What if my seeds are past their expiry date? Can I still plant them? Let’s talk about seed viability.

You know when you’re rummaging around in those old seed packets from years back and you look at the “sow by” dates and they’re long past but you just can’t bear to throw the seeds out and you hope against hope that you haven’t wasted money and time by not planting them sooner…?

Well, have I got a story for you.  It appears that a group of biophysicists at the Russian Academy of Sciences have managed to “resurrect” a plant from a seed that has been trapped in permafrost in Siberia for 30,000 years.  Although the scientists didn’t merely pluck the seed of Silene stenophylla out of the ground and plop it in a container with a good soilless potting mix (rather, they cultured tissue from the seed), they eventually ended up with a blooming flower that supposedly has set viable seed of its own.  While the science of this is hardly new – tissue culture is a widely-used method of plant propagation, and scientists from around the world have “revived” other types of old plants this way, this is by far the oldest sample of plant tissue that has ever been successfully grown.  See a photo of the plant and the news story here.

So, what does this mean for you, besides the fact that if these clever guys get going, we may one day have woolly mammoths trampling our perennial beds and omnivorous ice age squirrels running around stealing our tulip bulbs and stalking the neighbour’s cat?  It means that perhaps you shouldn’t throw out all those old seed packets just yet.  Yes, you shouldn’t expect much of the seeds they contain – the truth is, plant seeds do have a certain time-limited viability (determined by species) and the germination rate is indeed influenced by how the seed is stored and for how long.  There’s a huge chance that your success rate will be very low, or even non-existent.  But, maybe it’s worth planting them anyway, just in case.   A single fertile seed is all it takes.   And if you’re storing your seeds in permafrost, well, that’s all the more reason to get growing! 🙂


Here are the Silenes of my garden….

Silene schafta (moss campion)

Are you growing any campions (catchflys)?  What are your favourites?


And, if you’re curious about seed quality issues, check out this post, from Going to Seed, which offers a grower’s perspective.  Take to heart his suggestion to keep in touch with your seed providers – they can learn a great deal from your input!  (But…don’t go complaining to them if you can’t get your seed to germinate after the “sow by” date.  They don’t like that).


  1. I like the picture of the moss campion. Very pretty. And thank you for the writeup as usual. It was actually inspiring to know that maybe, just maybe, older seeds will still grow, despite their termination date.

    • Thanks for your reply! The great thing about the moss campion is that it blooms quite late in the season and for a very long time, so it really livens up the garden when some of the other perennials are looking a bit past their prime.

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