gone to seed

Today’s morning name, the PSP form of the English idiom go to seed, originally botanical, then metaphorically extended to use for people.

From NOAD:

go (or run) to seed: [a] (of a plant) cease flowering as the seeds develop. [b] [AZ: metaphorical extension of sense a] deteriorate in condition, strength, or efficiency: Mark knows he has allowed himself to go to seed.

Plus, a near-synonym, one sense (1d below) of one of the verbs bolt (the ‘rapid movement’ verb bolt). From NOAD:

verb bolt-2: 1 [a] [no object] (of a horse or other animal) run away suddenly out of control: the horses shied and bolted. [b] (of a person) move or run away suddenly: they bolted down the stairs. [c] [with object] (in hunting) cause (a rabbit or fox) to run out of its burrow or hole. [d] (of a plant) grow tall quickly and stop flowering as seeds develop: the lettuces have bolted. …

Two images (from a great many that are available).

(#1) Dandelions gone to seed (flickr photo by arbyreed in Utah County UT,  taken 4/23/17)

(#2) Bolted lettuce (photo by Lynn Jones on the North Coast Journal site)

From the North Coast Journal (Humboldt County CA) site “Going to seed: Organized chaos in the garden” by Ari Levaux on 8/23/12:

The expression “gone to seed” usually has a negative connotation, meaning disheveled, declining or otherwise post-prime. When vegetable or herbs go to seed, or “bolt,” they quit being what you planted and become gangly towers looming over the garden. In this respect they’re more like teenagers than elders, but anthropomorphisms aside, the plant’s formerly edible parts are now shriveled, bitter and woody. While this can understandably look like a bad end for your endive patch, crops that are going or have gone to seed can still play an important role in the garden.

A garden plant that has run its course and produced seeds is, naturally, a source of seed. Depending on the plant’s propensity to crossbreed, the seeds it produces might be true to the parent, or a mix of parent and some similar plant. (For this reason it’s inadvisable to replant seeds from garden squash, because squash hybrids can be foul tasting or poisonous.) Or the seed might be sterile and not sprout at all.

Seed saving is another discussion, full of complexity and art, and it’s more commitment than I care to take on personally. Instead, when the greens bolt I simply let the seeds fall where they may. If any of them happen to sprout next month, or next spring, great — any time a yummy plant wants to grow up between my garlic or tomato plants is fine with me. I’d much rather have edible crops volunteering themselves than many of the weeds I know.

The first plants to bolt are generally the leafy cold-weather plants like spinach, lettuce, escarole and cilantro, and they make their moves when spring turns to summer. The newly aged old farts crowd the garden with their blossomed stalks, providing cooler, moist shade that allows the later blooming plants to maintain their tender youth a little longer. Newly sprouted plants are thus sheltered as well.

Once edible plants go to seed, or bolt, their formerly edible green parts typically become bitter and unpleasant. The parsley plant, for example, is a true biennial, and in its first year its leaves and stems are delicious, but in the second, it goes to seed, and then those leaves and stems are no longer palatable. Similarly for those lettuce leaves in #2 above.

2 Responses to “gone to seed”

  1. Stewart Kramer Says:

    My sense of “bolt” is the start of flowering (and then running to seed), and NOAD’s definition just sounds wrong to me. Oxford folks apparently never got back on the right footing, after the OED failed to expand the first cite:
    d. Horticulture. To ‘run to seed’ prematurely.
    1889 in Cent. Dict.
    1961 Amateur Gardening 16 Sept. 12/2 In April or early May many of the plants ‘bolted’.

    The missing Century Dictionary cite apparently uses the example of turnip roots as the edible or intended part of the plant, as opposed to the leaves (as in lettuce and cilantro), or other plant parts:
    5. To run to seed prematurely, as early-sown
    root-crops (turnips, etc.), without the usual
    thickening of the root, or after it.

    (That’s written awkwardly, and I can believe that it confused the OED staff. I was garden-pathed by “or after it” — presumably, bolting is still possible after root-thickening, with ambiguous usualness. For example, bolting can impair sugar levels in sugar beets, or ruin the flavor and texture of radishes, even after the roots have thickened.)

    Other dictionaries clearly agree that bolting can or must include the flowering step (although crops of edible flowers — like broccoli, cauliflower, or even nasturtiums — might “bolt” by setting seeds and stopping the production of flowers, as in the NOAD definition).

    4. Botany To flower or produce seeds prematurely or develop a flowering stem from a rosette.
    American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

    20. (Botany) (intr) (of cultivated plants) to produce flowers and seeds prematurely
    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014

    19. to produce flowers or seeds prematurely.
    Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    We were fortunate – temporarily, at least – this year, in that last year’s parsley wintered over and didn’t start to bolt until late June, so we got some good use out of last year’s plants. Alas, the new plants that we put in after the old ones started to bolt didn’t do very well.

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