A little tough love hopefully will yield a monster of a tree

Erin Schanen

There is a tendency to think of plants as delicate things that require coddling, but some demand the opposite treatment.

That’s how I found myself in a full-on assault a couple weeks ago as I engaged in the abuse of Brazilian fern tree seeds. The three-quarter-inch long, flat seeds were hard as a rock and the package they came in suggested they could take up to 180 days to germinate. I have better things to do than wait half a year for seeds to germinate, so to speed up the process, some scarifying was in order.

This process of breaking down a seed’s hard outer coating, which protects it against harsh environmental conditions in its natural habitat, is necessary for germinating seeds “in capitivity” and involves several methods including nicking, soaking and scratching.

The rock-hard seeds of the Brazilian fern tree, also called Brazilian firetree (Schizolobium parahyba), received a combo treatment of sanding the edge with 80-grit sandpaper followed by a one-minute soak in boiling water. Sanding is a common method of scarification, but the boiling water method is reserved for the toughest seeds. Soaking for a few hours in tepid water is a widely used practice for seeds such as nasturtiums and peas.

My decision to attempt to grow this plant happened within about two minutes of seeing it for the first time. I was intrigued by the plant mentioned in a gardening webinar by Janet Draper, a horticulturist at the Smithsonian Gardens. She’d picked up a spare plant from Chanticleer Gardens in Pennsylvania and watched it grow into a monster specimen in a single season.

It’s not a fern, but its long leaves, covered with 40 to 60 leaflets, resemble a fern. Native from Central America to Brazil, it can grow up to 10 feet in a single season. I’m intrigued by incredibly fast-growing plants and recognized it immediately as an excellent experiment for this gardening season. I ordered seeds before the webinar ended.

I haven’t found any information on growing this potential behemoth in Wisconsin, but I know enough about it to have a good guess at the conditions it will appreciate: full sun and rich, moist soil.

I planted the abused seeds in moist seed-starting mix about two weeks ago and have had them under a humidity dome and on a heat mat in my best attempt to mimic Brazil’s forest floor. And while I can’t report germination, I’ve noticed something I’ve never seen seeds do before. The seeds are actually growing longer. I assume this means that the seed coat is softening in preparation for germination.

Five seeds came in the packet, and I only planted two, an heir and spare, if you will. But if neither germinates, I can have another crack at them with the rest of the seeds, perhaps trying out a different scarification method.

If my seed abuse works, the experiment can continue, and perhaps I’ll have an oddly large, tropical tree growing in my summer garden.


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