In the fall of 1879, Dr. William James Beal walked to a secret spot on Michigan State University’s campus and planted a strange crop: 20 narrow-necked glass bottles, each filled with a mixture of moist sand and seeds. Each vessel was “left uncorked and placed with the mouth slanting downward so that water could not accumulate about the seeds,” Beal wrote. “These bottles were buried on a sandy knoll in a row running east and west.”
In the spring of 2000, under cover of night, current WJ Beal Botanical Garden curator Dr. Frank Telewski and his colleague Dr. Jan Zeevaart crept out to the same secret knoll and dug up the sixth-to-last seed bottle—completing the latest act in what has become the world’s longest continually monitored scientific study.
When he buried those bottles 137 years ago, Dr. Beal didn’t aim to start the As the World Turns of garden experiments. As a botanist at an agricultural school, he was just trying to find a rigorous answer to a question that has dogged farmers for millennia: how many times do you have to pull up weeds before they stop growing back? “Back then, [farmers] didn’t have herbicides,” and weeding was the most tedious part of the job, explains Telewski. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘that’s a long row to hoe?’ That’s where that came from.”
They may be tiny, but seeds are notoriously tough. Without water or sunlight to spur them into action, they can lie dormant for a very long time—in 2005, Israeli researchers grew a healthy date palm out of a 2,000-year-old seed (that tree, nicknamed Methuselah, recently became a dad). Hoping to figure out exactly how many years local species could hang on in neutral conditions, Beal filled 20 bottles with 50 seeds each of 23 different plant types. The bottles are unearthed one at a time, and the seeds are planted.
Fifteen bottles in, the clear winner is Verbascum blattaria, or moth mullein, a splay-flowered weed common throughout the United States. Verbascum has popped up consistently in every bottle, and “of the 50 seeds of that particular plant, 23 of them germinated” in 2000, says Telewski, a “phenomenal” result. Distant second place goes to Malva rotundifolia, a round-leafed mallow nicknamed “cheeses” after its wedgelike seeds. Only one of those seeds sprouted in 2000.
As for the other 21 species, none showed even a tendril. While this might have pleased the farmers who inspired the study, it’s a little sadder for those who are now watching it most closely. These days, farmers have a whole arsenal of anti-weed tools, and Beal’s biggest devotees are conservationists—those who hope the study’s results will help them better understand the bottled seeds’ wilder counterparts. “Many species of plants that are locally extinct may actually still be viable in the soils of those particular environments that have been disturbed,” Telewski explains. Stir them from their slumber, and these Lazarus plants could restart a whole population.
Geneticists also hope to compare the next bottle’s cargo to its contemporary brethren. But for these seeds of ideas to bear fruit, Telewski must first preserve the bottled ones under his charge. He always goes digging under cover of night, both to avoid exposure to sunlight and to dissuade copycats from coming back later: “We don’t advertise where they’re buried because we don’t want anybody poking around and digging up souvenirs,” Telewski says. Plus, he adds, “I’m always a little nervous when there’s construction on campus. You know: ‘Don’t put a building there!’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I can’t tell you, just don’t!’”
The last bottle is set to be unearthed in the year 2100—but if the project’s past curators are any indication, it might stay buried even longer than that. According to Beal’s original vision, the bottles were supposed to be dug up every five years, the last excavation marking a neat century. But in 1920, a decade after Beal retired, his replacement noticed that “the experiment seemed to be stabilizing,” with the same seeds sprouting each time, Telewski explains. “And so, he thought, well gee, why not extend it?” Seven bottles later, the new powers-that-were extended it again. Now there are 20 years between excavations.
Although it’s possible for Telewski to imagine stretching it even further—after all, the moth mullein shows little sign of slowing down—“we don’t want to lose continuity where people might forget about the study,” he says. “There’s that living memory thing that’s really important.” Telewski thinks often about Beal, and about the other experimenters who inspired him in turn—Charles Darwin; Asa Gray; Native American corn hybridizers. “All of us basically stand on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “It is kind of neat to be a part of that history.”
In the meantime, he is biding his time until 2020.* “In 1980, I was a graduate student in plant physiology, and we learned about the experiment … I had absolutely no idea that I would ever be the person to dig up the next bottle,” Telewski says. “And lo and behold, 20 years later, there I was … I have this wonderful opportunity to continue this historically important and significant experiment.” It’s a long row to hoe—and getting longer—but for now, he’s the lucky guy that gets to do it.
* Update: The experiment continued in 2021 without a hitch.
This story appeared as part of Atlas Obscura’s Time Week, a week devoted to the perplexing particulars of keeping time throughout history. See more Time Week stories here.