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seeds of michigan weeds william james beal

At MSU, scientists start a new chapter in a 142-year-old seed experiment

The first hole the scientists dug was in the wrong place.

They were looking for a bottle, one of 20 buried in the fall of 1879 by a botanist named William James Beal in a secret location on the campus of State Agricultural College, the school that became Michigan State University.

The bottle and the seeds inside were part of one of the longest-running scientific experiments in the world, an effort to figure out how long seeds can survive in the soil that’s been going for 142 years and is set to run for 79 more.

But first, they had to find it.

“We ended up digging a pretty big hole in the ground, and there was no bottle there,” said David Lowry, an assistant professor of plant science at MSU and one of the younger scientists picked to see the experiment through the next few decades. “And the snow started coming down and the birds started chirping so we knew dawn was coming and so we were kind of anxious to get the job done.”

Frank Telewski, a professor of plant science and curator of the botanical garden that Beal started more than a century ago, was the only member of the group who had been present at the excavation of the previous bottle 21 years earlier.

He had a 32-year-old map and, it turned out, he had it turned around. They recalibrated.

“We kept hitting things like rocks and tree roots and they were kind of these false alarms,” said Marjorie Weber, an assistant professor of plant science at MSU.

She was on her stomach digging through the dirt with her hands when she found it, a bottle that last saw sunlight when Rutherford B. Hayes was president.

“We were all just really relieved,” she said. “We feel like we’re stewards of this experiment.”

Beal was a practical scientist who did groundbreaking work in corn hybridization. His seed experiment was meant to answer a pressing question for farmers in an era before effective chemical herbicides: How long will the seeds of common agricultural weeds last in the soil?

He’d filled each bottle with sand and more than 1,000 seeds from 21 plant species and Beal dug up a bottle every five years to see how many would sprout. His successors extended the waiting period to 10 years and then to 20.

“The amazing thing about this is that Beal had this vision to set up an experiment that would outlive him,” Lowry said.

The practical problem that drove the experiment is less pressing but how long seeds can survive in the soil is still an open question with implications both for agriculture and for conservation.

“People put seeds in storage and they put them at low temperatures and real low seed moisture content, and we know that depending on the species they can live for a very long time,” Carol Baskin, a professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Kentucky who is not involved in the experiment, said in an interview last summer, “but that’s not what goes on in nature.”

“Although we can say it’s possible that they can live a long time, how do they prove that they can live a long time?” she said. “And I think that’s where the Beal study is so important because that study conclusively shows that seeds, at least a few species, live for over 100 years. There’s no doubt about the age of the seeds in the Beal study.”

Two species from the bottle dug up in 2000 sprouted: close to half of the seeds from a flowering plant called moth mullein and a single low mallow.

The seeds from this year’s bottle, dug from the ground on April 15, were planted in a tray of soil and placed inside a growth chamber in MSU’s Plant Science building.

The first seedling sprouted on Friday.

“I’m a plant scientist. I see plants every single day of my life. It’s what I do all summer long is measure plants out in the field. You’d think it just would be anything to me anymore,” Brudvig said, but getting the news that one of the seeds had sprouted was “just such a special moment.”

The excavation of this bottle had been planned for last spring. The pandemic pushed it back, but the researchers have agreed to dig up the next bottle in 2040 to get back on track, Brudvig said.

With four bottles remaining, the experiment is slated to run until 2100.

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Beal Botanical Gardens (1873) SR

Professor W. S. Holdsworth (not Beal as some sources claim) in the Botanic Garden, circa late-1870s. Building in the background is the first Wells Hall, built 1877. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives , reprinted in Kestenbaum, p. 57.

William James Beal (1833–1924) was Professor of Botany at M.A.C. from 1870 to 1910. He also served as Professor of Horticulture 1872–1882 and Professor of Forestry 1882–1902, two fields that grew from being sub-disciplines of botany until they warranted their own departments and professors. Even a short list of Beal’s accomplishments is lengthy and distinguished, including being credited with proving the vitality of hybrid corn. [MAC Catalog (1916), p. 10. Minutes, 27 Nov 1882, p. 421. 43rd AR (1904), p. 6]

In 1873, Beal established test plots of 140 different species of forage grasses and clovers in the area now known as “Sleepy Hollow,” just north of West Circle Drive between Beaumont Tower and the Music Building. This is the year that today is considered to be the garden’s founding date.

Beal himself set the official date at 1877, the year he first referred to the collection as “the Botanic Garden ” and “made a very modest beginning” by extending his plantings southward toward the Red Cedar River. The site he chose was bisected, at the time, by a small creek that flowed from a tamarack swamp about where the Grand River Parking Ramp now stands northeast of Morrill Plaza, crossed the “sacred space” north of College Hall, and drained into the Red Cedar. Because the site was so low and marshy, Beal correctly surmised that it offered natural insurance against buildings ever replacing his beloved gardens. (His concern was, perhaps, warranted—a site dedicated to the Botany department in 1888 became College Delta just nine years later.) [Beal, p. 252. Lautner, p. 59]

The creek still flows through Beal’s garden, which today is the oldest continuously operated botanical garden in the United States, but during the period from 1888 to 1914, the ravine was incrementally filled in and the water diverted into an underground culvert. Drain covers mark the path of the culvert as it meanders to an outflow at the Red Cedar River. During the spring thaw, the creek occasionally reveals itself as the snow above it melts more quickly than in the rest of the garden, leaving a green stripe through the middle of the white snow.

A portion of W. J. Beal Botanical Gardens, August 2006. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.

In one of his more interesting (and enduring) experiments, Beal buried twenty bottles containing 21 species of seeds at a secret location on campus in 1879. The seeds were mixed with sand, and the bottles were left unsealed “so that gases such as oxygen and carbon dioxide, and water vapor could freely move in and out of the bottles to more fully simulate soil conditions.” The bottles were buried upside-down and at an angle to prevent moisture build-up. Every five years, one of these caches was dug up and the seeds germinated in order to determine how long they can remain viable. The interval has twice been lengthened in order to prolong the experiment, and the fifteenth bottle (retrieved in 2000) yielded two viable species: Malva rotundafolia, a type of mallow; and Verbascum blattaria, a weed commonly called moth mullein that has germinated consistently in every test since 1930. Professor Frank W. Telewski, Ph.D, Curator of the Beal Botanical Gardens and principal investigator of the 120-year period in 2000, summed up Beal’s experiment:

In early spring 2021, Dr. Telewski and a small team of researchers—the next generation of plant biologists who will continue the investigation in the decades to come—excavated the sixteenth bottle, a year later than intended due to the coronavirus epidemic. Its contents were placed in a growth lab and watched closely for signs of germination, and a week later the ever-reliable Verbascum sprouted up. Modern technologies such as DNA sequencing enable M.S.U. botanists to expand the scope of the experiment in ways Beal could not have imagined. This experiment has now been going on for 142 years, making it one of the longest continuously operating experiments in the world. With four caches remaining, it will continue for another eighty years or more. [ MSU Today ]

Following his retirement in 1910, Dr. Beal penned his History of the Michigan Agricultural College, completed in 1913 and published by the College two years later. This volume, over five hundred pages long, is indispensable if for no other reason than it is the sole overview that is contemporaneous with its subject.