Half-Pint’s new seed library, how-to collect seeds

By: Jack Rouse

This summer I collected a lot of seeds. It felt constructive and restorative while everything else was put on hold. I was able to look forward to a time when the weather wasn’t so hot and they could be planted to bring more life to the world. 

Every native seed planted is part of a practice to reconnect with the natural cycles and sensations that we’ve become out of touch with. Intently checking seeds to spot their progress after sprouting is awe-inspiring. I only wish they didn’t have to be our seeds for us to be invested in them. 

I see each new plant we grow as a miniscule amount toward the debt we owe to the nonhuman creatures from whom we’ve extracted so much. Therefore, the question I ask myself when I come across an impressive front yard is—What is it doing for the birds and bugs? Are there fruiting trees and bushes? Any milkweed? Are there hiding spots, decomposing logs, or wood piles? Which plants provide hosting sites for insects larva? This criteria recognizes that we share this word with trillions of other beings and even cultivated, human-inhabited spaces like yards are parts of nature.

Every landscape is dynamic. Plants shift, die, expand, and interact with one another in ways that we would never expect. Each season upends the previous one’s relationships as different plants thrive under new conditions. There is no point when an ecosystem, natural or human made, is complete or balanced.

The seeds themselves deserve the same wonder that the landscapes do. They come in an assortment of shapes, sizes, and colors. Each one perfectly adapted for environmental factors that we aren’t fully aware of. There are popular techniques to make the seeds more likely to germinate, for instance, putting them in a freezer to mimic the winter, scraping off a small slip of the seed cover, or soaking them in water. 

Even before you get to seed whispering and identifying their requirements to grow, you have to separate the seed from the flower, seed pod, or stalk. The diversity of plants’ reproductive processes makes this a difficult task. For example, you have prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) that has thousands of tiny seeds attached to its flower, Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) which has an cluster of seed pods that wrap around one another, or American bundleflower (Centaurea americana) which has a handful of seeds in each flower buried under cotton balls worth of fluff. Each plant requires a different technique or combination of techniques to clean the seed before planting.

Joe Marcus and Charmaine Richardson, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Technique one: Winnowing

The set up seems simultaneously too basic and too far fetched to work. You place a large, flat container directly in front of an electric fan. You then sprinkle the plant material in front of the blowing fan. The heavy seeds fall right into the container while the chaff is blown away.

Winnowing works well when you have lots of seed shell that needs to be removed from the seeds. I used it with Illinois bundleflower to great effect. First, I very gently pulsed a handful of seed pods in the blender to break up the outer casing and release the seeds. Then bit by bit released the resulting mulch in front of my fan. You can see the results for yourself.

Technique two: Straining

Oftentimes, the seeds are small and everything else is big. This is especially the case with Lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora) which has seeds that are about half a millimeter thick. In my summer seed saving exuberance, I grabbed two lunch bags full of beebalm, certain that it would be an easy task to prepare this ubiquitous species for planting. However, the size of the seed in relation to the seed tube made it incredibly difficult to isolate the seeds for storage.

Until I used cheese cloth to separate the seeds. First, I crushed the beebalm with my hands and put the entire flower in a bowl. Next, I covered the bowl with two layers of cheesecloth and fastened the cover tight with a rubber band. Then, I flipped the bowl over a different container and shifted it from side to side, beat on it like a tambourine, and did whatever I could to encourage the tiny seeds to slip to the bottom of the bowl and fall through the strainer. 

Technique three: Blending

I mentioned earlier that prairie coneflower has thousands of tiny seeds attached to the flower. When you have hundreds of flowers, each with thousands of seeds—you try to find ways to avoid doing all the separation by hand. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. 

I was concerned that sticking delicate seeds in a blender was a clear indication that I had no idea what I was doing. Because I didn’t and was largely making it up as I went along. However, my research now informs me that putting seeds in a blender is perfectly legitimate.

It made quick work of the prairie coneflower and taught me something I didn’t know about coneflower—when disturbed, it releases a smell that the USDA described as being “similar to anise or licorice.”

Technique four: Burning

In my exuberance after realizing I could save hours of time by blending seeds, I decided to pursue a more natural solution to separate the American basketflower seeds. Knowing that many prairie plants are adapted to survive (and thrive) periodic burns, I thought it might make sense that I could burn away the American basketflower puff leaving the seeds behind. Despite a strong feeling that lighting plant material on fire inside a metal mixing bowl in my kitchen was a bad idea, I decided to give it a shot.

The result, other than a smell unfamiliar to the indoors, was a pile of black ash with no identifiable seeds. Not eager to admit defeat, I poured the burnt material into the emergency water bowl that I had set aside in case things went wrong hoping that water would allow for an easier separation of ash and seed. What I got was a bowl of black sludge and relief that I hadn’t burned my house down. 

This is all to say that perhaps we should all spend a little more time around seeds this fall. The planting season is rapidly approaching and there are still seeds to be collected—inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Indian mallow (Abutilon fruticosum), Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and more are ready to be collected and can probably be found around your neighborhood.

We’re sharing our passion for native plants by starting a seed library. You can request seeds to be mailed to you for free at our webpage or if you have seeds to share you can email us at halfpintprairie@utenvironment.org.

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