Tips for starting unusual seeds

By Bonnie Orr
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener

A Christmas cactus is seen six months after germination.
A Christmas cactus is seen six months after germination. – Provided photo/Bonnie Orr
A Christmas cactus is seen 30 months after germination.
A Christmas cactus is seen 30 months after germination. Yes, growing unusual seeds takes patience, says WSU Master Gardener Bonnie Orr. – Provided photo/Bonnie Orr
Bonnie Orr
Bonnie Orr – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – photo by Don Seabrook, Wenatchee World

It is more than magic watching a seed develop into a plant. It is the delightful introduction to life we can share with children, and all of us with green thumbs thrill to the germination of seeds and the promises they hold.

Since my earliest childhood, I have been enchanted by seeds: the size and beauty of them, the collection of them and the incredible transformation when a seed becomes a plant.

It has led to some pretty quirky behavior, I have to admit. I have an urge to grow seeds — the more unusual, the more challenging, the more tempting. As a pre-teen, I started with an avocado seed. I do not count sprouting sweet potatoes and carrots in the same exalted category as seed germination.

In the 1980s, the California Rare Fruit Growers published a journal with instructions of how to grow seeds. That lit my fire. Most of the content was about growing tropical fruit in areas such as California and Florida. Was I deterred by living in the Northwest? Nah.

My first success was a nutmeg. Its delicate, ferny leaves survived for several years. I graduated to dates, and date palms ranged toward the ceiling for about a decade.

A mango tree was next. Satsuma, orange and tangerine were all successes. I germinated and nurtured a coffee tree for 20 years. I never did get the banana seeds to germinate (and anyway commercial banana plants are clones grown from cuttings). Then a peanut, various nuts such as cashew, almond and filbert as houseplants. Growing oaks is a piece of cake, but they are unwelcome house plants because of their size.

Two years ago, I was homebound after surgery and itching to garden, at least in a small way. I bought one of those extravagant dragon fruits, all pink and green, pure white inside with hundreds of little black seeds. This plant is actually sort-of related to Christmas cactus plants. The seeds germinated in just a few days, but only persisted for a few months. Ignorance of their growing habitat caused my failure.

Not to be discouraged, I planted Christmas cactus seeds. One seed pod had developed for the first time on my 15-year-old plant. The seed pod began growing in January from one of the plant’s blooms. The seed pod ripened and fell off in September — did I mention that growing exotic seed takes patience? I planted the five seeds. Three germinated, with one persisting. After six months, the plant began to differentiate some petioles (the plant does not have actual leaves).

The plant, today nearly 3 years old, is something only a mother could love, but someday, maybe this year, it will produce bright pink flowers. Patience, yes, for sure, but not as much as, for instance, a Bonsai!

So, besides patience, what do you need to know? First, the growing climate of the plants. What is its hourly sunlight needs? Believe it or not, we have too many hours of summer sunlight for many tropical plants.

The big determiner is humidity. We live in an area of serious low humidity — especially in the winter with forced-air heat. Generally, the soil mixture is important. Soil-less mixes like Miracle-Gro, which is based on peat moss, are too soggy. Do the seeds need a period of cold dormancy or stratification (nicking the heavy seed coat) before they sprout?

A great resource with careful instructions is Holly Farrell’s book “Plants From Pits, How to Grow a Garden from Kitchen Scraps.”

My current project is a freshly germinated Argon oil nut, and seeds for a caper bush are in soil in cold dormancy in the refrigerator.

What a great way to start a new year!