Updated: May 19
Soaking some seeds in chemicals, and then seeing if they grow (AKA a germination bioassay) is probably the easiest experiment a plant scientist can conduct. Because of the ease of the experiment, a wide range of chemicals have been found to promote germination.
Below I have put together a list of the chemicals that I have seen reports of demonstrating a clear promotion of germination in at least one plant species. The use of nearly all these compounds is currently unapproved in most countries and many are downright dangerous, such as nitro-glycerine! As such, I am listing them purely to illustrate the variety of substances that can promote germination.
Ethylene (C2H4) – a gaseous plant hormone
Cytokinins – a class of plant hormones
Gibberellins – a class of plant hormones
Ether (diethyl ether, C4H10O)
Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2)*
Sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl)*
Nitrates (NO3–) Nitrites (NO2–)
Chitosan (click for link)
Azides (N3–) Various acids*
Vitamin B (various compounds)
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)
Oestrogen (steroidal animal hormone)
Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) A pharmaceutical compound similar to the plant hormone salicyclic acid
and of course WATER!
A number of the chemicals above are either known plant hormones or have structural similarity to plant hormones. Gibberellins are the natural plant hormones thought to be responsible for triggering the internal biochemical pathways that lead to germination. As gibberellins are such potent stimulators of germination and work at very low concentrations they have been used commercially to promote germination in a range of plant species. This includes lettuce, in which the effects of gibberellins was first studied.
Chitosan is perhaps the most useful chemical on the list above. Not only does it promote germination, but it has been shown to help overcome low temperature stress and help control disease-causing pathogens during germination. The independent studies showcasing these features indicate that chitosan is working by both acting as a natural bio-gel and activating plant defences.
To purchase our high-quality chitosan solution for your own trials visit our shop.
Also listed above are karrikins, which although not plant hormones are classified as ‘plant growth regulators’. This is because karrikins (pictured below) are formed in burning plant material and in the 1990s it was discovered that it is these chemicals that are responsible for the mass triggering of germination observed in Mediterranean habitats after there is a bush fire. As a result of this discovery karrikins and smoke-laced filter papers are used to germinate a wide range of plant species with low germination rates, both for commercial propagation, and to help preserve the rare plants of Mediterranean regions. In fact, the 'liquid smoke' used by BBQ enthusiasts also contains karrikins and can do the same job!
The azides are another group of interesting chemicals that promote germination. Azides are also used on seeds to mutate their genetics. So when the seeds germinate many will have deformed leaves or unusually coloured leaves.
Azides are also used as pesticides to kill nematodes in some crops in certain countries. However, because azides are powerful mutagens, they should be used with extreme caution and care.
Those chemicals marked with an asterisk I believe are acting to promote germination by weakening the seed coat. This process is known as scarification and allows water and air to flow into the seed; where they are required before germination can begin. While scarification can be performed by hand with a file or sand paper for large seeds, for small or a high number of seeds, an acid treatment is often used. An acid scarification treatment recreates the conditions inside the stomach of a mammal, bird or even some fish that eat the fruits of many plants. Most commonly in scientific studies and commercial operations, sulphuric acid is the acid of choice, either in a concentrated form or at 10% dilution. Depending on the strength of the seed coat, the seeds then remain in the acid for anything from 30 minutes to 3 days.
Nitrates have also been found to stimulate germination in a range of plant species. It is likely that plants have evolved to use the presence of nitrates as a signal that the seeds are in a soil with ample nutrition and thus a good site to germinate. Other nitrogen-containing compounds on the list could also be acting by stimulating the nitrate signalling pathway directly or by being oxidised to nitrates whilst present in the seed’s growing medium, and then stimulating germination. Unfortunately, it is not just crop plants that respond to nitrates, with the germination of weed seeds also strongly promoted by nitrates.
Many other chemicals applied to seeds will actively inhibit seed germination. Some of these are directly toxic to plants, such as commercial herbicides. Others have an inhibitory hormonal action, such as abscisic acid, which is the key hormone controlling the natural dormancy process found in many seeds of perennial plants. Auxin, the plant hormone found in rooting powders is also inhibitory to germination as are chemical inhibitors of gibberellins, such as paclobutrazol, which is logical given the key role gibberellins play in initiating germination. Finally, some chemicals that inhibit germination act by exerting an osmotic effect and thereby preventing water from entering the seed. Salt is thus a potent inhibitor of germination, but so too are most soluble fertilizers in high concentrations. Without water entering the seed, germination can never take place.
If you would like to know more on this topic or have any issues regarding germination please get in touch.
Dr Russell Sharp