Seed Dormancy


As we look out on the winter landscape, there are, no doubt, many seeds lying dormant under that big white blanket. And many of those seeds will not break that dormancy until they have gone through some particular environmental condition or treatment. I thought of that recently when asked if the wood lily or wild lily, one of the most showy of our North Dakota wildflowers, could be started from seed.

Seed ecology is an interesting aspect of botany, and there is a lot more going on in those seeds than most of us realize. We may give it little consideration, but seed dormancy is critical to the survival of the species. Most all seeds need to go through a dormant period which allows time for the seed to be dispersed from the parent plant. Dormancy also helps prevent the seed from germinating during environmentally stressful periods or when conditions are not conducive to seedling establishment. What if all those seeds produced last summer germinated immediately. Not many would make through our North Dakota winter.

Environmental factors such as light, moisture, and temperature may play a role in the ability of a seed to germinate. For example germination requires water, so dry conditions can prevent germination. However, even if the proper environmental conditions are favorable, the seeds of some species will not germinate because something in the seed prevents germination from occurring. It may be something with the seed coat, or something within the seed.

For many plants native to temperate climates such as ours, their seeds cannot germinate until they have gone through a considerable cold treatment or stratification. That basically ensures the seed stays dormant throughout the winter. Spring, we would all agree, is a better time for seeds to germinate.

If you ever get the impulse to start some wildflowers from seed, it is likely the seeds will need a lengthy cold treatment before they will germinate. A great source for information on propagating native species of our region is Northern Plants for Northern Gardens by Leon Snyder. As for propagating a wood lily from seed: according to Snyder’s book, expect five years to get it to bloom from seed. That is obviously not a project for the impatient gardener.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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