What is a Seed?

What is a Seed?
A seed is a small embryonic plant enclosed in a covering called the seed coat, usually with some stored food. It is the product of the ripened ovule of gymnosperm and angiosperm plants which occurs after fertilization and some growth within the mother plant. The formation of the seed completes the process of reproduction in seed plants (started with the development of flowers and pollination), with the embryo developed from the zygote and the seed coat from the integuments of the ovule.

Seeds have been an important development in the reproduction and spread of flowering plants, relative to more primitive plants such as mosses, ferns and liverworts, which do not have seeds and use other means to propagate themselves. This can be seen by the success of seed plants (both gymnosperms and angiosperms) in dominating biological niches on land, from forests to grasslands both in hot and cold climates.

The term "seed" also has a general meaning that antedates the above — anything that can be sown, e.g. "seed" potatoes, "seeds" of corn or sunflower "seeds". In the case of sunflower and corn "seeds", what is sown is the seed enclosed in a shell or husk, whereas the potato is a tuber.

Seed Structure.

A typical seed includes three basic parts:
  1. An embryo
  2. A supply of nutrients for the embryo
  3. A seed coat.
What is a Seed?

 The embryo is an immature plant from which a new plant will grow under proper conditions. The embryo has one cotyledon or seed leaf in monocotyledons, two cotyledons in almost all dicotyledons and two or more in gymnosperms. The radicle is the embryonic root. The plumule is the embryonic shoot. The embryonic stem above the point of attachment of the cotyledon(s) is the epicotyl. The embryonic stem below the point of attachment is the hypocotyl.

Within the seed, there usually is a store of nutrients for the seedling that will grow from the embryo. The form of the stored nutrition varies depending on the kind of plant. In angiosperms, the stored food begins as a tissue called the endosperm, which is derived from the parent plant via double fertilization. The usually triploid endosperm is rich in oil or starch, and protein. In gymnosperms, such as conifers, the food storage tissue (also called endosperm) is part of the female gametophyte, a haploid tissue. In some species, the embryo is embedded in the endosperm or female gametophyte, which the seedling will use upon germination. In others, the endosperm is absorbed by the embryo as the latter grows within the developing seed, and the cotyledons of the embryo become filled with this stored food. At maturity, seeds of these species have no endosperm and are termed exalbuminous seeds. Some exalbuminous seeds are bean, pea, oak, walnut, squash, sunflower, and radish. Seeds with an endosperm at maturity are termed albuminous seeds. Most monocots (e.g. grasses and palms) and many dicots (e.g. Brazil nut and castor bean) have albuminous seeds. All gymnosperm seeds are albuminous.

The seed coat (the testa) develops from the tissue, the integument, originally surrounding the ovule. The seed coat in the mature seed can be a paper-thin layer (e.g. peanut) or something more substantial (e.g. thick and hard in honey locust and coconut). The seed coat helps protect the embryo from mechanical injury and from drying out.

In addition to the three basic seed parts, some seeds have an appendage on the seed coat such an aril (as in yew and nutmeg) or an elaiosome (as in Corydalis) or hairs (as in cotton). A scar also may remain on the seed coat, called the hilum, where the seed was attached to the ovary wall by the funiculus.

Following are some pictures on the Structure of Seed:

What is a Seed?

What is a Seed?

What is a Seed?

What is a Seed?

Seed Functions.

Seeds serve several functions for the plants that produce them. Key among these functions are nourishment of the embryo, dispersal to a new location, and dormancy during unfavorable conditions. Seeds fundamentally are means of reproduction, and most seeds are the product of sexual reproduction which produces a remixing of genetic material and phenotype variability on which natural selection acts.

Seeds protect and nourish the embryo or young plant. They usually give a seedling a faster start than a sporeling from a spore, because of the larger food reserves in the seed and the multicellularity of the enclosed embryo.

Dispersal of Seeds.

Seed dispersal is the movement or transport of seeds away from the parent plant. Plants have limited mobility and consequently rely upon a variety of dispersal vectors to transport their propagules, including both abiotic and biotic vectors. Seeds can be dispersed away from the parent plant individually or collectively, as well as dispersed in both space and time. The patterns of seed dispersal are determined in large part by the dispersal mechanism and this has important implications for the demographic and genetic structure of plant populations, as well as migration patterns and species interactions. There are five main modes of seed dispersal: gravity, wind, ballistic, water and by animals. Some plants are serotinous and only disperse their seeds in response to an environmental stimulus. It can be measured using seed traps.

Dispersal of Seeds.

Types of Dispersal.

Seed dispersal is sometimes split into autochory (when dispersal is attained using the plant's own means) and allochory (when obtained through external means).


Barochory or the plant use of gravity for dispersal is a simple means of achieving seed dispersal. The effect of gravity on heavier fruits causes them to fall from the plant when ripe. Fruits exhibiting this type of dispersal include apples, coconuts and passionfruit and those with harder shells (which often roll away from the plant to gain more distance). Gravity dispersal also allows for later transmission by water or animal.

Two other types of autochory are ballochory (the seed is forcefully ejected by dehiscence and squeezing) and herpochory (the seed crawls by means of trichomes and changes humidity).



Wind dispersal (anemochory) is one of the more primitive means of dispersal. Wind dispersal can take on one of two primary forms: seeds can float on the breeze or alternatively, they can flutter to the ground. The classic examples of these dispersal mechanisms include dandelions, which have a feathery pappus attached to their seeds and can be dispersed long distances, and maples, which have winged seeds (samara) and flutter to the ground. An important constraint on wind dispersal is the need for abundant seed production to maximise the likelihood of a seed landing in a site suitable for germination. There are also strong evolutionary constraints on this dispersal mechanism. For instance, Cody and Overton (1996) found that species in the Asteraceae on islands tended to have reduced dispersal capabilities (i.e., larger seed mass and smaller pappus) relative to the same species on the mainland. Reliance on wind dispersal is common among many weedy or ruderal species. Unusual mechanisms of wind dispersal include tumbleweeds.

Many aquatic (water) and some terrestrial (ground) plant species use hydrochory, or seed dispersal through water. Seeds can travel for extremely long distances, depending on the specific mode of water dispersal.

The water lily is an example of such a plant. Water lilies' flowers make a fruit that floats in the water for a while and then drops down to the bottom to take root on the floor of the pond. The seeds of palm trees can also be dispersed by water. If they grow near oceans, the seeds can be transported by ocean currents over long distances, allowing the seeds to be dispersed as far as other continents.

Mangrove trees live right in the water. Their seeds fall from the tree and grow roots as soon as they touch any kind of soil. During low tide, they might fall in soil instead of water and start growing right where they fell. If the water level is high, however, they can be carried far away from where they fell. Mangrove trees often make little islands as dirt and other things collect in their roots, making little bodies of land.

An special review for oceanic waters hydrochory can be seen at oceanic dispersal.

Dispersal by animals
Animals can disperse plant seeds in several ways, all named zoochory. Seeds can be transported on the outside of vertebrate animals (mostly mammals), a process known asepizoochory. Plant species transported externally by animals can have a variety of adaptations for dispersal, including adhesive mucus, and a variety of hooks, spines and barbs. A typical example of an epizoochorous plant is Trifolium angustifolium, a species of Old World clover which adheres to animal fur by means of stiff hairs covering the seed. Epizoochorous plants tend to be herbaceous plants, with many representative species in the families Apiaceae and Asteraceae. However, epizoochory is a relatively rare dispersal syndrome for plants as a whole; the percentage of plant species with seeds adapted for transport on the outside of animals is estimated to be below 5%. Nevertheless, epizoochorous transport can be highly effective if seeds attach to wide-ranging animals. This form of seed dispersal has been implicated in rapid plant migration and the spread of invasive species.

Seed dispersal via ingestion by vertebrate animals (mostly birds and mammals), orendozoochory, is the dispersal mechanism for most tree species. Endozoochory is generally a coevolved mutualistic relationship in which a plant surrounds seeds with an edible, nutritious fruit as a good food for animals that consume it. Birds and mammals are the most important seed dispersers, but a wide variety of other animals, including turtles and fish, can transport viable seeds. The exact percentage of tree species dispersed by endozoochory varies between habitats, but can range to over 90% in some tropical rainforests. Seed dispersal by animals in tropical rainforests has received much attention, and this interaction is considered an important force shaping the ecology and evolution of vertebrate and tree populations. In the tropics, large animal seed dispersers (such as tapirs, chimpanzees and hornbills) may disperse large seeds with few other seed dispersal agents. The extinction of these large frugivores from poaching and habitat loss may have negative effects on the tree populations that depend on them for seed dispersal.

Seed dispersal by ants (myrmecochory) is a dispersal mechanism of many shrubs of the southern hemisphere or understorey herbs of the northern hemisphere. Seeds of myrmecochorous plants have a lipid-rich attachment called the elaiosome, which attracts ants. Ants carry such seeds into their colonies, feed the elaiosome to their larvae and discard the otherwise intact seed in an underground chamber. Myrmecochory is thus a coevolved mutualistic relationship between plants and seed-disperser ants. Myrmecochory has independently evolved at least 100 times in flowering plants and is estimated to be present in at least 11 000 species, but likely up to 23 000 or 9% of all species of flowering plants. Myrmecochorous plants are most frequent in the fynbos vegetation of the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa, the kwongan vegetation and other dry habitat types of Australia, dry forests and grasslands of the Mediterranean region and northern temperate forests of western Eurasia and eastern North America, where up to 30-40% of understorey herbs are myrmecochorous.

Seed predators, which include many rodents (such as squirrels) and some birds (such as jays) may also disperse seeds by hoarding the seeds in hidden caches. The seeds in caches are usually well-protected from other seed predators and if left uneaten will grow into new plants. In addition, rodents may also disperse seeds via seed spitting due to the presence of secondary metabolites in ripe fruits. Finally, seeds may be secondarily dispersed from seeds deposited by primary animal dispersers. For example, dung beetles are known to disperse seeds from clumps of feces in the process of collecting dung to feed their larvae.

Other types of zoochory are chiropterochory (by bats), malacochory (by molluscs, mainly terrestrial snails) or ornithochory (by birds).

Dispersal by humans
Dispersal by humans (anthropochory) used to be seen as a form of dispersal by animals. Recent research points out that human dispersers differ from animal dispersers by a much higher mobility based on the technical means of human transport. Dispersal by humans on the one hand may act on large geographical scales and lead to invasive species. On the other hand dispersal by humans also acts on smaller, regional scales and drive the dynamics of existing biological populations. Humans may disperse seeds by many various means and some surprisingly high distances have been repeatedly measured. Examples are: dispersal on human clothes (up to 250m), on shoes (up to 5 km) or by cars (regularly ~ 250m, singles cases > 100 km).

Following is a picture on Seed Dispersal:

Dispersal of Seeds.

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