Stratificiation and Scarification

Fooling seeds into germinating

Seed Pod Splitting Open
Marie Iannotti

Not all plant seeds are ready to sprout as soon as you put them in soil. Some hard-shelled seeds need a bit more coaxing and some need a temperature change to trigger the end of dormancy. Scarification, cracking the hard outer shell, and stratification, fooling seeds into thinking they've been through winter, are two easy to do techniques that will save you a lot of frustration when starting seeds.

Here's how they work.

What Does It Mean to Stratify Seeds?

Stratification is a means of simulating the chilling and warming that seeds would endure if left outdoors in their native climate, for the winter.

Some seeds will stay dormant until triggered by a certain amount of time in cold temperature or warm, damp conditions. This will occur naturally if the seeds are left outdoors or in a cold frame throughout the winter. Gardeners can break the dormancy of these seeds by mimicking the required conditions indoors.

To stratify seeds, store the seeds in some moistened peat, sand, or paper towels in a closed container or sealed plastic bag. For cold stratification, place the container in the refrigerator. For warm stratification, store it somewhere where the temperature remains between 68 F to 85 F.

The length of time needed to stratify depends on the type of seed. Be sure to check every once in awhile to make sure there is still some moisture in the container.

Seeds that benefit from being stratified tend to be perennials. It is a means for them to survive the winter and germinate when conditions are more favorable. This includes a lot of trees and shrubs along with perennial flowers such as apples, bugbane (Cimicifuga), butterfly weed (Asclepias), cranesbill geranium, daylilies (Hemerocallis), Delphinium, False Indigo (Baptisia), False sunflower (Heliopsis), Fuchsia, Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Monkshood (Aconitum), perennial sunflower (Helianthus), poppies, and turtlehead (Chelone).

Some seeds, like Baptisia, may need both stratification and scarification. They need to have their outer shell opened before water can penetrate.

What Does It Mean to Scarify Seeds?

Scarification means scratching or cracking the hard outer coat of a seed to help it germinate.

Some seeds, like morning glories and lotus, have outer shells that are extremely hard and don’t allow water through. This is one way a seed stays dormant in the fall and winter until growing conditions improve.

Animals can also scarify seed by eating the hard seeds and digesting them. This is how strawberries can make their way around your yard.

Gardeners can scarify seed by gently rubbing the seed with something coarse, like sandpaper or a file, or by making nicks in the shell with a knife. You have to be careful when doing this. You only want to crack the shell, not damage the seed inside or your fingers. Work gently. Some seed coatings are so hard to crack, many gardeners can’t scarify them without crumbling the whole seed.

Another way hard seeds can be cracked open is by leaving them outdoors throughout a cold winter. The constant freezing and thawing will be enough to get them to eventually crack. This process is generally referred to as stratification or cold stratification.

Some seeds are not hardy enough for cold winter temperatures, but many perennial plants are started this way.

Large, thick seeds are the most likely candidates for scarifying. Seeds such as morning glory, moon flower, nasturtiums, and purple hyacinth bean. Although edible beans are large seeds, they will not need scarification.