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Figure 1. Fate of seeds during the four years following burial in the upper two inches of soil. Two thousand seeds of each species were buried in the fall of 1994. The area in white represents the number of intact seeds present in the fall of each year, green represents the total number of seeds that produced seedlings during the four years, and the blue represents the total number of seeds lost. Buhler and Hartzler, 1999, USDA/ARS and ISU, Ames, IA.

For all species except woolly cupgrass the majority of seeds were unaccounted for (the blue portion of the graph) in this experiment. Determining the fate of the ‘lost’ seeds is a difficult task. A seed basically is a storage organ of high energy compounds, thus they are a favorite food source of insects and other organisms. In natural settings more than 50% of seeds are consumed by animals. The importance of seed predation in agricultural fields is poorly understood, but recent studies have shown that predation can be a significant source of seed loss. Another important mechanism of seed loss likely is fatal germination. This occurs when a seed initiates germination but the seedling is killed before it becomes established. Fatal germination probably is more important with small-seeded weeds such as waterhemp and lambsquarters than with large-seeded weeds, but is poorly understood. A better understanding of the factors that influence seed losses might allow these processes to be manipulated in order to increase seed losses.

Seeds of the two grass species were shorter lived than those of velvetleaf or waterhemp. At the end of the third year (1997) no grass seeds were recovered. Somewhat surprising is that waterhemp seed was more persistent than velvetleaf in this study. Velvetleaf has long been used as the example of a weed with long-lived seeds. In the fourth year of the study four times more waterhemp seedlings than velvetleaf emerged and four times more waterhemp seed than velvetleaf seed (240 vs 60) remained in the seed bank.

Methods: Seeds of velvetleaf, waterhemp, woolly cupgrass and giant foxtail were harvested from mature plants during the 1994 growing season. The seeds were cleaned and counted and then buried in the upper two inches of soil on October 21, 1994. Two thousand seeds were buried within a 3 sq ft frame to allow recovery during the course of the experiment. Weed emergence was determined by counting seedlings weekly during the growing season. Emerged seedlings were pulled by hand after counting. In the fall of each year one quarter of the soil within a frame was excavated and the remaining seeds were extracted and counted. Corn or soybeans were planted between the frames during the course of the experiment to simulate agronomic conditions.

The fate of weed seeds in the soil has been an area of much research in recent years. Most studies have focused on the seeds that successfully produce seedlings since these are the seeds that cause immediate problems for farmers. In most studies, annual emergence typically accounts for 1 to 30% of the weed seed in the soil. Thus, the majority of seeds found in the soil seed bank fail to produce seedlings in any given year. The fate of seeds that fail to germinate and emerge is poorly understood. While some of these seeds are simply dormant and will remain viable until the following year, others are lost due to decay or consumed by insects or small animals. This article will describe results of an experiment that monitored the fate of seeds for the first four years following introduction into the soil.