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Effect of Light on Germination and seedlings

The Effect of Light on Germination and Seedlings

David Batty explains this important aspect of growing from seed.

Apparently it was custom in Ancient Egypt, before finally sealing the tomb, to leave a little pile of moistened corn near the sarcophagus. One can imagine the seed germinating in the pitch darkness, stretching itself upward feeling for light which was not there and finally toppling over having exhausted its food reserves.

It is a fact of life that most plants need light to grow and keep them healthy, but not all plants need light to germinate, and, as we shall see, some seeds find light a hindrance. If we look at the matter from the gardener's point of view, however, we can use the rule of thumb that most cultivated plants on sale in seed form prefer to germinate in the dark. There are some notable exceptions however, some greenhouse perennials, epiphytes, many grasses, and even tobacco all prefer light and a large number of seeds are not fussy either way.

The reason is that commercially produced seed is bred and selected for its ease of germination as well as other more obvious characteristics and so peculiarities such as light or dark requirements do not often occur. On the other hand seed which is obtained non-commercially, in small quantities from the home gardener, seed lists, or the more unusual items from seed merchants may prove to be much more fussy in its requirements. In fact, research has shown that with seeds other than cultivated forms there is a great deal of variation. We can divide seeds of this type into those which germinate only in the dark, those which germinate only in continuous light, those which germinate after being given only a brief amount of light and those which germinate just as happily in light or darkness.

As long ago as 1926 experiments were carried out by Kinzel to find out the light requirements of hundreds of plant species. He found about 270 species which germinated at or above 20°C (60°F) in light, and 114 species germinated at the same temperature in the dark. He also found 190 species which germinate in light after experiencing hard frosts and 81 species likewise germinated in the dark. Fifty-two species germinated in the light and 32 species in the dark after light frosting and finally there were 33 species which were unaffected by light or dark.

Unfortunately, as with all gardening matters, things are not quite this simple. Other factors, it seems, can also affect the seed's light requirements, for example, with some species (e.g. Salvia pratensis and Saxifraga caespitosa) light requirement only exists immediately after harvesting whereas with Salvia verticillata and Apium graveolens (Celery) this lasts for a year and to confuse matters further other species develop a light requirement while in storage. Chemicals also, such as nitrates in the soil, can substitute for light in stimulating seeds to germinate so that some light requiring seeds will still germinate if covered with fertile soil. Still it all makes for interesting gardening doesn't it?

For a fairly comprehensive list of the Light/Dark requirements of seeds we refer you to Thompson & Morgan's booklet 'The Seed Sowing Guide', which they will be pleased to send you for only 99p if you drop them a line. This is a helpful general guide but it is worth remembering that not all seeds in the same genus behave in the same way. For example Primula ohconia needs light and Primula spectablis needs darkness for germination, so there is still a lot to learn, much of which can only be gained by personal experience and sharing that information gained with others.

The explanation of how light affects some seeds and causes them to be in a state of readiness for germination and yet prevents other seeds if necessary from germinating is highly complex. Suffice it to say that it is mainly the light's effect upon a plant pigment called phytochrome within the seed. This relates to the type of light which the seed receives. As a generalisation, light in the red wave length usually promotes germination whereas blue light inhibits it.

In a practical vein the light requirements of a seed may relate to the habitat in which the seed parent usually grows, so as to ensure that those which fall in an area conducive to growth will germinate and those which fall in less salubrious circumstances bide their time. For example a seed requiring light to germinate might fall into the deep shade of another plant where growing conditions would be very poor, whereas a seed falling into an open, well lit space would germinate quickly and flourish. On the other hand, it may be essential for the establishment of the young seedling that part or all the seed needs to be covered with soil or in the shade, perhaps, to protect the young root.

In such a case with a seed which required darkness, uncovered seed, which is exposed to light will not germinate. Sometimes only part of the seed is light sensitive. Phacelia is light sensitive at only two points on its surface and in a lettuce at only one. The micropyle where the water is absorbed, is light sensitive perhaps to ensure that only correctly oriented seed with the best chance of survival germinates.

Of course, the effect of light on seeds should not be over emphasised, no real hard and fast rules can be laid down, as other factors interact with light. To the gardener, the two questions he needs to have answered are 'How deep should I sow my seed?' and 'Should I cover the seed tray to exclude light or not?'

In answer to the first question, depth of sowing depends a lot upon the size of the seed. Very tiny seed should normally be sown and left uncovered. Small seed which needs light will usually receive it even if you cover it with a light sprinkling of compost or vermiculite because light does travel a short distance through the soil and with some seeds exposure does not need to be long or continuous. For example tobacco seed receives all the light it needs to germinate, after it has taken up water, in 0.01 seconds of sunlight and even moonlight will do!

It is not just the very tiny seeds which sometimes need light to germinate, an average seed like Impatiens is light sensitive too and should be covered with a fine sprinkling of vermiculite after sowing and left in diffused light, placed in polythene to provide a high humidity until germination which usually takes 10-14 days at 21-42°C (70-75°F).

Medium sized seeds and upward, unless they have a light requirements (and we do not know of any really large seeds which do) should generally be sown just below the surface, enclosed in a polythene bag or cling film and placed in diffused light.

Some, but not all, popular seeds which prefer light for germination are: Achillea, Alyssum, Antirrhinum, Begonia, Calceolaria, Coleus, Exacum, Ficus, Gaiilardia, Gerbera, Gloxinia, Helichrysiim, Kalanchoe, Nicotiana, Petunia, most Primula, Saintpauliu and Streptocarpus.

Seeds which will only germinate in darkness should be sown at the correct depth and then covered in black plastic or similar to exclude all light until germination takes place. Cyclamen is a subject which should be treated in this way. Normally a difficult subject to germinate it proves far less so if sandwiched between moist filter paper and placed in a plastic container in total darkness. Usually germination occurs in about a month at 15-20°C (60-68°F) when the tiny corms can be transplanted into compost and grown on. The temperature, however, should be no higher than 20"C (68T) as high temperatures will induce a different form of dormancy!

Some other popular types which prefer darkness for germination are: Calendula, Centaurea, Delphinium, Gazania, Nemesia, Primula sinensis, and Schizanthus.

Providing artificial light should not normally be necessary for seeds sown in greenhouses, well lit propagators etc. but if light is a problem or, more importantly, if you want to ensure rapid, healthy growth of your seedlings after germination then some form of additional light may be necessary. This would particularly be the case in raising seeds early in the season and quite a number of flower and vegetable seedlings respond to supplementary light. For example, tomatoes and cucumbers where vigour and earliness have been improved, also Antirrhinum, Stocks, Gerbera, Gloxinia and Gesnaria have all responded with a higher growth rate when given extra light in the winter months.

Tuberous begonias when sown in late winter must have supplementary lighting if they are to develop properly. They are sensitive to day length and when this is less than 12 hours they form tubers instead of making vegetative growth. In order, therefore to produce healthy young plants lighting must be given to extended the day lengths to more than 12 hours.

To provide this light, fluorescent tubes of the Gro-Lux type, to give light something akin to sunlight should be used, suspended around 2 feet (60cm) above the seedlings. As there will be so much moisture about use only approved horticultural fittings when installing the lights and fit a time clock if possible so that the lights can be on for 12 hours each day.

David Batty is a former Technical Manager at Thompson and Morgan Seeds, where he looked after the seed-testing laboratories.

Source of article
Growing From Seed - Spring 1989 Vol. 3 Number 2
© The Seed Raising Journal from Thompson & Morgan