Seed Savers’ Glossary of Terms

One of the most prudent things a gardener can learn is how to save seeds from one season to use the next. Growing your garden from seeds you’ve gathered and saved moves you to the next level of sustainability. And the vegetables and herbs you grow from the seeds you’ve saved just seem to taste better! I find it almost magical to watch plants sprout from seeds I’ve saved from the year before.

One thing you need to keep in mind before you plant is that not all seeds will produce viable seeds. Avoid purchasing any GMO seeds! These are the kinds of edibles we should avoid anyway and you won’t get viable seeds from them. Hybrids may produce seeds that sprout but you can’t be sure which traits the resulting plant will give you. The best bet for seed saving is to purchase heirloom seeds from a reputable seller. Look for companies that state that they do not use GMO seeds and that do sell heirloom seeds.

To start this series I’m going to give you a Glossary of Terms that you will use in your seed saving adventure. You may not use all of the methods. It depends on what you grow and what seeds you’re trying to save. But this Glossary will give you a comprehensive list of terms so that you understand the various methods and equipment for properly saving seeds.

alternate-day caging – A technique that allows two different flowering varieties to be pollinated by insects without being cross-pollinated. Cages constructed of wood, wire, or plastic frames are covered with fine screen. One variety is covered with cages one day, allowing the other to be visited and pollinated by insects; the cages are switched each day to allow insect access to the previously caged variety.

anther – Organ where pollen is produced.

chaff – Broken pieces of dried seed capsules, stems, leaves and other debris mixed in with seeds.

characteristics – General features caused by unidentified complexes of genes including but not limited to freeze tolerance, cold tolerance, regional adaptability, winter hardiness, early maturation, and flavor.

cleaning screen – Screens with different-sized openings are used to separate seeds from chaff. The screen number denotes the number of openings that will cover a one inch line. A screen is selected with openings just large enough to let seeds drop through without the chaff or as in the case of larger seeds, a screen selected to allow the chaff to drop through without the seeds. (See page 36.)

cross-pollination – When pollen is exchanged between different flowers from the same or different plants.

dehiscent – A seed capsule opened to discharge seeds is dehiscent. Seeds must be harvested before this process takes place and the seeds are lost. In some varieties, the seed capsules literally explode.

dioecious – A species with male flowers and female flowers on separate plants.

dominant trait – The variation of a specific, identifiable gene that results in observ able traits. For example, tall is a dominant trait in pea plant growth. Crosses with bush varieties will usually result in tall varieties. See “trait.”

F1 hybrid – The “F” in F1 hybrid stands for filial or offspring. F1 means the first generation offspring after cross-pollination. The majority of F1 hybrids are sterile or produce offspring unlike themselves. See “hybrid.”

filament – Tube that supports the anther where pollen is produced.

flail – The process of fracturing or crushing seedpods in order to free the seeds. This can take the form of everything from simply rubbing broccoli pods between your hands to driving over bean vines with a car.

flower – The part of a plant where reproduction takes place and seeds are produced.

hybrid – Varieties resulting from natural or artificial pollination between genetically distinct parents. Commercially, the parents used to produce hybrids are usually inbred for specific characteristics.

inbreeding depression – A loss of vigor because of inbreeding. Inbreeding is the result of self-pollination or pollination between two close relatives.

insect pollination – Pollen is carried from one flower to another by insects.

monecious – A species is monecious if it produces single plants with separate male flowers and female flowers on the same plant.

open-pollinated – Open-pollinated varieties are stable varieties resulting from the pollination between the same or genetically similar parents. Not hybrid.

ovary – The female part of a flower that contains the ovules. Fertilized ovules develop into mature seeds.

pappus – Small hairs borne at tip of seed (composite flowers only).

perfect flowers – Individual flowers that contain both stamens and pistils.

pistil – The female reproductive organ in a flower made up of the stigma, style, and ovary.

pollen – Equivalent of sperm in plants. Pollen grain fertilizes plant ovules.

pollination – The process of sexual fertilization in plants. The male chromosomes contained in pollen are combined with the female chromosomes contained in the ovules.

recessive trait – The variation of a specific, identifiable gene that results in observ able traits only if the dominant trait is not present. For example, wrinkled pea seeds result only in varieties where the dominant smooth-seed trait is missing.

rogue – The process of removing or destroying plants with unwanted characteristics or traits.

selection – The process of saving the seeds from plants that exhibit desirable charac teristics and traits. To identify desirable characteristics, plant the same variety in different environmental conditions, or plant different varieties in the same environ mental conditions.

self-pollination – When pollination takes place within a single flower, usually before it opens. Other flowers or plants are not needed. Self-pollinating flowers are called “perfect flowers” because they contain the stamens that produce pollen and the pistil that receives the pollen. Isolation distance to prevent cross-pollination is not necessary unless insects are known to invade the flowers before pollination is complete.

silique (siliqua) – Long, tubelike seedpod that splits in half.

stamen – A flower’s male reproductive organ consisting of the filament, anther, and pollen.

stigma – The opening in the pistil through which the pollen passes to the ovary.

style – Contains the pollen tube between the stigma and the ovary through which the pollen is carried.

thresh – A term used by seed professionals to describe the process of separating seeds from chaff.

trait – A specific feature traced to an identifiable gene or group of genes. Pea traits traceable to single genes include vine growth (bush or tall), seed texture (smooth or wrinkled) and disease resistance (fusarium, enation mosaic, and powdery mildew).

viable – A viable seed is one that will germinate and produce a vigorous plant. Seeds must not be harvested before they have matured enough to be viable. There is wide variation in the point of maturity at which a seed can be harvested and still be viable.

vigor – Strong, vibrant germination and growth. A desirable characteristic.

wind pollination – When pollen is carried from one flower to another by the wind.

winnow – An ancient technique used to clean seeds. Moving air from a fan or breeze is used to separate heavier seeds from lighter chaff.