Seed collection can be very tricky…
Often times, the process of searching for seeds of a specific plant can be both frustrating and exciting at the same time. It is not uncommon to make preparations to visit a site that through research, word of mouth or personal experience, is known to host your specific target species. Time is carved out of busy, conflicting schedules, permission to collect from the area is gained, waiting for the right time of year, climate, rain outs, traffic…oh the traffic, etc. If, somehow, you have managed to mitigate all of the external factors of even being able to ATTEMPT a seed collection ‘expedition’, you still have the task of locating your target once you have reached your destination. While very often, certain stands of plants are ever present on a yearly basis, this is far from the norm. It is not uncommon to go to a known ‘honey hole’ only to find out that what you remember being there is no longer where it ‘should be’.
Fear not! All is not lost! As many a seed collector has experienced in his/her own adventures, what you intend to collect is not always what you walk out having collected. When preparing for an outing, it is best to prepare an itinerary of everything you may be interested in collecting, even if you’re not sure it is the right time or if it is overly prevalent in the area to be surveyed. There are many factors that can negatively affect the development of seed; most often these factors include the overabundance or lack of light, too high or too low temperatures, and/or a lack of water.
If you are successful in not only locating your target species but finding enough of it to collect seed without overly hindering future generations in that locale, there are important guidelines to which you should adhere. There are three ‘essentials’ ideas to remember; you want to ensure that the seed material is genetically appropriate and genetically diverse as well as making sure you only collect, at most, ten percent of viable seed present at the collection site.
While it can be difficult to determine genetic diversity among plants just by looking at them, there are steps that can be taken to give you the best possible chance at collecting a diverse population. If the area you are collecting from is substantial, collect from plants as far apart as possible and look for stands of the same plant that are entirely separate and ideally isolated to some degree from each other. If the collection area has only a small, singular population, be careful to strictly adhere to the 10% rule, as the population may need every bit of its reproductive material just to maintain itself. Occasionally, populations of target species can be so small that seed collection is not advised, as it may result in the decline or entire loss of the plant in that area.
The overarching purpose of seed collecting of native ecotype is to not only enable the preservation and reintroduction/ fortification of the species but to increase the overall population size of said species within areas where it is genetically native and in balance with other native species. To manage this without hindering the range and regeneration of existing populations is to find the perfect balance.
Seed collecting and propagation can be a wonderfully fun, fulfilling and productive activity that can be practiced in your own back yard with either native plants or ornamentals. It is important to note that collecting seed from public parks and other private lands without expertise, express permission (or in some cases, supervision) is illegal and can be very damaging to the environment. Joining an established group that organizes seed collecting outings is thebest way to get hands-on experience and develop a wide variety of techniques for collecting, cleaning, and preserving the genetic material.
For information regarding local volunteer seed collecting opportunities, please call (703) 228-7744