Chinese red birch (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis).  I may be overstepping my optimism with these size of a pencil point sprouts, but given a decade I may be enjoying a brilliant grove of pink and red peeling bark backlit with the low glow of a late winter sunset.  Or not.  Patience will be required for this one, but in a few weeks I’ll be distracted by snowdrops, then tulips, then iris, then roses, and then before you know it I’ll be wondering why there are birch trees in the spot where I was planning a dahlia bed.

betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis

Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis seedlings.

Not all my seed adventures are purely theoretical.  Two years ago I started a packet of Cyclamen coum seed which would hopefully produce the intricately lined, pale pink flowers of Green Ice’s Porcelain strain of this plant.  Fast forward two years and they did.  What a delicate flower, you wouldn’t suspect this one could survive the driveway germination method but fortunately it has.

cyclamen coum porcelain

Cyclamen coum ‘Porcelain’.

In general the Cyclamen growing in the back of the garage are filling the space with some very welcome winter color.  At this time of year I leave the house before dawn and return after dark and it’s nice to be able to go back there and visit with a few of my plants before going to bed.  It’s a lot safer too.  I can only creep through the garden with a flashlight so many times before having to explain to one of the neighbors that the warm weather is bringing up the snowdrops way too early.

cyclamen coum indoors

Cyclamen coum flowers filling the winter garden.  They’ve been better in years past but still put on a great show.

One final seedling.  Last year I wanted to try a few new primula so I ordered seeds through the American Primrose Society’s seed exchange.  They open their exchange to everyone once members have had their chance, so the sight of dozens of premium varieties still available for ridiculously low prices was irresistible.  Who would think that even these could survive the driveway treatment, and although my seedlings are nothing to bring to a flower show I really can’t believe that one of my ultra cool Primula auricula seedlings is planning to bloom.  I guarantee if it makes it you will see plenty of photos show up here…. and if it doesn’t make it,  please don’t ask what happened since it will likely I did something stupid again and it will be several months before I’ll want to talk about it.


A Victorian favorite, Primula auricula lays claim to thousands of cultivars and several societies devoted to its growing and showing. At this moment I think it’s my most amazing plant, your opinion may vary 🙂

My newly found primrose enthusiasm had me rushing back to the Primrose Society’s Seed exchange.  I thought I was ok last year but for a dollar a packet who could resist?  Actually if I became a member it was less than $0.50 a packet so might as well join while I’m at it and be in a great position next year when the seed exchange first opens.  So I did join and we’ll see what trouble I get into.

Have a great week!

35 comments on “The persistence of seed

  1. Christina says:

    I so admire your ability to grow flowering plants in your garage Frank! I’ve been sowing more seeds today, mostly a multitude of tomatoes; they are very satisfying to grow from seed because they usually germinate in just a few days. I end up throwing away anything that hasn’t germinated within the sowing season although this year I’m going to move anything that hasn’t germinated in the warm of the propagator to a cold position somewhere (fridge maybe) to see if some abrupt changes in temperature will force them. Good luck with all the primroses you’ll be getting and have fun – that’s what it’s all about really isn’t it?

    • bittster says:

      For as few tomatoes as I eat I always enjoy when it’s time to get them going indoors. Something about that moisture in the air and the smell of their bruised leaves always makes me anticipate summer, and I always start too many.
      I am having fun. It’s still too early to do anything real outside but in the meantime this keeps me from doing anything foolish with online dahlia orders or browsing shrub and tree sales 🙂

  2. Paula says:

    Bittster, you’ve inspired me to start primrose from seed !

  3. I am an inveterate seed starter, some successes and more failures, but that is the way of things. I applaud you on the primroses – Ive had no luck there. My biggest back patting moment came with the germination of a yellowwood tree with a seed from Bartram’s Garden. How about that? After 24 hours in a pot of simmering water, it did finally germinate, and it grew to a small tree in a pot which I took with me on a move, but it was too mature at this last move, and I sadly had to leave it. Wo is me, but I hope the new owners will one day marvel when it finally blooms!

    • bittster says:

      That’s one of the big sadnesses of moving to a new garden. Even if you have visitation rights it’s always a disappointment when things don’t get the attention you gave them or you can’t enjoy them when they grow up. Yellowwood can be a very cool tree!
      I’ve been using google streetview to get a driveby view of some of my old haunts, and some of those little things really do get big!
      The easiest thing about the primrose was filling a pot in February, topping it with a bit of gravel and sprinkling the seeds on top. They just came up by themselves, really nothing to do with me 🙂

  4. Your cyclamen in general are gorgeous; ‘Porcelain’ is exquisite.

    • bittster says:

      Isn’t it cool!? The flowers are on the small side but they’re so delicate. I would almost consider admitting to a need for bifocals in order to fully enjoy them.

  5. What is the driveway method? I have a single fat clump of common cowslip primrose but I may have to try your method. I’m looking forward to seeing your aricula! 🙂

    • bittster says:

      The driveway method involves not planting things when you’re supposed to and leaving them in pots on the driveway until it’s nearly too late. Watering when things are on the verge of a crispy death is also part of the method.
      I have the feeling my auricula primrose will be a brownish yellow color. Not the most mind blowing color, but we will see 🙂

  6. Also, I left you a message on your Facebook page. 🙂

  7. I felt much better after reading this post. To be honest, I’ve been very reluctant to branch into seed starting, because I tend to be easily distracted and I am much more likely to leave seed sprouting in a bag for too long than to check on them regularly. Who knows how long it would take me to get them potted up appropriately?! Reading your adventures, though, I find an element of, “Oh, well if I don’t have to be perfectly organized and prompt all the time, maybe I can do this, too!” Thanks, Frank, for the glimmer of hope!

    • bittster says:

      Haha, I always remind myself it’s just a hobby and feeding my family doesn’t even remotely rely on any of it. That always reduces the stress considerably, and if things go wrong sometimes it’s better to just toss it all in the trash and move on. I’m not going to let some unsprouted pot full of seeds send me onto some wild guilt-trip every time I look at it!
      Also it helps to remind myself that weeds are seeding all over the place as we speak, and if they can do it on their own then getting a few nicer things to sprout up here and there shouldn’t be the biggest struggle 🙂

  8. Chloris says:

    You have had some wonderful success stories with your seeds. I have never grown auriculas from seed but I will try now, they are so pretty. Actually you don’ t need patience to grow trees from seed. You are doing other things and getting on with your life whilst they are growing. I grow tree peonies from seed and they can take 7 years to flower, but that’ s ok, I’ m not just sitting waiting anxiously.
    Sowing seeds of anything and everything is compulsive for horticultural anoraks like you and me.

    • Chloris, can you suggest anything for my P. rockii seeds described below? It’s so frustrating that I can’t even get a response from the (specialist) peony nursery who sold them!

      • Chloris says:

        Hello Elaine. Germination can be slow with bought peony seeds because they have dried out. If you sow fresh ones you get a much better germination rate.The other problem is the instructions you have which are wrong. Peonies need two periods of stratification to germinate. You sow them in autumn, cover them with grit and leave them outside to get cold. The first year you won’ t see anything, but with luck there will be a nice root growing out of the seed. The next winter you leave them in the cold again and then with luck, you will see a shoot the following spring. Not for people in a hurry!

      • Hi Chloris. Oddly, the P. rockii seeds were supposedly freshly harvested (sold by Cricket Hill) and the instruction sheet came with them. I thought the “warm dark first, then cold in refrigerator for X number of weeks” was odd, but took their word for it because they’re supposedly the experts. 😦 So what, if anything, can I do with them at this point? (other than write off the $10 spent for the 20 seeds)

      • Chloris says:

        They might still germinate. I would keep them outside now and wait and see what happens in the spring. Remember that even if they grow a root, you won’ t see anything on the surface for a year.

      • They are still in the peat-filled little zip bag they were sent in, because that’s how the nursery instructions went: “leave in bag in dark 80F location until signs of sprouting” so they’re still at square one, LOL. I hesitate to pot and put them outdoors because this area has a serious rodent problem: rats, mice, voles, squirrels. How about the crisper bin of the fridge?

      • Chloris says:

        Yes, you could stratify them in the fridge.

    • bittster says:

      I suddenly feel proud to be amongst the anoraks and will look upon my trays of soil and labels with a contented smile!
      Hopefully someday a peony seed sprouts… I also have a few sitting around which are less than enthusiastic about growing, and I guess I will just have to look at it as seven more years to go.

  9. You’ve given me some hope for the tree peony (P. rockii) seeds I received in September. The instructions said to leave them in their little bag in a “warm dark place 75-80F, such as the top of the refrigerator” for several weeks and then check for germination. Well, after six weeks nothing happening so I gave it a few more, as the instructions suggested — then totally forgot about them until mid-January. Ooops. The problem is of course that there is NO place in this house (dark or otherwise) that gets above 70F in winter. I thought about putting the seed bag into a box with a small seedling heat mat but fear that it’s now way too late in the calendar to even start the things. Grrr. Have tried contacting the selling nursery by email and phone message with NO reponse. Next step is probably to send them a certified letter, LOL. But it is very frustrating because I really wanted to try starting them from seed. 😦

    • Should have also added that the seeds have done nothing — zero, zip, nada — probably because I cannot give them the warm dark environment that they supposedly need. Did not know of this requirement when I purchased them…

      • bittster says:

        Miss Chatsworth- I have peony news! Today I checked on the baggie of peony ostii seeds sitting in the dining room and there are roots sprouting! I’ve immediately potted them up and will see what they do next. I’m not sure if they only send a root the first year and sprout the next year? I guess time will tell 🙂

      • That does give me hope! I did end up potting my rockii seeds even though they hadn’t evinced any root growth in their baggie — kind of a Hail Mary pass, LOL. It’s now about a month later and no sign of life. I’ll be interested to hear any progress reports on yours! 🙂

    • bittster says:

      I mentioned to Chloris that I also have a few peony seeds which refuse to sprout. They are sitting in the dining room now in their damp paper towel bags, but were in the fridge for the year and did nothing there either. I’m going to wait another month or so and hopefully remember to put them in the fridge after that to start them on their second cold spell. Word is that you shouldn’t give up until at least three years…. then seven more to bloom… then another three or so to really get going…

  10. Cathy says:

    I have seen collections of Auriculas and still haven’t discovered the attraction, so you will have to show us this one when it flowers and persuade me of its beauty! I do envy your green fingers Frank. I have many failures when sowing for spring. Maybe I give my seedlings too much loving care and attention and kill them with love…?! Your cyclamens are looking very lovely – clearly very happy in the winter ‘garden’. 🙂

    • bittster says:

      I don’t think my little auricola will win you over, I’m sure it will be one of the sorriest, poorly colored, tiniest little things you’ve ever seen… but of course it’s my little treasure 🙂
      I have plenty of failures as well. Using a good sterile soil helps, but I think it being cooler in the garage also keeps things from becoming a mess. I certainly do not kill them with attention, but recently that has been a problem since the winter garden is the only place I can go to see anything growing 🙂

  11. You inspire me to take cuttings and start seeds, Frank, but I don’t enjoy your success which I believe you play down a lot. I need to visit your garage and get a few lessons. I’m thinking of moving my seed starting station to the basement where I can spread out a bit more than in the dining room and spare bedroom. Have opposition from husband who doesn’t like this old lady going up and down the basement steps. Must try auriculas. P. x

    • bittster says:

      I think you should be allowed to take over the spare bedroom completely, I’m sure guests would enjoy the greenery and wonderful scents of the greenhouse room! (might as well take over the basement as well though)
      You are of course welcome to visit anytime, but it’s much less impressive in person. The reality of the inside garden is it’s all contained within a four foot by four foot space!
      I think you would love a few auriculas. They may take a bit of trial and error, but I’m sure you could find a cool spot for them to sit out the summer and according to what I’ve heard hardiness is no problem. Actually I’m probably foolish for risking them indoors, we will see if they make it to May 🙂

  12. Linda says:

    Just heard a garden talk about P. auriculas and apparently they want more sun and drynes than other primroses. Explains why I keep killing them in moist shade!

    • bittster says:

      Ohhhhh. I guess that kind of shows just how little I research before doing 🙂
      I suspected they needed good drainage, but I do try to keep them on the damp side. I’ll be letting them dry out a bit if possible from now on and give them more light… but avoid a hot spot in the garden. Not an easy combo here.

  13. I really should grow more from seed and cuttings….I am just starting, but I am so neglectful!

    • bittster says:

      I know what you mean. I used to find dried out pots of cuttings in rooms I rarely visited but now my life has settled down a little and I’m kind of obsessed with checking things everyday as they come along.
      Just for the record though, I’m still killing plenty of stuff 😉

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