Not only are we harvesting seeds and fruits, but it’s also time to plant.
Plant seeds rather than digging plants in the wild! Digging depletes natural populations and opens the soil to weed invasion. Collecting and growing your own is rewarding, good for the environment and you know what you are growing.
Seed collection begins in early summer as the seeds ripen. Seeds generally ripen three to four weeks after the plant has finished blooming although it varies between species.
Seeds have just as much variation between species as do flowers. Each one is unique and it’s possible to identify plants by their seeds as well as their leaves and flowers.
It’s surprisingly difficult to identify some plants in the seed stage. An observant seed collector notes where plants are growing and may even tag specific plants to come back and collect from.
Plants like Hairy Golden Aster (Heterotheca villosa) produce masses of seed all at once while others (e.g. Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata)) ripen a bit at a time hedging their bets on weather and conditions for seeds to find soil conditions that will allow them to reproduce. Still others produce few seeds, especially if it has been a difficult season for the plant.
When seeds are present a prudent collector follows a few guidelines:
- collect only 25-30% of the seed population in an area – leave some for Mother Nature!
- wait until the seed heads are brown and seeds come off freely (which may mean you have to come back later)
- label each seed packet as you collect (in paper envelopes)
Paper coin envelopes work well as collection containers. Large paper bags make collection of stems of larger species easy. Seeds can later be separated from plant material.
Seeds should be cleaned of dirt and detritus. Remove any insects or larvae which may continue eating seeds in storage.
Fruit containing seeds must be crushed gently, the flesh removed from the seed and the seed washed free of the flesh. A quick dip in hydrogen peroxide is often used to prevent fruit pits from molding during propagation.
Screens may be used to sift off chaff. I use a variety of sized screens depending on the seed size. Craft stores carry various sized screens and a simple screen may be made by gluing a piece of screen into a wooden frame. I use an 8×10” frame that I purchased for less than a dollar at a craft store.
Awns do not need to be removed from seeds, although doing so reduces storage space and makes dispersal easier when planting.
Most seeds can be stored in a cool, dark place until ready to sow. A few must be planted immediately as they ripen, but most can be stored until fall and then sown.
Native species that are considered ‘annuals’ are usually really ‘biennial’ in that they germinate in the late summer or early fall and remain as small germinants throughout the winter. In spring they grow very rapidly as part of their process of growing up and producing flowers that ripen into seeds. Annuals may be planted now and keeping them watered for a couple of weeks will ensure that those seeds sprout and establish roots before winter.
Many native species are perennials and a large percentage of them may also be planted now. These require a period of cool, moist conditions prior to germination (think winter.) Some need fluctuating spring temperatures to inspire growth (think winter and outdoors.) Overwintering seeds in seed trays or pots works well for this. I like to use a thin layer of pine needles over my seed trays to help maintain moisture and reduce predation while still allowing light to penetrate. A light layer of small crushed granite or gravel also works well.
Other perennial species (commonly those that grow in hot, dry places) germinate when temperatures reach 70* F. Many asters, sunflowers, fleabanes and grasses fall into this category.
For specific propagation protocols for individual species see the Native Plant Network’s website: http://www.nativeplantnetwork.org
The trick to establishing all species is making sure there is sufficient moisture to keep seedlings turgid until roots can establish. This is critical to all plants. It is why most seedlings never reach maturity. If they dry out they die. So – keep ‘em moist and you’ll have success.
Oh – one other tip – use #2 pencil to mark plant labels. It lasts longer than markers. Nothing more frustrating than checking on your seeds in the spring to find all the plant labels blank after marker or pen has worn off.
So – it’s time to plant! You can do it!
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