Hunting for Wild Seed
New England Wild Flower Society seeks to collect wild seed sustainably to add to its seed bank or grow to plants for customers and restoration projects.
By Cayte McDonough, Nursery Production Manager
Hunting for treasures—that’s what collecting seed in the wild is all about.
At New England Wild Flower Society’s Nasami Farm Native Plant Nursery, one of our primary goals is to grow locally sourced New England native plants from seeds sustainably collected by our staff and volunteers throughout the region. There are many steps leading up to the actual moment of collecting the botanical treasures that hold our future.
First, we develop a target list of common species—that list represents species native to our New England ecoregions that we want to grow for our retail customers and for potential restoration, and that we want to store in our seed bank to preserve genetic diversity and allow for propagation research. For 2012, this list contains over 110 total species of ferns, grasses/sedges, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs. With list in hand, we then search for large populations of each species. According to the Center for Plant Conservation, to capture the maximum amount of genetic variation within a population we should collect from 50 individual plants. When finding such a large population proves difficult, often the case for certain trees and shrubs, we look for populations that are relatively large and healthy. Before we even consider collecting seed, we get permission from the landowner where the population exists. Through experience, we have found that private landowners, land trusts, and local governments quite readily grant permission to collect seed.
Getting the timing right for collecting seed when it is ripe can be very tricky. Once the landowner gives us the green light to collect, we visit the site, often repeatedly, to confirm the population’s identity and size, and to track the progress of seed development. Timing is just one of many challenges facing us. For many species, the seed appears to be just shy of ripe each time we check and then suddenly it is gone! Competition for that seed, or at least the accompanying goodies, can be fierce. For instance, Epigaea repens (trailing-arbutus), the state flower of Massachusetts, bears deliciously fragrant flowers early in the spring and produces ripe seed anywhere from late May to mid-late June. Trailing-arbutus is effectively dioecious—each plant bears only male or female flowers. Only the female plants form the ball-shaped capsules, each of which contains a soft white placental core surrounded by tiny seeds. These fruits sit low to the ground allowing easy access for ants, which help disperse the seed by carrying the fleshy tissue (which must make a tasty treat) and attached seeds back to their nests. Successfully collecting seed of trailing-arbutus for our nursery requires vigilance. After we discovered several empty seed capsule shells, presumably cleaned out by ants, we collected our portion (no more than 20% for this common species to ensure sustainability) of the remaining seed, even though some seemed slightly less ripe. If we left it to ripen on the plant, ants would undoubtedly beat us to it.
Spring ephemerals, due to their very nature of fading away when spring passes, pose additional challenges. This spring we learned of a beautiful flowering patch of Erythronium americanum (American trout-lily) in a local damp field—a real find given that trout-lily is better known for producing foliage than for flowering. We watched with excitement as the early-April flowers faded and began to form capsules, and marked several with bright yarn, knowing the stems would weaken as the plants go dormant. The ripening process was slow while surrounding grasses and forbs grew at an accelerating speed. With time, some capsules aborted the process—looking small and sunken—and failed to form viable seed. With the field closing in, we searched for the few viable capsules in nearly waist-high grass and placed tall flags to mark the sites. When the sun returned after several days of rain late in May, we collected the viable seed. Though it was a small collection it marks the beginning of our wild sourced trout-lily seed.
For each species, there is a story to tell and possibly an adventure to be experienced. Amemone acutiloba (sharp-lobed hepatica) seed is green when ripe but falls off easily when touched lightly. Like the trout-lily, seed of Dicentra cucullaria (Dutchman’s-breeches) and D. canadensis (squirrel-corn) can be elusive as these spring ephemerals fade and slump down into the forest floor leaf litter. The crown-shaped Caltha palustris (marsh-marigold) capsules are often green when they crack open to disperse their seeds, providing little advance indication of ripeness. Given the severed stems we witnessed on a recent collection trip, deer apparently find the seed heads delectable. In the wild, Pennsylvania sedge, Carex pensylvanica, can form a beautiful green carpet under a high tree canopy, something we can try to emulate in our own shady areas. It seems that Pennsylvania sedge requires higher light levels to consistently produce fruit; most often it spreads vegetatively, making the seed scarce.
Our success in finding populations of target species is due largely to tips from volunteers and friends—and we continue to search for more on our list. We are deeply grateful to all those individuals as well as the landowners who have generously granted permission to collect on their land—including many private individuals, local towns, The Trustees of Reservations and other local land trusts. And finally, we find Go Botany (www.newenglandwild.org/gobotany) to be an invaluable tool when confirming the species identity before we collect seed—check it out!
Images from top to bottom: 1. Epigaea repens, 2. Epigaea repens, 3. Erythronium americanum, 4. Caltha palustris.