I was a curious lad growing up on the Crawford County, Wisconsin, farm a few miles outside of Seneca. My eight siblings and I did not have access to television and libraries. Books, magazines, and newspapers were scarce in the 1940s and 1950s.
That did not stop me from wondering about a lot of stuff that went on around the farm and countryside, about cattle, crops, the heavens, rivers, trees, and how machinery worked.
So, let me tell you about something that was a big mystery to me. A seed is put in the ground. How does it know which direction to grow when it is several inches down into dark soil? I was so intrigued by this question, I just had to do some kind of experiment. I took an old coffee can, filled it with dirt, and planted some corn seeds in it. I was 10 years old.
Dad bought DEKALB seed corn from Johnson’s One Stop Shopping Center in Seneca. Their motto was “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it”. I knew I could find a few seed kernels in the John Deere 999 planter stored in the machine shed, a wing of the granary. It was two-row planter and had twin 5-gallon cylindrical canisters that held the seed corn.
I planted six kernels about an inch under the dirt. I placed two seeds pointing down, two seeds pointing sideways, and two seeds pointing up. I stuck little markers in the coffee can container to mark which seeds were pointing in which direction. I placed the coffee can outside by the sun-filled back porch, and watered the seeds every day.
I waited and wondered. Can sunlight get down 2 or 3 inches into the soil to reach the seeds? That didn’t seem likely. Was it heat, where “up” is warmer and “down” is cooler? I wasn’t convinced. Could it be the Earth’s rotation that made those corn seeds sprout and move upward. What about gravity? Well, if gravity makes things fall down, then shouldn’t seeds germinate and go downward instead of upward?
In a few days, all the corn plants came up. Tiny green sheaves of sprouts. And it didn’t make any difference which direction the seed was originally pointed when planted. I knew they would, of course, but I just had to try it out for myself. I dug down in the soil with a popsicle stick and discovered something quite marvelous. The seed corn kernels that were planted pointing downward just a few days previous, had the stalk starting going downward about an inch, but then curled right back up toward the surface. I felt that some of the seeds were talking to themselves. Something like “Gee, I’m upside down and I got to wiggle around and start going in the right direction.” That was my thinking. Remember, I’m only 10 years old.
Photo: iStockphoto.com/Gord Horne
I did not find the answer to my question until years later. It seems like a miracle, but somehow the seeds do sense gravity. It is not heat or light that does the trick.
Plants have special cells right down at the tip of their roots. Inside these cells there are dense, little ball like structures called "statoliths," a Greek word meaning "stationary stone.” They initiate differential growth patterns, and bend the roots toward a vertical axis.
Life is kind of like that, isn’t it? You go years wondering about something. I never knew much about cell structure at that young age growing up in the isolation of a country farm. It just remained a mystery until years later. Then comes the joy of finding out, of learning, of solving mysteries.