Several years ago I noticed a jar of old wheat in the collection of the Racine Heritage Museum. The wheat came from the 1914 harvest of a local farm owned by Walter Jones. More recently I had the idea to try growing this wheat, with an eye towards propagating it until there is enough to harvest, mill, and bake it. So I contacted the museum and the staff very generously agreed to let me try to germinate some of the seed.
I did as much research as I could about germinating old wheat and discovered that the claims of germinating wheat from Egyptian tombs were all hoaxes. Wheat is normally not expected to be very viable after 20-30 years. I found mention of one study that gave me a little hope, however. Under ideal conditions, according to this study, after 240 years you would expect to have 1 in 1000 wheat seeds viable. Those are odds I can live with.
On March 17 I visited the museum and got my first close look at the seed. The seed looks plump and intact. In fact, it does not appear particularly old at all. The smell was clean. I removed about 20 gm of seed.
This closeup shows some smaller seeds in the sample. There is clover seed and buckwheat seed, and several other unidentified seeds. I hope to figure out what they are.
Edgar Spalding at the University of Wisconsin has agreed to try germinating a sample of the seed in his laboratory. He plans to treat the seed for 24 hours in a warm bubbling solution of the hormone gibberellic acid because it promotes germination. I will keep track of the protocol and report back on the results. Needless to say, I am very, very excited about this project!!!
I think the clover and other small seeds in the sample could also be germinated, so I am going to ask the lab to treat these seeds as well. Weed seeds are known to be very long lived so I think there is a pretty good chance that we can at least get some century-old weeds to grow. It would be another window into old farming practices and the conditions that farmers faced in 1914.