What Are Cotyledons?

The word cotyledon is often brought up when discussing microgreens and is usually followed by the question, “What are cotyledons?

Cotyledons are, in essence, microgreens. That being said, for many microgreens, you do wait until the first true leaves form before harvesting them, but still, the cotyledons are a large part of the harvestable microgreen.

The green “leaf” of the radish microgreens below are, in actuality, radish cotyledons. 

microgreen cotyledons

What Are Cotyledons?

Cotyledons are the plant embryo’s food source and are the first leaves that emerge from the soil as the plant germinates.

In a way, they are a battery or inverter and then the solar panels that energize the young plant.

Let’s look at a bean seed, as most people have seen bean seeds whether they garden or not. Don’t worry about the dicot label, which will be discussed shortly.

bean cotyledons

Taken from app.emaze.com

There are a lot of terms I know but bear with me.

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The radicle will be the roots. Don’t worry about the hypocotyl; that is the connection between the roots and the cotyledon, the place where energy from the cotyledon is transferred to the roots.

The epicotyl is the main stem where the first true leaves will form.

Back to my battery and solar panel analogy.

As the roots grow downward to anchor the plant, the leaves start to unfurl. The energy for this growth and movement, if you will, is stored in the cotyledons, or the cotyledons transfer the energy stored in the endosperm.

This is why I think of cotyledons as batteries or at least the inverter.

The cotyledons are generally (not in all plants) pulled upward and turn green when they develop chloroplasts and create chlorophyll.

seed leaves

Taken from Yourdictionary.com.

Since cotyledons are the first leaves on the plant, they are also called seed leaves. When the cotyledons start producing chlorophyll, they begin the process of photosynthesis.

Here’s where the solar panel analogy comes in.

Cotyledons: Monocots or Dicots

Seeds can have one cotyledon and are classified as monocots, or they can have two and are categorized as dicots. 

The cotyledon in monocots usually doesn’t grow up out of the soil. But most plants that we grow as microgreens are dicots. For microgreens, monocots are onions and leeks.

monocots verse dicots

The cotyledons, or seed leaves, are easy to pick out, as they look nothing like the plant’s true leaves.

Seed leaves usually are smooth, oval, or heart shapes and are not very large. They have no time to develop character as they need to get the plant established.

seed leaves

The true leaves unfurl above the cotyledons on the seedling and look like a smaller version of the plant’s adult foliage.

What are cotyledons

Cotyledons as Microgreens

Many of the microgreens we grow are consumed in the cotyledon stage, i.e., broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, radishes, sunflowers, etc.

For other microgreens like cilantro, basil, leeks, and mustard, we wait until the first true leaves form. However, the cotyledons are still present and are a large portion of the microgreen we consume.

The reason for this article is to know when to harvest the microgreen. Often, you’ll see a statement saying, “Wait until the first true leaves form before harvesting” or “Harvest while in the cotyledon stage.”

It comes down to flavor and sometimes nutrition if we wait until the true leaves form, usually because the true leaves have a better flavor than the plant’s cotyledons. 

The opposite can also be true: the true leaves taste more bitter, and in this case, it’s best to harvest during the cotyledon stage. Nutrition can also decrease as the plant matures, so it’s best to harvest when it is still in the cotyledon stage.

Do Cotyledons Carry Out Photosynthesis?

Many websites state that cotyledons can’t carry out photosynthesis. 

The only energy they contribute to the plant is the carbohydrates stored inside them. 

However, a study by Zhang et al (2010) shows that cotyledons of some plants do contribute energy to the plant by photosynthesis.

We believe that the cotyledons of many plants grown as microgreens produce chlorophyll and help contribute more nutrition to microgreens. We believe that mainly because of how much the microgreens grow before producing their first true leaves.

Plants like tomatoes, whose cotyledons shrivel and fall off soon after their true leaves form, most likely don’t carry out photosynthesis.

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Have a Question?

If you have any questions about the information in this post or microgreens in general, please leave a comment below or reach out to me using the Ask a Question page


  • Todd

    Todd is the founder of Home Microgreens & the Home Microgreens store. He also writes for several other websites, including MyViewFromTheWoods.com. Todd worked at a large farm market, garden & nursery center for 20 years. Somehow he snuck off to become a geologist and professor before coming back to his senses to write & lecture about microgreens and gardening. When not at the computer, he can be found in the garden, trout stream, or mountain trail with his new Springer Spaniel Caden.

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2 thoughts on “What Are Cotyledons?”

  1. Thanks for this! So fascinating and helpful. We started our first tray of cilantro microgreens and they are right where they should be at day 9.

  2. We’re so happy you are finding the articles helpful! That’s great on the cilantro, many have issues growing it. Awesome!

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