Helmet Head – When Emergency “Seed” Section Is Needed

According to my mother, the last words uttered prior to me emerging into this world were “Oh shit.” As the story goes, my mother had been in labor for near 24 hours. The doctor and nurses where bamboozled.   I was right there and I should have come out by now and, while my mother pushed and pushed and pushed and I did not appear to be showing any signs of life threatening stress, my mother was reaching the stage of complete exhaustion and talk of an emergency c-section was being considered.   As a last measure, the doctor took another peek up my mother’s yoohoo and that was when he uttered the now family legendary famous words of “Oh shit.”

The doctor had missed a very important detail. I was upside down. Babies ideally should be born head first and face down. The birth canal is designed to allow to slide a baby out when it is in this position.   I was head first but face up, so all that time I had been hitting my head on my mother’s pelvis bone (which probably explains a lot about me today). The doctor immediately grabbed a pair or forceps (which according to my mother were HUGE) and gently popped me loose.

The point of this story is that sometimes a baby needs a little help to get into this world safely and it is no different for baby plants.   Sometimes seedlings need a little extra TLC too to make it safely into our garden world.

As usual, I have planted several dozen cups of seedlings but this spring, I seem to have a pervasive issue among my seedlings and that is helmet head (which is very different from helmet hair, although aesthetically they look the same.) A high percentage of my seedlings this year have the seed coats stuck to the cotyledon leaves.

A quick search on the internet revealed a few different causes for this condition. Some people felt that the seeds had not been planted deep enough, others thought the seedlings had not been kept in high enough humidity, some people thought that this was caused by using old seeds while still others felt that this was a sign that the seedling was weak and should just be mercilessly thinned out.

In my case, I think the cause was a lack of humidity.   This year I decided to try using a radiator as a source of bottom heat and had set the seedlings on a frame over the radiator.   The seedlings came up quickly, but I do now wonder if the heat from the radiator dried out the air too much around them.

But whatever the reason, my little seedlings are in need of a little extra TLC. Interestingly enough, the most often suggested solution to this problem was spit. Apparently the enzymes in saliva help to break down the seed coat  and the sliminess of spit helps to lubricate it off.

Prior to learning this, I was gently pinching the seed coats and sliding them off.   It works well enough but occasionally I pinch too hard and end up crushing the poor little seedling, which creates my own personal “oh shit” moment. So, I will give the spit method a try.

Seedlings and babies all sometimes need a little extra care when making their way into the world. The trick is to pay attention to any potential problems, which saves everyone involved a whole lot of pain and labor.

16 thoughts on “Helmet Head – When Emergency “Seed” Section Is Needed
  1. I can vouch for the spit method (it works!), but mostly I just try to let nature take its course and most eventually pop off on their own. FWIW, the same goes for my philosophy of birth — my second daughter was born face-up and so was I, no forceps involved in either birth.


  2. What are your seeds planted in? It looks like something green…


    Hanna Reply:

    Just plain potting soil. My camera gave the soil a greenish cast, but it is not green. Just a cheap camera is all. 😉


  3. I generally just leave them be. If it is still stuck on after the first true leaves have emerged I may snip them off just to tidy things up. But I am generally paranoid about doing some permanent damage if I am too clumsy. I didn’t realize that all those different things might be what lead to “helmet head” in seedlings.

    Loved the description of your birth by the way.


  4. Wow, I didn’t know there was actually a name for this! I’ve been having some serious problems with that this year – several of my seedlings didn’t manage to get even a part of their cotyledons out of the seed coats – they were just a root, a stem and a seed on top. And in trying to ‘help’ them, I beheaded them. 🙁 Well, next time I’ll try spit…


  5. mistresseve on

    Hi Hanna
    I have been enjoying your blog now for about a year. I live in NEO (Geauga county) as well, and it is nice to hear from another gardener in my zone.
    As far as starting seeds, I am no expert–but I don’t think that humidity is the issue. This year I put my potted seeds into an old 10 gallon aquarium with a heating pad underneath and a florescent bulb in the top. It is like a rain forest in there. It is about 80 degrees inside, and there is so much humidity that there is condensation on the sides and dripping from the top. Sometimes, I actually see steamy fog in there. And wouldn’t you know, I am still sticking my hand in there with a toothpick trying to gently pry off the seed coats that are stuck. Although, come to think of it, some of them seeds are old….


  6. I’ve found leaving a humidity dome on the seed flat longer decreases the amount of ‘helmet head’ I get in my own seed starting, so I’m on board with the humidity argument. Not deep enough makes a lot of sense too.

    I remedy it by wetting the stuck husks with plain water. That makes them softer and often the leaves will then push them off on their own. They’re also easier to pull when wet, as well as when the seedlings are younger.


  7. mistresseve on

    I’m pretty new to seed starting cuz I like the instant gratification of buying a plant that’s ready to go into the garden. I shall defer to the experts!


  8. Robin on

    oh my gosh! that could have been the story of my first son’s birth….
    If you still have your mom, give her an extra big hug…that sort of delivery is not a walk in the park.
    and as always, thanks for the great gardening tips


  9. Moby on

    Greetings to a fellow “sunny-side up” baby! (as my mother would call it) She also says we have an insatiable curiosity and needed to see where we were going. Now there’s a delightful spin on a difficult delivery. 🙂

    Thought it was just my impatience but now I’m glad that I’m not the only one practicing ’emergency seed-section’. Love your blog ~


  10. Katherine on

    I had a lot these this year as well. After beheading quite a few I left the others alone just to see and most of them pushed their way out eventually.


  11. Hi, Hanna, I’m a new reader on your blog. I’m what you call a gardener-waiting-to-exhale (or even inhale, for that matter). In other words, I’m soaking up a lot of things about gardening first before plunging in…and I’m learning a lot from your posts!

    I’m a farmer’s daughter and I’ve often encountered these helmet heads in my dad’s vegetable gardens. I remember pulling off some of these heads and my dad telling me to leave the seedlings alone, heh. Still, maybe because I’ve always had a brown thumb. But I remember hot weathers and helmet heads on our seedlings, so humidity could really be a factor. There’s something about dry soil and air and helmet heads that sounds right.


  12. You crack me up. I feel like I found my gardening soul sister. I’m a food blogger but I’m starting my own garden this year..so I was look around for some guidance in gardening blogs and found yours! I found my pepper plants have been the ones that have really really bad helmet head. So I too have been helping them out. Besides spit I heard that the tantic acid in tea does the same thing…so I have been spraying them with that..it seems to help!


  13. I didn’t know the saliva helps break down the seed coat. Thanks for the info…I will try it.


  14. Years ago I got obsessed by beets. I got advice from three different people on how to get them to germinate. 1)soak them in water overnight 2)soak them in buttermilk overnight (mildly acidic) 3)soak them in straight chlorine bleach. I decided to experiment and tried all three. Water and buttermilk – yes. Chlorine bleach – no. I did not try saliva but maybe I should have!


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