Beginning late spring, seed collection became a priority for the restoration crew at Shaw. Earlier this year, there was a meeting between the horticulture and restoration staff and the seed bank manager where a list of species to collect for the IMLS Woods was determined.
Collecting, processing, and sowing native seed is an essential part of restoration. Both removing invasives and sowing seed need to happen together. Once invasive plants are removed in an area, if we don’t help the native plants establish quickly, the undesired plants will find their way back and continue to dominate. Depending on the area being restored, the species list will vary. An upland woodland seed mix would be different from a wetland or a glade because different plants thrive in each type of ecosystem.
We currently spend about half of our time spraying invasives and the other half collecting seed. The first step in seed collection is knowing where large populations of a species are. Luckily for us, there are staff who have worked at Shaw for over 20 years and know exactly where most of the plants are. I also try to mentally note where certain plants are when they are flowering so we can go back and collect later. It’s much harder to find them when they’re no longer blooming.
Once we’ve located the seed, we wait until they’re mature. We reference a spreadsheet created from past years’ experience that contains the range of dates each species was collected in. This gives us an idea of when to start checking for ripeness, though the timing is still greatly influenced by the weather conditions of that year. For example, we had a very early spring this year (it was 70°F in February!) which resulted in atypical and unpredictable phenology of many species. We can visually assess whether a seed is ready to collect. Mature seeds are brown or black, hard, and sometimes shiny, as opposed to white or green and soft. We look for seed heads or stems that are dry and turning straw-colored as well as seed pods that have opened on their own. If the seeds fall off with a light shake or touch, they are ready! Not all seeds in one population or even on one plant will be ripe at the same time. Most of the time, seeds can after-ripen, which means they will mature on the drying rack, so we aren’t too worried about snipping off stems that contain some unready seeds. It’s a good time to collect when most of the seeds are mature and some have fallen off on their own.