A Botanical Garden Class Pits Budding
Propagators Against Coy Cotyledons

by Cathy Cockrell

At first I was skeptical.

We began at 7:10 p.m. and already by 7:30 names of the intimate structures of plant anatomy-nucellus, funiculus, hypocotyl, epicotyl-were crowding my work-fried brain.

The guy at the other table said he'd "lost his touch" and was taking the UC Botanical Garden propagation workshop to brush up on its science. He looked content.

In print shirt and work boots, instructor Martin Grantham was just getting warmed up, enthusiastically referring to his red, green and black diagrams on the anatomy and life cycle of a seed.

Then he told his first story.

He was 14 at the time, and he wanted Euphorbia obesa, a.k.a. "Eisenhower's Golf Ball," for his collection. The succulent forcibly ejects its seeds from its pods. So to harvest them, he rigged a trap using a nylon stocking and a rubber band.

A UC Botanical Garden horticulturist for the past seven years, Grantham claims to have been raising plants since age 3, when he put a grapefruit seed in dirt and watched it grow.

Since the early '90s he has taught propagation at Merritt College. At the Botanical Garden he developed the Mesoamerica section, then took on South African and New Zealand flora. Currently he works with volunteer propagators like Theresa and June, two women sharing my table at the workshop.

Grantham teaches the propagation course in four sessions-the first two devoted to sexual propagation from seeds, the second pair (scheduled for late October) focusing on cuttings. For each half, the first evening is devoted to basic background science; a Saturday of hands-on experimentation follows.

Our night of seed science was full of the stories-the kind that propagators, like fishermen and hunters, tell each other-about efforts to decipher and outwit what Grantham calls "the wily ways of seeds."

Some plants, like Calendula, are a breeze to coax out of the ground. Others-the kinds propagators love to pit themselves against-are much less cooperative. Earlier in the day my coworker Fran, a gardening fanatic, recounted her thwarted attempts to propagate her "Whirly Blue" salvia.

Each plant, in the process of evolution, has developed physical properties and physiological mechanisms that enhance its chances for survival in its native environment.

The propagator's mission is to overcome mechanical barriers (such as a hard seed coat) and provide the light, temperature, soil and other conditions that simulate environmental cues giving the seed the go-ahead to germinate.

Some propagators resort to a vice or hammer to break through the hard coat of the Chilean wine palm seed so it will absorb water and germinate.

Such percussive methods, Grantham thinks, are too traumatic to the seed. He packs a set of jeweler's files to penetrate such seeds by kinder, gentler means.

What about Romneya, the Matilija poppy, whose seed cover contains fatty substances that keep it from absorbing water? Try white gas, acetone or heat. For prickly pear, use a blender.

Interesting and strange is the story of certain plants from the Frybos plant community of South Africa, equivalent to a chaparral, where wild fires are common. Recently botanical sleuths have figured out that something in smoke stimulates these seeds to germinate. Entrepreneurs, not far behind, have captured smoke particles on rounds of filter paper that are packaged and sold to propagators.

We passed around "Smoke Plus" and seedlings illustrating various germination styles, cut open rose pods to witness the ideal moment for "local harvest" from a neighbor's yard, and viewed a developing seed embryo under the scope.

It was 10 o'clock when I left the garden's conference room. The moon cast a faint glow on the Native California section as I climbed the hill to the entrance gate. Sprinklers hissed. I thought of Fran. If anyone in climate zone 16 could help her with Whirly Blue, Martin Grantham was the man. I wondered how many plants he would propagate between now and late October, when he teaches his workshop on asexual propagation. I wouldn't miss it.



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail berkeleyan@pa.urel.berkeley.edu.