Some seeds can get pretty sticky when water gets involved. Anyone that has ever tried to grow a Chia pet or put chia seeds into water will know what I mean. The seeds of chia (Salvia hispanica) are but one example of seeds that turn gooey with water. The question is, why do they do this? What role does sticky mucilage play in the reproductive cycle of plants around the globe?
It turns out that seed mucilage is an extremely useful trait for many plants. For starters, it can aid in dispersal of seeds. For some plants this simply means being sticky enough to attach to an animal that brushes up against ripe seeds. Mucilage can get stuck on everything from fur to feathers, and even scales. This is yet another form of seed dispersal known as epizoochory. Amazingly, mucilage has shown to be an effective trait for aiding in wind dispersal as well. Such is the case for a small mustard called Alyssum minus. This may seem counterintuitive as one would think that mucilage would weigh a seed down, not send it aloft. In this example, the mucilage forms a tiny wing that surrounds the seed after it has dried out. This wing made out of dried, papery mucilage significantly increased seed dispersal distances on windy days.
Following dispersal, the role of seed mucilage becomes even more important. Just as it can help seeds stick to potential seed dispersers, the mucilage can also help the seeds stick to the ground. This is especially useful for plants growing in sandy soils that move around a lot easier than more mesic soils. By sticking to the substrate, the mucilage helps the seed maintain good soil to seed contact, which is essential for successful germination. Without it, seeds would easily blow around and never rest in a place long enough to establish.
Adhering the soil also aids in water uptake for the seed. This is a prerequisite for any seed to successfully germinate. However, simply acting like a conduit for water to move from soil to seed isn’t the only advantage the mucilage provides. By swelling up with water, the mucilage acts as a tiny water reservoir, which buffers the seed from potential water stress. Again, this is especially useful for plants growing in xeric habitats. By keeping water around the seed longer than it would be if the seed was directly exposed to the environment, the mucilage speeds up germination and increases the chances of success for the resulting seedling.
Finally, seed mucilage can also protect seeds from predators. Seeds are tiny packets of concentrated nutrients and many animals don’t hesitate to gobble them up. By covering their seeds in sticky mucilage, plants are able to deter at least some potential seed predators like ants from moving and eating their seeds. Also, aside from gumming up the mouths of seed predators, the fact that the seeds stick to the substrate makes them difficult to move. With any luck, seed predators will tire of the chore and move on to easier meals.
Now if we think back to those Chia Pets, we can see why chia seeds are able to germinate on wet ceramic. Their mucilaginous coating not only enables them to adhear to the surface of the structure, it protects them from drying out by holding onto water. It kind of makes you look at those goofy gifts as a subtle way of displaying an interesting evolutionary mechanism in action.