Volunteering to help collect native wildflower and native plant seeds is an easy, enjoyable, and important activity that is good for people and the environment.
One of the things I love about native plants is that they give you a sense of place connecting you to where you live, work, and visit.
Native plants are trees, wildflowers, bushes, grasses, and other plants that are adapted to live in a particular location (small or large) under a certain range of climatic conditions. They live off the land and survive on the rainfall available where they live. Native plants provide habitat, food, and beauty for people and other denizens of nature. Healthy ecosystems with thriving biodiversity need native plants.
Nowadays, there are many threats to native plants everywhere perhaps even in your own community or a place you enjoy visiting like a state or national park. These threats include land encroachment, air and water pollution, erosion, watershed degradation, and the spread of invasive plants (often an unintended consequence).
This is where you and I come in.
We can give Mother Nature a hand by volunteering to collect seeds that will then be used to preserve existing native plant communities, restore damaged native plant ecosystems, and to create new spaces for native plants to grow in public areas and our own yards.
Keep in mind that unless you are collecting seeds in your own yard or garden you need to obtain permission from the landowner which may be an individual, an organization, or a government agency.
My first volunteer seed collecting outing occurred on a recent Saturday morning at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA.
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve
My spouse and I often walk on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve enjoying the views of the ever-changing Pacific Ocean and trying to name the native plants we see near the trails.
Over the past year or so, we have participated in several volunteer shifts involving the removal of ice plant from the bluffs to make way for native plants to return. Ice plant may be beautiful along its native coast of South Africa, but here it is very invasive.
A couple of weeks ago, a volunteer seed collecting activity notice from the Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve landed in my email inbox. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to collect seeds for the space we had helped clear and to learn about collecting seeds. I immediately recruited my spouse and put the date on my calendar.
Thankfully, the Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve usually ask us to arrive at 9:00 a.m. for Saturday volunteer activities. This is much appreciated by me as I am not a morning person and unlikely to become one.
It was one of those gray and misty mornings damp but not dripping.
When my spouse and I arrived at the Ranch, our leader for the day, Holly Sletteland and a dozen or so volunteers were already gathered at the entrance so we all headed down the trail to the location where we would begin our seed collecting forays.
Holly is always well prepared with tools, snacks, and information. This day was no different. She showed us photos of the plants we would be collecting seeds from and then had us walk over to some of the plants so we could see what the flowers and seeds looked like dried and brown.
There was a stack of paper lunch bags and a cup filled with black Sharpie markers on a portable table. Holly instructed us to write down the name of the plant, location (meaning the Ranch), and the date on the bags we were going to use for collecting seeds and to only put one type of seed in each bag.
Left to right above: Duffy Burns and his granddaughter and Maria Susperreguy collecting seeds at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA on August 17, 2019 – photo credit Walt Andrus.
To ensure there are enough seeds for the Ranch wildlife to eat and for Mother Nature to replant, Holly asked us to take no more than 10% of the seeds from each plant.
We learned that one of the perks for volunteering that day was that if we wanted to we could collect some seeds for our own yards or gardens. Actually, I had asked Holly about that ahead of time because I am eager to try growing native plants from seeds that come from an area near my home. My spouse had thoughtfully brought along bags for us to collect our seeds in.
As the group dispersed to collect seeds my spouse and I headed back down the trail where we had seen some coast buckwheat bushes growing. This was one of my target species and luckily one of the species Holly had asked the volunteers to collect. We carefully selected some brown flowers and snipped them off the plant. I thanked the plant and we moved on to the next one.
This photo shows a bowl containing the coast buckwheat seeds we collected for our yard. You can see there is still a lot of chaff mixed in with the seeds even after we carefully cleaned them.
Moving from plant to plant we slowly filled up our five collecting bags with seaside golden yarrow, thrift sea pink, bush lupine, seaside daisy, and coast buckwheat seeds. We even found a few gum plants with seeds that were ready to collect (most of them were still blooming).
We made our way back and added our bags to the table that was now crowded with bulging bags filled with seeds.
Using a wooden box with a fine mesh screen, Holly demonstrated how to separate seeds from the dried flower heads. The seeds fall through the holes and much of the chaff remains on the screen. The stems and the other bits left over are returned to the land.
After thanking Holly for a fun and informative outing, we headed home to clean and store our own seed stash.
Hopefully, there will be a volunteer day in the future when we can go back and sow the seeds we collected.
Cleaning and Storing Seeds
The seeds from most of the plants were itty bitty and difficult to completely separate from the chaff. Perhaps we could have done it using a magnifying glass and tweezers but we decided to be satisfied with our seeds having some chaff mixed in. Hopefully, this won’t be detrimental to the seeds germinating when we plant them in November before the rainy season.
When you are collecting and cleaning seeds, you should expect a few bugs. Birds and squirrels are not the only wildlife that eats seeds. I do not like creepy crawly things, which is why I always wear gloves to do gardening. I realize that this is not a useful characteristic for a native plant enthusiast, but I have yet to morph into a bug-loving person.
A few bugs had come home in our seed bags but not many. However, there were a fair number of creatures looking like itsy bitsy spiders living inside some of the lupine seed pods. The hard-shelled seeds seemed undamaged. I picked the seeds out of my sorting tray and periodically dumped the spiders into the yard.
Compared to most of the seeds the bush lupine seeds were easy to clean. The seeds grow in pods (like peas) and are easily discerned. As the seeds ripen the pods turn brown and then twist open flinging the seeds away from the plant. The trick is to collect the pods before they burst.
We repurposed several paper envelopes from the last two California Native Plant Society San Luis Obispo chapter seed exchanges to store our seeds. I left the tops open so any remaining bugs can leave at their leisure.
After placing the seed envelopes in an open cardboard box, I set it on a shelf inside a cupboard in the garage so the seeds will have a safe and cool place to rest until we plant them in November.
This volunteer seed activity made me feel extra happy. We contributed to helping the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve continue to be the awesome and beautiful place that it is. And we are giving native plants a place in our yard with hopes that they will grow and thrive and set a good example for the neighborhood.
Volunteer to Collect Native Plant Seeds Yourself
If you are looking for a way to give back to your community and to help make Earth a better place, volunteering to collect native plant seeds might be just the activity for you. It is easy, fun, and rewarding.
Depending on where you live, there may still be opportunities to volunteer to collect native plant seeds at an open space in your own community. Use your Internet search window to look for events. If it is past collecting time, there are still things you can do.
- Attend a local seed exchange (you don’t always have to have seeds to share).
- Join a native plant society, botanical garden association, or seed saving group in your area so you are prepared for next year.
- Visit your local library. Some library systems like the ones in San Luis Obispo, CA and Rochester, MN offer seeds packets for library cardholders.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”Lao Tzu
Featured Image at Top: If you look closely you can see a western fence lizard sitting atop this coast buckwheat plant sunning itself and enjoying the view of the Pacific Ocean from the bluff at the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA on August 24, 2019 – photo credit Tori Poppenheimer.
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- California Native Plant Propagation – by Matt Teel, California Native Plant Society, 01/03/18
- How to Collect and Store Seeds – Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
- How to save your wildflower seeds with Hannah Grows – GrowWildUK, 08/03/17 (short and informative video)
- Seed Collection and Saving for the Casual Gardener – by Marti Rutherford, California Native Plant Society-San Luis Obispo, April 2016
- Volunteers collect 1M eelgrass seeds in South Bay to restore underwater meadows – by Tamara Dietrich, Daily Press, 05/30/17
- What’s in a seed? Why prairie seed collection matters – by Erin Korsmo, Three Rivers Park District, 08/20/18
- Why do volunteers hand-collect seed for FMR? – by Karen Schik, Friends of the Mississippi River, 10/08/18