People Staff
August 03, 1987 12:00 PM

Strange and wondrous things lie beneath the waters off Key West—ancient ships, dead men’s bones, priceless jewels, stray weed seeds.

Stray weed seeds?

Originally, treasure hunter Mel Fisher himself had been a bit dubious. While the rest of his salvage team was busy bringing up booty from his stunning find, the wreck of the Spanish galleon, Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank during a storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 1622, archaeologist Corey Malcom seemed enthralled with dirt. Specifically, Malcom and fellow archaeologist David Moore found and brought up samples of the Atocha’s permanent sand-and-gravel ballast. A studious, 24-year-old archaeologist from Indiana University, Malcom took to washing the stuff through screens and sorting it into numerous plastic bags. “I was pondering whether it was worth all the money I was spending [for him] to go through all that trash,” Fisher says.

Malcom was wondering too. Painstakingly he managed to separate from the ballast some specimens interesting to a scientist, if no one else: fish bones, insect parts, sawdust and about 250 varied seeds. He dropped the seeds into cups of fresh water to keep them from drying out. Nine days later he checked the water level.

“Suddenly, I saw leaves sticking up,” he says. “It was a rush where your stomach starts burning and churning.” Four seeds had sprouted.

Nobody will be certain what the plants are until they are six to 10 inches tall, but a University of Florida botanist has surmised they are Bidens Alba, a Caribbean weed called common beggar-tick. They may have found their way aboard when the Atocha docked at Caribbean ports on its last voyage. The ballast contained lime, possibly establishing a nonacidic environment that might have preserved the seeds during their 365-year slumber.

Two sprouts have died, but in his bedroom Malcom tends the remaining pair like an anxious parent, getting up in the middle of the night to check on their well-being. In addition he lovingly exposes them to “some punk rock. But I don’t know if that helps.” It might. People have always said that kind of music could raise the dead.

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