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How can seed enhancement effect the viability and vigor of seeds?

May 22, 2023

We often take seeds for granted. We expect that we can plant them, they will grow, and produce a crop – or flower bed if that’s your goal.

But seeds don’t always germinate. And if they do, the plant might not grow as expected. My work at Oregon State University is looking at ways to improve hemp crops by studying ways to improve seed vigor and viability. My work specifically focuses on types of hemp that produce good amounts of CBD oil.

Viability is defined as the seed’s ability to germinate and begin growth. This of course assumes they are given the proper environment. The environment in which the seed is planted plays a large role in its ability to germinate.

In some cases, a seed can be viable yet still not germinate when planted. This is often caused by the seed being stuck in a state of dormancy. In the case of dormant seed, certain environmental or physical conditions must be met to trigger germination. For example, many seeds must go through a chilling period prior to sowing to come out of dormancy.

small science lab beaker filled with CBD hemp seeds

Researchers at Oregon State University are experimenting with biostimulants to improve the seed germination and seedling vigor of CBD hemp seeds. Provided by Sabry Elias

Seed vigor refers to the ability of the seeds to quickly produce consistent, healthy plant growth under a wide range of environmental conditions.

I’m looking at using “seed enhancements” to improve the vigor and viability of hemp seeds. Typically, seed enhancements will not increase seedling viability, but they can improve the percent of seeds germinating as well as their vigor. In general, the goal of seed enhancement is to improve the crop producer’s chances of having good establishment and a healthy crop.

Treating seed with products prior to planting can potentially save the producer time and money. The alternative is a grower applying the product across their entire field after planting. This would mean two passes through the field. So, treating seeds prior to planting makes sense.

Additionally, by treating the seed we ensure that the product added is in contact with the seed/seedling once it germinates. When spread across the field there are many variables that can prevent the treatment from contacting the seed – like rainfall, soil conditions and wind.

Multiple commercial examples of seed treatment exist; however, two common examples are seed priming and seed coating.

CBD hemp seeds soaking in biostimulants
The progress of CBD hemp seeds after soaking in biostimulants for 3 days. The biostimulants studied were specifically certified organic humic and fulvic acids solutions. Provided by Sabry Elias

Seed priming typically involves soaking seed in a solution, water or a chemical, for a specific time. They are then taken out of the solution just prior to germination. The seeds can then be sown in the field. The goal of doing this generally is to increase the speed or uniformity of seed germination once the seed is planted in the field. 

Seed coating, as the name suggests, involves coating a seed prior to its planting with a dry or liquid product. Many crops are sold with seed coatings that contain pesticides, or plant growth products.

Historically conventional plant growth products such as chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides have been marketed and used in both seed priming and in seed coatings. However, there is growing interest in producing solutions using certified organic products. 

A new category of products being looked at as a potential seed treatment option are biostimulants, specifically humic substances. Biostimulants is a category of products that was defined in the USDA farm bill as “substances or microorganisms that, when applied to seeds, plants, or the root zone, stimulates natural processes to enhance or benefit nutrient uptake, nutrient efficiency, tolerance to abiotic stress, or crop quality and yield.” 

Humic substances are complex organic compounds found in soil and other natural sources. Humic substances, specifically humic acid and fulvic acids, have been shown to have biostimulant properties. These include improving seed germination, root, and shoot growth on multiple crops.

progression of CBD hemp seeds and their roots after soaking in biostimulants
After 7 days, you can see more of a primary root for the CBD hemp seeds. Researchers are studying if biostimulants improve the germination and vigor of the resulting seedlings. Provided by Sabry Elias

However, their effects on hemp (cannabis) seed are undocumented. My goal was to test if soaking seed prior to planting in biostimulants, specifically certified organic humic and fulvic acids solutions, would influence seed germination and seedling vigor on two varieties of CBD Hemp. 

The reason that CBD hemp was chosen, in addition to being a new and interesting area of research, is that hemp grown for CBD is traditionally grown at lower plant densities than most other annual crops. Because of this it is important that good germination occurs. 

The cost of hemp seed also can be extremely expensive, commonly found marketed above a dollar per seed. Because of this, seed enhancement could be well worth the cost if it successfully improves the percentage of germination or vigor. 

After the seed was soaked for a predetermined time in different humic acid solutions, they were dried and placed in a germination chamber where they remained for 7 days under optimal germination conditions. Daily germination counts were taken. After 7 days, samples were collected, and seedling vigor measurements were performed.   

Our initial findings suggest that humic substances did not have a significant effect on seedling germination. However, humic acid did have a significant effect on root growth. As a graduate student, I am excited to continue this research and believe that it may have valuable applications for future crop producers.

Answered by Erik Augerson, Oregon State University

This blog is part of Crop Science Society of America’s Seed Week celebration. Why celebrate seeds? Anyone who plants a seed is investing in hope. That’s one of the attractions of seeds. For the gardener, it could be hope for a beautiful flower, or perhaps a delicious zucchini squash. For our farmers, seeds are the hope of this year’s yields of produce, cash crops or forage. No matter the size or shape of the seed, they all can bring forth new life. At Crop Science Society of America, we hold seeds in very high regard. Please visit our Seed Week webpage for news stories, blogs and more information about seed research and facts.

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.



More solutions from: CSSA - Crop Science Society of America

Website: http://www.crops.org

Published: May 22, 2023

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