Friends of the Wild Flower Garden
by Lauren Husting
Have you ever wondered what the mechanics of seed harvesting are, or wanted to try it yourself? It can be a great way to foster your own pollinator-friendly yard, or help out a community garden. For many environmental agencies and native plant distributors, as well as hobbyists and avid gardeners, hand-collecting native seed is a year-round effort to keep native populations thriving.
Seed collectors follow a few important ground rules when it comes to sourcing plants. Collecting on public lands is generally frowned upon unless there are local foraging laws that may allow it, and permission to collect on private lands should be obtained. Individuals foraging should take care not to harvest more than a tenth of the seeds from the available plant population.
A working knowledge of what the target plant’s ripe seeds look like is essential to ensure harvesting occurs at the proper time. Mature seeds are usually dark in color, and will not dent when pressed with a fingernail. Since the fluctuation of seasonal weather can give plants a head start or delay their seed cycle, plant collectors must constantly check in with their intended stock to check for readiness.
The seed collector’s toolkit includes a good pair of boots, gloves, and pruning shears, as well as drop cloths, boxes, canvas or paper bags, and buckets/baskets. Plastic bags can be used for collection, but generally are not used for storage unless the seeds are completely cleaned and dried. Some plants can be stripped by hand; others can be threshed over containers or fabric.
Seeds are taken directly from the plant or only very recently dropped pods or fruit to avoid collecting insects and mold, and plants that dehisce (burst open, like jewelweed and milkweed) can have paper bags tied over seed pods just before maturation to catch the seeds as they emerge. Savvy seed collectors label as they go, noting the specifics of each seed they collect.
Cleaning is optional for many seeds, but saves on storage space and discourages pests. Seed coverings that are pulpy, like most fruits, need to be removed fully in order to prevent mold. First, seeds are set to dry on fabric or racks and elevated from the ground with gentle airflow. Once dry, they can be rubbed over a screen with a bucket underneath to catch the falling crop or gently pressed with a rolling pin or block.
Once this time-intensive task is done, the seeds are finally ready to be stored until it is time to plant! Minnesota seeds usually undergo periods of cold and thaw in the winter, so keeping them in a fridge with some slight humidity is often the best approach. The best time to start germinating the hard-won seeds depends on the type of plant and its particular growing needs.
If you want to start collecting your own native seeds, a good place to start is the common milkweed. Easy to identify and harvest, milkweed plants provide a vibrant ecosystem for Minnesota pollinators. Starting in the early fall, don your gardening gloves and look for seed pods that are browning or gray, but not yet open. If you squeeze a closed pod and it pops open, it’s ready! At home, pull the seed & fluff out of the pod and place in a paper bag with a few coins. Shake the bag vigorously, and then cut a small hole in a bottom corner to let out the now fluff-free seeds. Leave out to dry overnight on a rack or plate, and then store in the fridge for the winter. You can also plant seeds in the fall after harvest, as Mother Nature intended!
Whether you decide to hunt your own seeds or leave it to the pros, you can appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into native seed collecting. Our local plant community thrives because of these efforts and we all reap the benefits.❖
Lauren Husting is the Friends Media Communications Coordinator.
This article was originally published in The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 69 No.1, Spring 2021.