The exact English phrase I think you were looking for was that
Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
See phrases.org.uk for more about its origins, but it was originally proverbial so has always been intended metaphorically.
I think "plant the seed for ..." may serve the meaning you want. Consider the following usages:
Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another. (source) — Napoleon Hill
It's clearly intended here that the words you speak have a more substantial and lasting effect than you would otherwise envisage. In a similar vein, consider:
The seed for later events is planted when Ray comes to see Marty to get the two weeks of pay he's owed and Marty warns Ray to beware of Abby two-timing him. — plot description of "Blood Simple" in The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers by Josh Levine
A completely different suggestion: inauspicious means "Not conducive to success; unpromising; unlucky" (Oxford Dictionaries) which gives an example sentence: "following this inauspicious start the British, outnumbered, withdrew." But it's often used to signify something "humble" that "went largely unnoticed at the time", as you want, but which which led to greater things. Oxford gives the following example:
My career in Fleet Street began inauspiciously: the very first feature I wrote for the Guardian, more than a quarter of a century ago, elicited a libel writ. — Francis Wheen in The Guardian, 25 February 2002.
"Inauspiciously" doesn't of itself indicate that recovery and greater success followed: the next sentence could just as well have been "Within a month I had left journalism entirely, and embarked instead on a career in deep-sea angling." But it's often employed in a way that hints at it (here, the fact that the extract was written by a regular columnist in a newspaper rather gives it away).