Charles R. Gunn's donation to the Maryland Department of Agriculture sits in tall stacks of flat, black boxes in the agency's "Turf and Seed" section.
In the boxes are 15,000 different specimens of seeds, in row after row of tiny vials. There are common varieties -- wheat, corn, crabgrass -- and exotic ones.
The splotched knob-like specimens in one bottle, despite the long, daunting Latin name, are simple rubber seeds collected from Sri Lanka. Other seeds in the collection are from India, Peru, Puerto Rico, Ghana and the Soviet Union.
With the gift of his lifelong collection, Gunn, a research botanist and curator of the National Seed Herbarium at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has more than doubled the state seed collection.
Seed analysts at the state agriculture department use them for identification purposes in regulatory testing, to ensure that seed companies are complying with the state laws about seed purity and to see that farmers are planting healthy seeds that will produce good crops. It's a form of consumer protection, said Malcolm Sarna, chief of the turf and seed section.
"Maybe there's a farmer who saved his own seed and he wants to know if it's good," Sarna said. "Maybe a seed house wants to sell the seed and they need the information we give them to meet the law. Maybe an institutional buyer of seeds -- local parks departments, school boards for athletic fields, the state highway administration -- wants to make sure their contracts are fulfilled. That's what we do."
Seeds tend to be taken for granted, Sarna noted. But these days, there's a new interest -- and in some cases, new concern -- about seeds, those used for identification and those used in seed banks as germinal material.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to conduct an investigation of its seed bank system late last year after the Foundation on Economic Trends and several international organizations and individuals sued the agency for "gross negligence." The suits alleged that negligence by the department had led to the loss of thousands of rare seed types each year.
The seeds are used in the "germplasm" program and are used to crossbreed plants with varying desirable characteristics such as a resistance to disease or higher yield potential.
Also last year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization moved to establish a worldwide system of seed banks, to help give Third World nations the training to cross-breed seeds for better plants.
At the Maryland agriculture department, a staff of about 14 seed analysts examines hundreds of seeds each day.
They sit at black-topped lab tables before dishes full of seed, making notations. One researcher is engrossed in a sample of soybeans showing a host of impurities -- pokeweed stains, pod blight, evidence of mildew and stinkbug damage -- that would make the seeds a poor choice for planting.
"The analysts looks at one seed at a time," Sarna said. "There's no automation, no readouts. The bottom line is that purity testing is a hard job.
"The farmer is free to plant that particular seed," Sarna said, indicating the poor soybean sample, "but someday, he may wonder why he went out of business."
Susan Kent, lab manager for the turf and seed section, said Gunn's donation is invaluable to the work of her analysts.
"Any donation like this is going to help us do a better job," Kent said. "A collection takes a lot of patience and knowledge; you've got to be able to recognize the plant and get the seed at just the right stage of maturity.
"The greater number of specimens of each particular kind of seed that shows certain individual characteristics -- such as weather, harvesting methods, growing conditions -- the better chance we have of getting a truer picture of the species."