Driftless Prairies: Native Habitat Restoration

Nature inspires awe!

Collecting Seeds

When we plant our prairies, we like to collect our own seed. It allows us to make certain the seed is coming from local ecotypes and it saves us money. When we first started learning about prairies, we learned all the plants backwards, meaning that we learned them by collecting the seeds at Goose Pond, a sanctuary of Madison Audubon Society.

Basic rules of collecting are simple:

  • Make sure you have permission to collect on the land
  • Collect no more than 50% of the target species
  • If there are less than 10 plants of the target species, I only collect 50% from half of those
  • Only collect if the seeds are ripe and ready to be collected; be sure to test for readiness each time you go out to collect
  • Know what the seed looks like so you know how to check if it’s ready – when ripe, most seeds are dark (brown or black) but there are a few that are not.

This last one may sound silly, but plants need time to send nutrients to their seeds. If those seeds are not hard, the plant is not finished with them and you risk wasting resources collecting seeds that aren’t viable. If the seed is hard when I press my thumbnail into it, then I know it’s ready.

Throughout the years of collecting, I tried a variety of equipment and found that the following works best for me.

  •  Stihl PP30 hand clippers with leather holder
  • Reusable zip ties or large carabiners
  • 5 gallon buckets
  • Click-together belt made of seatbelt-type material
  • Gloves – I prefer the Atlas brand – they are washable and come in a variety of colors
  • Large size white feed bags
  • Paper lunch-size bags
  • Various size plastic bins, swimming pools, plastic sleds, and/or tarp
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Stihl PP30 clippers with holder and the click-together belt

For most plants, it’s easy to see how to collect them by looking at them, but there are certain types of plants are collected in a particular fashion. Mostly, you want to minimize the amount of extra plant material you collect while simultaneously maximizing your time in the field. I gather large clusters of the seed heads and snip them at once. When gathering seeds that are in pods, be sure not to tip the pods upside down until they are in the bucket. Here are a few that you need to collect differently:

  1. Grasses – these should be stripped from the head with your hands in an upward motion. Always go the same direction as the seeds. Grasses do not hammermill well, so if you don’t use this method, you’re in for a long and tedious cleaning process!
  2. Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica and Anemone virginiana) – strip the cottony seed head off with your hand, leaving the stems.
  3. Purple Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) – just rub the head of the plant over a bucket. A good friend of mine called it “caressing the plant.”
  4. Evening Primrose (Oenethera biennis) – turn the seed head upside down in your bucket and smack it on the sides.
  5. White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba) – cup your hands on either side of the long stem of seed pods and pull upwards, releasing the pods into your hands. These will have weevils in them, which will need to be killed so the seeds aren’t eaten. To do this, you can freeze the seeds after they have been hammermilled and separated from the pods or before processing with a hammermill you can put a moth ball in the bucket, cover it with a towel for a day or so.

I collect into a bucket for those larger type seeds or those I am collecting in mass amounts. When my bucket is full, I dump them into a feed bag. For smaller amounts, I have a number of lunch bags with me inside of a bucket and I collect into them. Be sure to label the bags when you are done!

Once home, the seeds are spread into various containers to dry. Each receives a label as well; this label follows them throughout the process until they are finally mixed in preparation for spreading on the land. Each day be sure to turn the seeds so they have an opportunity to dry all the way through.

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Seeds drying in a variety of containers

Some plants “shoot” their seeds out of their pods when they are ripe. Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) and Lupine (Lupinus biennis) are two that are known for this. When spreading them out to dry, we lay screening material over the top; then when the seeds pop, they stay in the container. We have found that using clothes pins will secure screening material sufficiently.

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When possible we like to have the seeds dry in the sun; these have the screens on them because the seeds will pop out. When drying in the sun but be sure they are secure should the wind come up.

Once the seeds are dried, they will need to be cleaned by having the chaff removed and leaving mostly seed remaining.