Seed is a word that comes up a lot this time a year — in gardens, bird feeders, and March Madness brackets, where it’s used to denote team rankings coming into the tournament. But why do we use the word "seed" in our brackets?

“If you stop and think about it, it is pretty strange that we use this word seed to describe somebody's ranking in a tournament,” Edgar B. Herwick III, GBH’s Curiosity Desk reporter, told Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel on Friday. “I mean, this is a farming word. It's an agricultural world word. But there is a sort of reason how this came to be. And one of the people we can thank for it is Major Walter Clopton Wingfield.”

Wingfield was a Welsh Renaissance man back in the 19th century. He was a crucial figure in the development of another sport: tennis.

Wingfield created a version of the game called lawn tennis, the forerunner of modern tennis played across the world today. This sport took hold in the late 1800s in the UK, and spread across the ocean to country clubs in the U.S.

“All of a sudden tennis tournaments become the rage right in the late 1800s,” Herwick said. “These tournaments start drawing more and more spectators, and eventually a problem arises in that too often, really good players are playing each other early in these tournaments. And by the time they get to the finals, the semifinals, it's boring because all of the good players have knocked each other out.”

So an idea emerged: Why not rank the top players and spread them across early tournament matches?

“They would spread the good players evenly across the draw, just like you would spread seeds in a garden,” Herwick said. “And so this practice becomes known as seeding, and the term and the practice really catches on quickly in tennis and then eventually spreads to other sports.”

Exactly who came up with the term “seed” seems to have been lost to history, Herwick said. But the first tournament it was used in was a local one.

“Experts believe that the very first time it was probably used was in 1890 at the U.S. National Championship, which was played in Newport, Rhode Island,” he said. “And for the record, that championship is still played today. It's now known as the U.S. Open and they play it in New York.”

Basketball borrowed the term from tennis.

“The NCAA tournament itself, that started as an eight-team draw, no seeding, back in 1939,” Herwick said. “The first time that they started seeding the tournament [was] in the 1970s. The first time the whole bracket was seeded was 1979. That ended up turning out pretty well because the final game that year was one of the most famous college basketball games of all time. That was Michigan State versus Indiana State with two legends: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.”