Using a file, she cut into the skin of the seed, a technique used by gardeners around the world, to see if she could make it germinate. Amazingly, the seed sprouted.
It didn't live long, but it became a famous seed among plant biologists because it was by far the oldest living seed whose date could be established.
Sprouting After a Long Sleep
"So we went back to China, to that same old lake where the seeds had come from," says Shen-Miller, who had become the leader of an international team of scientists. The scientists combed through the soil of the dry lake, and collected 20 seeds, all of which have been dated at between 200 and 500 years old.
Shen-Miller spent the following year, 1997, studying the art of cultivating lotus plants. The next year, while working in Germany, she got the first of the seeds to germinate, but it died after one season.
"Then I sprouted three more, one each year, here at UCLA," she says. "One survived one whole season, and came back from winter dormancy, but it died early. I wasn't doing something right."
She had better luck with the next two.
"They are standing straight up right now," she says. "They are alive. So I'm just watching them and trying to help them this year so they will get enough photosynthesis in the leaves to be transported down to the root, which is a big, big root."
She has 15 seeds left, which she has offered to give to other scientists who might be able to help discover why the seeds have survived all these years, even if somewhat damaged.
If they succeed, they will add another facet to the legends of the Chinese lotus. The entire plant — roots, flowers, huge leaves and all — is valued as a food resource. It is also used by doctors in China to treat a wide range of ailments from nosebleeds to heat stroke.
It cures, Shen-Miller says, but "they don't know what's doing the curing. So it's important to find out what the active ingredient in these plants is."
And beyond all that, the lotus holds great religious significance, especially among Buddhists.
"It symbolizes purity," she says. Perhaps that's because of the muddy and algae-ridden lakes where it thrives in China.
"Coming from a lowly origin of mucky-muck," Shen-Miller says, "it rises high above the water untainted."
Her first seed "slept for more than a thousand years" before she cut a gash in its skin and it sprang to life, Shen-Miller says. It would be useful, she adds, to learn how it managed to hang around for so many centuries.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.