7 Seeds to Start Your Day

Photograph by Wolfgang Stuppy and Rob Kesseler.

1. Douglas Fir. It begins with firewood, a chunk of straight-grain fir, split small to fit the cookstove. This log started life as a seed, just like the countless trunks and stems that sprawl in all directions outside my window. Seed plants surround us all day long, and so do seeds themselves, fueling us with their stored energy and enriching our lives with their unique abilities to defend, endure, and travel.

2. Wheat. Heat from the fir log browns the pancakes made from wheat flour, one form of plant energy cooking another. Whether a grain, nut, pulse, pip, or kernel, botanists call a seed “a baby plant in a box with its lunch.” Every calorie it contains evolved to fuel the growth of the sprout. So when we eat seeds, are we not stealing the food intended for babies?

3.Cotton. My son comes to the table in striped pajamas, trailing a stuffed snake sewn from an old shirt. In other words, he is adorned with more than eight miles of yarn spun from the seed coats of a plant the Romans called gossypium, the Arabs named qutun, and we know as cotton. We now wrap this seed fluff that evolved to waft on wind and wave around our bodies in every imaginable shape and shade—my jeans and flannel are more of the same. Sometimes we let cotton move us too, woven into sails and spinnakers, and strung from the masts of ships.

4. Coffee. Drip by drip it slowly fills two mugs, the yellow one for me and the tall blue one for my wife. Legend credits this beverage to an Ethiopian goatherd whose flock ate the seeds and began to dance. Scientists think the caffeine in coffee evolved as a pesticide, an herbicide, or perhaps even a memory-enhancer for bees. For once I don’t care why—I’m just thankful it’s ready.

5. Pepper. Bacon sizzles in a skillet, crusted with the seeds of an Indian rainforest vine. Peppercorns once anchored a global spice trade that funded empires and drove the explorations of Magellan and Columbus. But this morning they inspire a more basic question: why do we add spices to pep up meats, and not the other way around? There is a biological reason for this—meat isn’t spicy because meat can move. When animals are attacked, they have a wide range of options—run away, take flight, climb a tree, slither into a hole, or stand and fight. Plants, on the other hand, must stay put and endure, defending themselves (and especially their seeds) with a vast array of potent chemicals.

6. Strawberry. My son announces that strawberry jam is the best thing on pancakes, and I tend to agree. I’m tempted to have another one, which is precisely how I should feel. After all, tasty fruits like berries evolved for the sole purpose of temptation, luring animals like me into dispersing their precious cargo of seeds. Giving in to evolution, I eat another jam-slathered cake.

7. A Seed Bank. Cleaning up the kitchen, I tuck the flour back into a cupboard overflowing with seeds: rice, oats, almonds, walnuts, quinoa, popcorn, sesame, garbanzos, black beans, pintos, and lentils, to name a few. They will keep a long time, a culinary seed bank not much different from the seeds that gather in soil, waiting for years, decades, even centuries before sprouting. Filled with seeds, clothed in seeds, and inspired by the ways we are tangled up in their rich and mysterious lives, I start my day thoroughly nourished in body and mind.

Listen to Thor Hanson read “7 Seeds to Start Your Day” here.

Thor Hanson was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, where he now lives on an island with his wife and son. His early interest in the natural world steered him towards a career in conservation biology. Hanson is the author of Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid, Buzz, The Triumph of Seeds, Feathers, and The Impenetrable Forest, as well as the illustrated children’s favorite, Bartholomew Quill.  Honors for his books have included The John Burroughs Medal, The Phi  Beta Kappa Award in Science, The AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize, and three  Pacific Northwest Book Awards, and his writing has been translated into  more than ten languages. Hanson’s academic work includes co-editorship  of the volume Warfare Ecology, as well as dozens of papers in such journals as BioScience, Conservation Biology, Environmental Conservation, Neotropical Ornithology, Neotropical Primates, The Pan-Pacfic Entomologist, and Molecular Ecology. His popular articles and essays have appeared in publications ranging from Audubon and Orion to The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, The Los Angeles Times, The American Scholar, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post.​


  1. Talk about the triumph of seeds! It’s 107 most days this month in Tucson as we await the rains of monsoon, so my communion with the seeds and plants, lizards and birds, has to start early. Despite this being the low desert, plants that my scent memories associate with my years in the tropics and jungle thrive right around my house– sweet oleander hedges that despite being poisonous, give succor to Gambel’s quail, white winged doves and spiny lizards; lemon and orange trees, and hibiscus that become brilliantly colored tea. This time of year also brings mesquite seed pods, collected and ground into flower, and cactus flowers and seeds that attract the bats that come here by the thousands from Mexico, allowing me to feel their wings brush by my face as they fly out each night from under a bridge, filling the sky like scattered punctuation marks blown by the wind.

  2. Last week I taught 200 day camp kids about “Magic Beans” – they appear hard and dead but come to life when water is added. We opened soaked seeds to find the baby plant inside and looked at older sprouts to see how the root grows down and the stalk grows up. Popcorn seeds were used to discuss the difference between monocots and dicots (for the older kids) and we talked about how seeds form on the plant. Most never made the connection between flowers and fruits/seeds before. We talked about how plants get animals to pollinate their flowers and spread their seeds and how many kinds of seeds we eat!

  3. It’s winter now, and the garden has felt it’s breath for over a month. I see it first through the glass, all green and bright. Then the sound of the water speaks with splashes over the rocks on its way to the pond. Lemon scented bananas ripping, I don’t question natures timing. Honey suckers and little black bees up and going about there busy day and I know I’ll have honey in spring. If only the the street out front led to more gardens like this one. Full of flowers and fruit and old shady lemon scented tee trees. I’m not going to find out today or hope there is as you say. I’ll just walk once more, slowly and maybe sit for awhile in this one.

Submit Your Comments

Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.