A Year in the Life of Wildflower Seeds

Collecting wildflower seed here in our township is an enjoyable, labor intensive activity that proceeds through several stages in all four seasons of the year. The flowers do all the work in the summer by producing their colorful blooms.  Then the humans – volunteers and Parks staff –  take over the work in the other three seasons by  harvesting, cleaning and sowing the seed.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Since we’ve just completed the cycle for 2018, I thought we’d share how this ancient cycle of work, organized each year by Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship manager, happens throughout the year.

Winter and Spring: Spreading Seed

Ben spreading seed at Bear Creek Nature Park after a prescribed burn in spring 2018.

Readers may remember the blog from last April, when Ben, his stewardship tech Alex Kreibel and I spread wildflower seed in Bear Creek Nature Park. We spent a cool spring morning sowing seed by hand as it’s been done for thousands of years.

For larger projects we might spread seed with a special native seed drill or broadcast spreader attached to a tractor.

loading the seed
When we seed our first prairie plantings at Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park, we hired Jerry Stewart with Native Connections to do the planting. Here he is filling the machine with seed in 2015.

The seeds we spread take their time for the next few years, sprouting a bit of greenery to catch the sunlight as they grow deep roots. Those roots help them survive drought like all prairie plants. In a few years, when the roots have grown deep, the plants we sow finally bloom and produce more seed. Luckily, nature has also dispersed seeds for countless years. With a little help from us humans through prescribed fire or invasive plant control, native seeds already in the soil will also find their way to the sunlight and grow!

Summer: Blossoms Attract Pollinators

Plants mostly rely on wind and insects – beetles, flies, butterflies – to move pollen from one plant to the next. Pollination is the process by which male genetic material (in the pollen) is transferred from the anther of one plant to the female pistil of another plant (or in self-pollinating plants to pistils on the same plant). If the pollen lands on a compatible plant, it will germinate grow a pollen tube to conduct the sperm to the potential seeds (ovules) in the ovary of the second plant.

Big Bluestem blooms LL
Big Bluestem (Adropogon gerardii) shown here is a wind-pollinated plant. This pictures shows its anthers that produce pollen (bright yellow) and the stigmas that catch pollen (purple and fuzzy).

Wind-pollinated plants like grasses and some trees produce lots of pollen and cast it to the wind, taking a chance that a few grains will land in a receptive flower on another plant. But our insect-pollinated plants use a more targeted method to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. These plants create tempting blossoms full of color, scent, nectar and, of course, pollen to attract and reward pollinators, ensuring that some will be transported to another flower on the insect courier.

We’ll follow the three insect-pollinated plants below, from various parks,  through our seed collecting cycle: Joe Pye (Euthrochium maculatum), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Autumn:  Voilà! Fertile Seeds Ready for Harvesting

Here are the same three wildflowers in their seeding phase in the early autumn.  (Please note that two of the three photos below were generously provided by iNaturalist photographers, Ken Potter and mikaelamazzeo94.)

And again, some readers will remember from a November blog  that while nature was dispersing seed through wind, water and gravity this autumn, we humans were out among them, snipping selectively.  Good stewardship requires gathering some native seed so that 1) the seeds get to spots that need native seed, often our active restoration areas where seeds might not reach on their own; and 2) so that the township can save a bit of money on expensive native wildflower seed!

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Winnowing Out the Seed by Hand – and Foot!

On December 6, 2018 the final stage of our seed collecting came to fruition as Ben taught us techniques for separating the seed from the plants to get them ready to spread. Volunteers and staff gathered at the Parks Department pole barn on Buell Road on a cold winter morning to push the dry stalks through various sizes of screening.

Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning.

For some plants, that meant wearing leather gloves to rub the stalks against the screen so that the seed would fall into the tub underneath, as we did with White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) shown below.

For plants with sturdy structures, like the round heads of Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) below, it meant putting a screened box on a plastic  sheet on the floor and actually treading on the seed heads to help loosen the seed!

Ben treading on Menarda seed heads

Once the seeds were separated, they were turned over to Ben’s current stewardship specialist, Alyssa  Radzwion, and volunteer Dena Scher who poured the seeds into bags, labeled them with their scientific names and recorded the information.

Each species of seeds is weighed, labeled and readied for storage.

So here is our haul for this year!

Stewardship specialist Alyssa Radzwion with our stock of wild seed from 2018.

If we have more volunteers to gather seed  (hint, hint…), we could harvest even more in 2019! So consider the ancient pleasure of  sowing seed in the spring, gathering seed on an autumn day, and cleaning seed at a good old fashioned work bee next December. The hum of voices, the laughter, the earthy fragrances of different seeds – it’s a fun way to meet neighbors and help nature grow more of those beautiful wildflowers that are beginning to carpet our restored prairies. And to top it all off, you get to feel like a kid again as you rub, stomp and get covered in tiny silk parachutes!

Dr. Ben covered in the silky parachutes of common milkweed.

2 thoughts on “A Year in the Life of Wildflower Seeds

  1. Be sure to let me know when you are collecting seeds next fall, or whenever.

    Jane Hoyle

    On Fri, Jan 4, 2019 at 9:31 AM Natural Areas Notebook wrote:

    > Cam Mannino posted: “Collecting wildflower seed here in our township is an > enjoyable, labor intensive activity that proceeds through several stages in > all four seasons of the year. The flowers do all the work in the summer by > producing their colorful blooms. Then the humans ” >

    1. Hi Jane – we have our seed collecting workings every October. We’ll have the dates posted in the parks newsletter and on this website, but if you don’t see them feel free to give us a call!

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