I hadn’t thought about cotyledons since Botany class, when I was 15 or so. I probably wouldn’t have thought of the word “cotyledon” at all, unless there was a Lima bean attached, growing in a medium of tap water and cheap paper towels. Yesterday, while scavenging for peppers and signs of tomato life in my little garden out back, I found this:

I consulted my plant-friendly friends on Facebook. “Is this some mutant hybrid thing?” I wondered, half hoping that it was. The general consensus was “Virginia Creeper” (though guesses included “marigold,” “peony,” and “kill it with fire”). I know enough to feel safe holding it; it’s not poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. I learned to recognize those when I was nine. But while the top cluster of five leaves was definitely “Virginia Creeper,” that still didn’t explain the pair of non-serrated leaves below the cluster of five.

I swore to my friends that I wasn’t pranking them; I hadn’t doctored the photo or held two different plants together as if grafting them. Finally, the answer – cotyledons! The first, embryonic  leaves to emerge from the seed. And sure enough, “Virginia Creeper” is a dicotyledon, or “dicot,” meaning a plant whose embryonic leaves emerge as a pair.

Who remembers growing Lima beans in class, watching the little roots and embryonic leaves emerge? It’s a fun thing to watch at any age, and an especially easy science experiment to do at home.

Monocots or Dicots?

I’ve been throwing my pepper seeds into potting soil for a few weeks, now – not as a science experiment, but in hopes of feeding my hot pepper addiction. Unfortunately, I have no idea whether what’s emerging, finally, is spicy serrano or mild bell peppers. Probably both. I have been a little careless. There could be a few pequin peppers in there, too, but I suspect they would have put in an appearance before now. Can you tell from the photos whether these peppers are monocots or dicots?

Any guesses as to whether the turnip in the header photo, from which my “accidental turnip greens” emerged, is a monocot or a dicot? Here’s another fun thing to try – let a turnip sit for just a bit too long on your countertop, in the shade. If leaves emerge, put the turnip into a cup, jar, or bulb vase with just enough water to cover the bottom of the vegetable. Put it in a sunny window, and keep the bottom quarter submerged. When the leaves grow long and plentiful, pluck, chop, and sauté them with a little olive oil or butter, garlic, chopped bell pepper, or other veggies until they are bright and tender.

Peppers and turnip greens, too, are easy things to grow with kids. I dried the pepper seeds, soaked them in water overnight, then tossed them into the dirt. Some, I buried with a light blanket of potting soil. Others are just resting atop the dirt, fighting to find a foothold, but all seem to be thriving. Water lightly, daily. Don’t let the soil get muddy or dry.

Other things are beginning to emerge in our garden, now, as well.

The first flowers appeared on our flowering plum; two flowers, to be exact. Now, deep purple leaves have emerged, seemingly without flowering first.

The flowering cactus emerged: a tight, reddish bud that burst into bright orange flame-petals in the afternoon sun.

Research for the kids to do: Are these flowering cactii also dicots? What about the plum tree? Can you name some other dicots are growing in your garden? How about monocotyledons? I’ll bet you have some in your house right now, or you have some items made from them. How many can you name?