11 Year Old Corn Seed – test germination

In 2004, I stripped the kernels off of a cob of “Indian Corn” bought at the supermarket. Two reasons. One was I wanted to grow some decorative corn, and the variation in what shows up at various groceries was interesting, so I sampled and stored a bunch. The other was to have some material where I could do testing on seed storage with it and not really care what happened.

Well, it’s a little over a decade later now, and I’ve done a test germination on this material. It was put into an ordinary letter envelope and along with many other similar, put in a ziplock plastic bag. These were then placed into a small refrigerator on the patio. Largely without incident, that’s where it stayed until last year. About every 4 years I’d defrost the thing, but then all the seeds would be held in a large plastic tub and not warm much during that process. Last year, while I was on the other side of the continent, the circuit breaker to that area tripped. Nobody noticed because they don’t “go there” much.

I found out after asking someone to check something for me. What was “discovered” was that the fridge had been without power for an unknown but significant time. Long enough for the melted freezer water to make a nice warm humid environment. That, then, resulted in some unknown (but likely black) mold infesting all the seed envelopes that were NOT in plastic. ( About a gallon worth IIRC ). Those were things that were “being used” or “added recently” or “about to be used”. Including all the seeds I’d just harvested from late 2012 / early 2013. Seeds inside plastic bags, and those inside glass jars were not infected and had no problems (other than being warmer than I desired ).

Again, I have no idea how long the power was out. It might have been only a few days, or it could have been months. I would guess a couple of weeks as most probable.

OK, that’s not a test of ideal storage conditions, but likely IS a test of probable storage in a real “aw shit” time. Mostly good storage until the aw-shit happens, then “issues”. Fine with me.

Lesson One: Do not have any seeds in paper envelops that are not also then inside plastic or glass water proof containers.

Lesson Two: Have some kind of alert on the seed archive for power outages (like maybe put it on a small UPS with a noisemaker when power goes out).

Lesson Three: Assign and train someone when leaving for a year or two “project”…

The Germination

I’ve sorted through the seed collection and the damage wasn’t too bad. I’ve got seeds for most of my “special selections” (modulo my onion seeds that were a total loss – onion seed only keeps 1 year at room temp, so I’d classed it all as “use soon” and it was not double bagged. I had some shallot and multiplier onion seeds and some hybrids of them, now all gone, so I’ll need to start over on selecting a multiplier that likes my space.) Going through the freezer, it has most of what I care about in it too.

Along the way, some older seeds were clearly never going to be planted. For example, that canonical collection of “Indian Corn”… It takes a large area to grow corn to seed effectively. I don’t have a large area. It takes an even larger area to grow out a dozen different kinds and keep them pure. I don’t have 20 acres… Add in that my spouse only eats sweet corn, and I don’t eat any, and, well, just not seeing the need. I’ve saved a couple of particularly interesting samples, but the rest get the heave-ho. One was a red corn that had some kind of smut like activity on the very end of the ear (from before I’d bought it), so I’m not interested in potentially spreading that to the garden nor was it a particularly interesting corn. I’ve used it as the “germinate and toss” sample.

The result? 90% guaranteed germination in under a week, and the last 10% looks like it is started but slow.

2015 germination of 2004 corn stored in refrigerator showing 90%+ live

2015 germination of 2004 corn stored in refrigerator

Remember you can click on a picture for a larger view.

As you can see, 9 out of 10 have nice sprouts going, and number ten has a bulge forming so likely will also sprout.

I’ve done a series of test sprouts on some onion seed (commercial packets 2000) and had gotten up to something like year 10 when I stopped. It is still in a jar in the fridge, so “soon” will be retested. Onion is one of the fastest seeds to “go off”, so a good test material. I’ve also had some 16 year storage lentils that grew out well, were then stored another 16 years, and are now ready for a replanting. The first 16 years was in a sealed glass jar at room temp, not under refrigeration. They darken a lot, but once the oxygen is scavenged from the jar seem to stabilize for the long haul.

I also had put some Organic Brown Rice in a jar in the freezer compartment of the seed fridge. A test sprout of that has shown about an 80% germination so far, but some mold had started on the seeds / napkin so I’ve tossed it ( as I have what I wanted to know – “enough” germinates in any case). My test germinations are done on a folded paper towel in a plastic food storage tub. The towels is wet, seeds scattered on it, water added to touch the bottom of the seeds if needed, then the lid partly put on with one edge “up” about 1 cm for ventilation. This is set on top of the fridge in the kitchen or on my desk and checked sort of daily. Works a champ.

The rice was from about 2000 to 2004. ( I didn’t date it as it was just a rough bulk test, but all the other samples were prepared in that range of years). Brown rice rapidly ‘goes off’ as the rice oil goes rancid. This is easily detected by smell. Stored in a jar in the freezer it has no rancid smell. It looks, to me, like storage of whole grains in a freezer can be done for decades without flavor, smell, or health issues. Were I making a food storage system now, I’d be putting my 1/2 gallon glass jars in a chest freezer instead of at room temperature in boxes. Then again, the cost of cycling the food is probably far less than the cost of electricity to keep it frozen ;-)

One final note: The freezer (small about like the small fridge – maybe 3 feet tall and 2 x 2 square) had managed to ice up something fierce. The door was open about 2 cm with an ice band visible. I don’t know if it had been left ajar and ice accumulated, or if slow intrusions of vapor built up to where the door was pushed open some. Inspection of the seal shows a leak fit at the top edge for about an inch with vapor intrusion (after I’d cleaned and restarted it) so that might be the issue.

This matters because I defrosted the freezer and cleaned / inspected the jars from it. On initial removal from the freezer, those seeds in not-quite-ziplock (really, cheap knock-off bags) looked fine (but I was in a hurry and just set things rapidly away from the freezer as I got them pried out of ice). On standing, some of them had ice inside the bags the melted dampening some of the seed packets. Real dual closure ZipLock Freezer Bags did not have this problem. Not many, and not much, but:

Lesson Four: Use real quality Ziplock Freezer Bags for any plastic bags.

One bag was frozen into ice in the water catch tray and by the time I could get it out, significant water had gotten in. It has been on its side with the seal 1/4 under water.

Lesson Five: All plastic bags must be stowed seal up.

I had 3 batches stored in “Food seal pouches” with a vacuum sealer. One had lost vacuum and acted like a cheap ziplock knockoff. Two were fine.

Lesson Six: Fancy food sealing plastic didn’t do any better than crappy bags, and was not as good as real Ziplock Freezer Bags that had zero failures.

Lesson Seven: IF using a food seal pouch, make sure it is really sealed well and properly.

Lesson Eight: Glass jars work better than any plastic bag or pouch (but don’t store as densely) and stand up to just about anything.

The glass jars had some minor rust on SOME of the lids. Don’t know if it was just from 15 years “on ice” or if the power out interval had given them a load of warm and damp. In any case, some lids were a bit stuck and took some effort to get loose. Inspecting and cleaning lids once a decade might be ‘worth it’. For exceptionally long storage, I might consider a light coating of wax over the lids and bands as protectant.

Jars stored 15 years “on ice” with minor rust on some lids / bands

The freezer with the top shelf already unloaded and some ice removed, bottom has some cleared too. Middle, well, it’s a work in progress…

Seed Archive Freezer with ice jam

Seed Archive Freezer with ice jam

Lesson Nine: Check seal quality on any freezers.

Lesson Ten: Inspect freezer and seals at least once a decade ;-)

I had a few seeds in commercial foil pouches that I had bought while in Texas some years back. (Dated 2004). A small local seedsman with some interesting varieties of things well suited to Texas conditions. I figured if anyone knew “cow peas”, they did, and I was right. The only field pea I’ve had that I really liked. No muddy flavor to them. Zipper Cream. Yum! Well, those pouches worked Just Fine in the freezer and didn’t care at all about the melt, the ice, whatever. IF you can find seeds in this kind of package, they are great for long duration storage in a freezer.

Texas seeds in foil pouches

Texas seeds in foil pouches

Lesson Eleven: Believe your Texas relatives about field peas.

Lesson Twelve: Buy seeds in foil pouches if possible.

Corollary to Lesson Twelve: Most anything in foil pouches or pre-sealed metal tins will likely store well.

In Conclusion

So that’s the 15 year update on my seed storage system and archive performance.
Next 15 year update due in 2030…

All in all, seeds store VERY well. I’m getting decade+ out of just about everything that isn’t a fruit seed (‘recalcitrant’ seeds like oranges and apples die if you try to dry them out and store them. They must be planted rapidly. Then again, an Apple tree kind of stays around making new seeds for decades anyway, so just plant the tree ;-) And yes, I know that every apple seed gives a different kind of tree as they do not ‘breed true’.)

Any gardener can cut their seed costs dramatically with a single quart jar of seeds in their regular home freezer. It is amazing how many different seed packets fit in one of those. Were I running a commercial farm, I’d have a large freezer just for my seeds and only buy them when they were cheap.

I had a bit of trouble getting some of the rusted bands loose, so I suggest checking and changing lids and bands at least once per decade. Or not letting your freezer have a meltdown ;-)

For everything tested (so far…) from the freezer, I’ve had zero germination failures. I’ve also been very surprised at how long they last just from the refrigerator. Yes, it too has a tiny freezer compartment, but I’m talking about the large regular ‘fridge space. This is NOT a defroster type, so never has a warm cycle. Just one of those cheap “office desk” type (though the 2 1/2 foot tall one, not the dinky cube). Cost me about $50 way back when. I’ve had many seeds now with over a decade, and some with up around 15 years, have very high germination rates. I had a jar of broad beans (large Fava Beans) that was just in the fridge since about 2004. (Bulk from a bin at Cosentino’s Market, a great Italian grocer who has since sold out to Lunardie’s; another good, but not quite as good, Italian grocer… so the seeds have lasted longer than the store…) Those also had about a 90% germination in about a week, and I’ve planted them out ( I expect the last straggler to also germinate).

So even just a jar in the fridge works wonders.

With that, I’m headed out to the garden to “work” in the sun ;-)

I’ll leave you with some Amaranth pictures. I had planted some Hopi Red many years back. It tends to volunteer from time to time. I thank it for that. You can eat the young leaves like spinach, though it is a bit rougher. The seeds are a grain, but my small bird population learned after the first year to strip it just a few days before harvest is ready… So I’m trialing Celosia and Quinoa as my “small grain”. Celosia is also from the amaranth family, so I expect Quinoa with the saponin bitter on the seeds to be the survivor. Birds seem to not like it so much ;-) It is also drought tolerant and from the spinach family (along with “fat hen” or “goose foot” that are edible and grow like weeds. In many places they ARE weeds… but that’s another story).

Hopi Red Amaranth volunteer

Hopi Red Amaranth volunteer

I’d grown a regular seed package Amaranth one year, and the black seeded Hopi Red crossed with some of the tan seeded regular green. I’ve now got a delightful hybrid that pops up in some places. Bigger, like the green, but with clear Hopi Red accents. It gets greener over time as it grows, but the new bits tend to red. I’d lost the seed for it in the big thaw / mold, so I’m glad these volunteers are here to give me a new stock.

Hybrid Hopi Red / commercial Amaranth

Hybrid Hopi Red / commercial Amaranth

So these guys are very hardy, and will happily self-sow when the birds hit them. As an emergency food, that’s about ideal. But do have a bird net of some kind if you want to harvest seeds (that they make in abundance). The leaves are, IMHO, mostly an emergency food. A bit too fiber rich for most folks ;-) But not bad, IMHO. Especially the fresh growth. They are also pretty enough to just plant as an ornamental. For folks not good at gardening, they are pretty darned easy to grow (as evidenced by their rate of volunteering).

So enjoy your day, and put some seeds in a jar “for that day”
(quoting Joubert in 3 Days Of The Condor).

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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10 Responses to 11 Year Old Corn Seed – test germination

  1. Larry Ledwick says:

    Very interesting, (he leaves to check something in storage)
    I just sent you an email you might get a chuckle out of on this.

  2. p.g.sharrow says:

    I use a chest freezer for long term storage as well as for pest killing in dry storage materials. A week or two at 10F below zero will kill bugs and their eggs. After that, good ziplocks or sealed glass jars will keep dry stores for ages even at room temperature. Most any decent chest freezer is much more efficient then any upright and will “keep” for several days during outages, even if you must open to remove needed food. The more filled it is the longer it will “keep” frozen. Tip: 5Fbelow is acquitted for most things and spoon-able ice-cream. 20F below will result in hard ice-cream.
    Keep seeds cool and dry or better, COLD and dry. I have a refrigerator just for seed storage and use plastic pharmacy bottles for seed segregation of year and variety. After that they go into bags or jars, often a freezer treatment as well if I need long term protection. Bug eggs are often hidden within seeds or on them. pg

  3. R. de Haan says:

    In general It is well known that plant seeds have remarkable properties, some of them surviving extreme time intervals of cold (ice age conditions).
    Very difficult to root out life on this planet.

  4. R. de Haan says:

    Love the experiment by the way. Good to know the bloody UN is not the only entity storing seeds long term.

  5. Larry Ledwick says:

    I have a stash of 40 year old seed packets, that this item reminded me of.
    Label on the tin I put them in says 1976-1978. Nothing special done to pack them just dropped common retail packets of seeds in an old cracker tin and taped the lid shut. It has been following me around for the last 4 decades. I have probably thought about tossing them a dozen times or more but the mad scientist in me wanted to do something useful with them. I live in Colorado so it is naturally low humidity here, and these have spent most of that storage time in the back of a storage closet at room temperature. I am going to use this as an excuse to pop the tape seal and do some sprouting tests with them. I want to check a few things before I actually take the irrevocable step of opening the tin and the packets.

    Hope to have some useful info to add here in a while, after I collect the proper containers etc to do the tests.

  6. E.M.Smith says:

    @P.G.Sharrow:

    Yup. Don’t have room for a chest freezer here, though. Plan to get one once larger space in Florida is on the cards… ALMOST got one when I got this one. It was relatively small, but not as small as this one on footprint. In the end, the space dictated the choice.

    After a bean weevil “issue” took out an entire jar of saved beans (the little buggers hatched out well after harvest and then proceeded to drill holes in the beans until mature. THEN died in the jar as there was no exit.) I now run ALL dry beans harvested through a one to two week deep freeze cycle. Seems to pretty much assure nobody has a living egg anywhere.

    For most seeds, in fact, after dried and jared, they do a freeze cycle, then some get “promoted” to the fridge. Frozen is your friend. ;-)

    I did get about 1/2 of the “drilled” seeds to germinate anyway, so some of them the bugs missed the embryo. Nice to know if ever in dire straits and you find the seed beans are all drilled by bean weevils. Start them in pots and plant out any that survived…

    FWIW, I’ll need to get that bigger chest freezer soon. I’d expected the oldest round of have started having “failure to germinate” issues, but it hasn’t. With an accumulated 18+ years of ascensions (not every one every year, thank God!) I’ve run completely out of space. Even with the loss of some to the warm mold episode, I’ve got excess in the inside fridge and freezer.

    I’m at the point where anything pre-2000 is going to get tossed anyway unless it is a particularly interesting or rare seed. Even them are being ranked for a new “grow out” and the oldest will be pitched if not planted. Or I get another freezer…

    @R. de Haan:

    Check out: http://www.seedsavers.org/

    A network of folks saving seeds. Most of them do an annual cycle, though. Grow fresh and provide to all. The main organization does have a deeper archive, and I’m sure some of the folks are “like me” too.

    They have on line “how to” for saving different seeds:
    http://www.seedsavers.org/Education/Seed-Saving-Resources/
    and a blog and some books:
    http://blog.seedsavers.org/blog/the-seed-garden
    http://seedsavers.net/shop/home/tools-resources/the-seed-savers-handbook/
    ( I own it and it is very good, but didn’t say much about things like long duration frozen storage, mostly just giving the ‘typical’ room temp lifespan and suggestions to keep things cool, dark, and dry.)

    Also these folks:
    http://www.seedalliance.org/

    have a 30 page guide:
    http://www.seedalliance.org/uploads/publications/Seed_Saving_Guide.pdf

    And there are others. Like the “International Seed Saving Institute”…

    http://www.seedsave.org/issi/issi_904.html

    In many ways it is like the open source software community. Individuals banding together to preserve the free and open source seeds of the world since our governments and companies are doing their best to stamp them out…

    So it’s not just Me an PG that hold the fate of future food in our freezers ;-)

    The EU did something very Central Authority / Brain Dead and made some law where ANYONE who was doing things with seeds (other than buying commercial and planting) had to do some kind of horrible licence and fees things. $10k kind of costs. There was an emergency effort to get a boat load of European heirlooms to the USA to prevent their extinction as “DIY at home and share” was basically going to be a crime. I’m a bit unclear on the details, but it was a big deal about a decade back.

    Also, the USA government has a large seed bank (somewhere). Don’t know if Monsanto has gotten it shut down yet… For a while there was a law that if someone sequenced the genome of a critter (plant or animal) they basically owned it. That was set to destroy public domain in many species. IIRC it got tossed out a couple of years back. It’s an ongoing war…

    At present, if Monsanto seed is planted up wind of your pure heirloom seed, and their toxic genes pollute your seed, you get sued by Monsanto and have to pay them royalties for their “intellectual property”… IMHO they ought to be paying for their genetic pollution. It’s a mess, and will be a mess until Monsanto is rooted out of the control of government agencies. Figure about 50 years…

    GMO Alfalfa was the latest. It wind pollinates far and wide. Essentially impossible now to have non-GMO alfalfa and keep it that way for a long time. Watch for suits, and maybe sick horses and rabbits and more, as this spreads. (Rabbits are VERY sensitive to foods and even small changes can make them sick or kill them sometimes.) I’m certain that Bt alfalfa will kill some bunnies. The bacterial mix in their fermentation (hindgut fermenter) is very sensitive to antibiotics. Roundup / glyphosate is an antibiotic… Bunnies LOVE alfalfa. No idea if the commercial suppliers know about this, or care, or do any tests, or…

    Hopefully in some small remote valley somewhere there’s a guy who’s growing a patch of non-GMO alfalfa for seed and can keep a pure ‘re-start’ stock going while this sorts out.

    Or maybe there’s some in Europe… they have a non-GMO style… so far…

    I’m sure there are others scattered around the world saving seeds. It’s not hard (one jar and a freezer) doesn’t cost much (can even be free if you do it right) and is a very good hole card in case of Aw Shits. Be they quakes, hurricanes, civil collapse, or genetic oopsy gone wild.

  7. p.g.sharrow says:

    The old Alfalfa types had plants that produced 20 to 60 years, so I am sure there are old lines that can be regenerated. I was once in the Alfalfa hay business as well as harvested many tons of seed, some on OLD plantings to obtain no longer available seed. The old lines were developed for plantings that were not irrigated and have roots that grow very deep to survive droughts. The modern varieties generally survive for only a few years and will not tolerate extended drought. pg

  8. Richard Ilfeld says:

    Fired clay jars, wax seals, cave.
    Proven for millennia.
    But seeds trapped in centuries old rugs sometimes germinate after a flood.
    Old lady nature is one tough b****ch.

  9. Pingback: Short Note on Quinoa, Amaranth, Millet, and Chia | Musings from the Chiefio

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