The W. J. Beal Botanical Garden has a long history of inovative research dating back to its first decade. Professor Beal conducted many studies utilizing the garden and the campus arboretum. Two of his most noted studies were the cross-pollinating of corn in order to increase yield through hybrid vigor and his famous seed viability experiment.
In the fall of 1879, Professor William James Beal buried 20 bottles containing
seeds with the intent to determine the length of time the seeds of some of
our most common plants would remain dormant in the soil, yet germinate when
exposed to favorable conditions (Beal 1884, 1905). The experiment is the longest
continuously monitored experiment in the world. Professor Beal selected lots
of fifty freshly grown seeds from each of twenty-one different species (Agrostemma
githago, Amaranthus retroflexus, Ambrosia artemisiifolia,
Anthemis cotula, Brassica nigra, Bromus secalinus, Capsella
bursa-pastoris, Erechtites hieracifolia, Euphorbia maculata,
Lepidum virginicum, Malva rotundifolia, Oenothera biennis, Plantago
major, Polygonum hydropiper, Portulaca oleracea, Rumex crispus, Setaria glauca,
Stellaria media, Trifolium repens, Verbascum thapsus, Verbascum blattaria).
A total of twenty lots were prepared by mixing the seeds in moderately moist
sand and placed in pint bottles. The bottles were buried on the Michigan State
University campus, uncorked and placed with the mouth slanting downwards to
prevent accumulation of water in the bottles.
During the first 40 years of the experiment, germination tests were performed every five years. Originally the bottles were unearthed in the autumn, but in 1919, an early winter caused the soil to freeze solid and no bottle could be extracted until the spring of 1920 (the 40th year of the study) (Darlington 1941). Dr. Darlington, who took over the experiment from Professor Beal in 1915 decided to extend the duration of the experiment by increasing the period between germination tests to ten years in 1920. This frequency was observed until the 100 year of the study in 1980. It was then when Dr. Bandursky, who took over the experiment from Dr. Darlington after his retirement, decided to extend the period to twenty years (Kivilaan & Bandurski 1981). The 15th bottle was unearthed in April 2000 by Drs. Frank W. Telewski and Jan Zeevaart, 120 years after the bottles were first buried by Professor Beal (Telewski and Zeevaart 2002).
The moist sand was extracted from the bottle and placed onto a tray of sterile
soil mix. This tray was placed in a growth chamber. After 10 days the first
seeds had germinated and eventually the total number of plants reached twenty-five.
All of the plants were in the genus Verbascum, twenty-three were positively
identified as Verbascum blattaria. Two of the plants appear
to have a slightly different foliage and will be positively identified after
they bloom. Although twenty different species of seed were placed in the bottles,
initially only Verbascum germinated during this most recent trial.
However, after the sandy mix containing the original seeds was given a cold
treatment in August, a single Malva neglecta (syn. Malva rotundifolia)
germinated in September, bringing the total number of seedlings to twenty-six.
In the 1980 study, three different species germinated, including Verbascum
blattaria, Verbascum thapsus and Malva neglecta. The four previous trials
representing 1970, 1960, 1950 and 1940 only yielded seedlings of Verbascum
blattaria making this species the only one to germinate in all 15 trials.
Prior to the 1940 test, several of the other species included in the study
also germinated. Twelve of the plants were given a cold treatment in August
2000 to simulate overwintering in order to stimulate flowering. These plants
flowered in late September and are featured on this year's cover. Five more
bottles remain undisturbed in their slumber under the MSU campus, the next
bottle will be unearthed in the spring of 2020.
Beal, W. J. 1884. The vitality of seeds. Proc. Soc. Promot. Agric. Sci. 5:44-46.
Beal, W.J. 1905. The vitality of seeds. Bot. Gaz. 38:140-143.
Darlington, H.T. 1941. The sixty-year period for Dr. Beal's seed viability experiment. Amer. J. Bot. 28:271-273.
Kivilaan, A. & Bandurski, R. S. 1981. The one hundred-year period for Dr. Beal's seed viability experiment. Amer. J. Bot. 68:1290-1292.
Telewski, F. W. and Zeevaart, J. 2002. The 120th year of the Beal seed viability study. Amer. J. Bot. 89(8): 1285-1288.