How to Collect Native Plants

MFG-2Finding native plants can be hard work. Here in Seattle, there are a handful of nurseries which carry a few odd native plants. There are native plant nurseries, but nearly all are by appointment or wholesale only. The awesome Washington Native Plant Society has plant sales, but they’re not very often. So if you’ve been studying plant lists and reading native plant books but can’t find many, if any of those plants what are you to do?

Collecting plants is one possibility, however, by the end of this article you may decide waiting until the next native plant sale is easier after all. It’s easy to be completely unethical and illegal and just go dig up a plant in your local forest, who would ever know right? But we’re not unethical and we like to follow the proper regulations.

On the law abiding side, it is possible and even free to collect plant  materials from national forests. In the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, you can collect transplants with a free permit. However, you must visit a ranger station to get a list of prohibited plants and protected areas which are off-limits. You can get a permit which is good for two weeks which allows collecting plants including shrubs, ferns and other small plants up to 12′. In one year you can collect up to 10 of these plants. If you want more you will have to purchase a permit. Similarly in the Olympic National Forest, also in Washington, you can get a free personal permit to collect forest greenery.

On the ethical side, visit your local native plant society’s website and you’ll likely find a very long list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to collecting plants. Here are several document of guidelines; one from the Montana Native Plant Society (PDF), one from the Colorado Native Plant Society (PDF), another from the Delaware Native Plant Society (PDF) and finally one from my local Washington Native Plant Society. Nearly all these guidelines have similar points. Here is a summary:

  • Study up and know how to identify plants, not just the ones you want to collect, but know what the rare and endangered plants look like so there are no mistakes.
  • Make sure you have all your permits in order which you can do by visiting a ranger station. If it’s private land, be sure you have permission of the landowner.
  • Take seeds or cuttings and avoid taking an entire plant.
  • Avoid damaging the habitat your are walking through and do not visit the same site repeatedly.
  • Collect from different populations, this is to ensure genetic diversity and also to not over-harvest one population.
  • Take only a small amount of seeds or cuttings from any individual plant, instead gather from many different individuals.
  • Keep records of when and where you collecting the plant material.
  • Avoid visiting sensitive habitat areas, the forest service will also likely tell you where you’re not permitted to collect.
  • Be prepared to explain what you’re doing and recommend the best methods for collecting.
  • Lastly, be safe! Know when it’s hunting season and avoid collecting or wear bright orange vests. There was a story here not long ago about a plant collector harvesting salal who was shot and killed by a hunter.

MFG-1960There are other creative ways to collect not only seeds and cuttings but entire plants. Here are a couple ideas and please share in the comments if you have other ways of obtaining native plants.

  • Contact your local park department, arboretum or other nature areas to see if you can pick through the cuttings from their maintenance. I once contacted my local arboretum to see if I could collect dead and cut branches for insect hotels and they gave me permission to go through their waste piles. Seeds and cuttings could easily be obtained this way.
  • Keep an eye out for salvage collection. If you know of a new housing development, road widening or other construction, contact the owners to see if you can salvage the plants before they start. Contact your local planning department to see if they can help.

If you do end up collecting seeds, here is a good resource from the California Native Plant Society about how to collect and clean your seeds and another from the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Do you have any experiences collecting or salvaging or have other tips? Please share them in the comments below!

© 2013, Kelly Brenner. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    For a number of seed varieties I use old blenders I pick up from yard sales to break apart seed heads quickly. If you collect a lot of seed and don’t want to spend tons of time processing this is a great way to get the job done quickly. It works especially well on the coneflowers, susans, and clover species. After blending I dump the mix on a screen over an old cookie baking pan to separate out the seed.

    As for collecting, it helps to make connections with like-minded individuals. Odds are that they want something you have and will be willing to make a trade.

    If you want a large amount of a single species, it is easy to grow several rows in a typical garden setting and maximize their seed-giving potential. Lot of water and consistent weeding can result in massive amounts of seed from a very small area.

  2. says

    Thank you for the great article. You note “salvaging.” You might be interested in know that many areas and native plant societies (and some municipalities) sponsor native plant rescue teams that do that on a larger scale.

    Many of them reward volunteers with plants rescued from the development sites. Others also sell the rescued plants during native plant society sales.

    In Williamsburg, Va., the rescue group neither sells the plants nor uses them primarily in private gardens. Instead, they nurse the rescued plants and use them to create new educational gardens promoting native plant gardening, partnering with municipalities, civic groups, local schools, state parks and the like. That might not appeal to those who are just interested in making their yard nice with natives, but some people find it far more rewarding.

    I would urge your readers to first find out if there is a local rescue group before approaching developers independently. A person acting on their own behalf might unknowingly undercut a local rescue team.

    If there isn’t a local rescue team in your area, consider starting one. As I said, it’s very rewarding, and much more fun than doing it all on your lonesome.

    Happy digging!

  3. says

    Here in New England, I am happy to say that we have multiple organizations and programs that provide and/or tell you where you can purchase ethically sourced and propagated native species, and the list of places growing/supplying natives (and the species they carry) are expanding from year to year.

    Here are a few that I know about:

    Project Native in Great Barrington, MA:

    Rhody Native:

    New England Wild Flower Society (NEWFS)

    NEWFS has also developed protocols for the collection of seeds of native species. Their Conservation Department ( would be able to provide details.

    — Russ Cohen

  4. says

    Kelly, Great article and one I hope many folks read and heed. In Montana the Native Plant Society website includes a Source Guide for Native Plants for people looking for native plants. A couple of additional thoughts: 1) digging in the wild opens the soil to invasion by weed seeds 2) it’s important to only collect seed from abundant stands and to avoid taking more than 25 – 30% of available seed. Also, we might need a follow-up blog on seed propagation!

  5. Dee says

    Collecting these cuttings seems very complicated & you have to have an extensive knowledge of the plants & know exactly what you are doing.
    Anyone venturing out during hunting season is just plain reckless & not using good judgement. I’m in the Chicago area & we have a native pkant nursery that carries many different plants & I’ve never had a problem getting any plant.


  1. […] a hundred dollars, the plants are also not going to make much of an impact. I recently wrote about methods for collecting native plants, which is a great way to acquire hard to find plants, but propagating from your own collection (or […]

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