Seed Sourcing for Restoration in a Changing Climate

I had the opportunity to attend a Seed Sourcing Symposium at the Chicago Botanic Gardens on June 13. It was an important meeting and just the beginning of a very important discussion. The meeting moved from historical aspects of seed sourcing to current day projects to needed future actions. As promised, the day led to more questions than answers. I was surprised to learn organizations, government entities, and large institutions were focusing and directing resources to this topic. I’ll provide some highlights from the speakers. Check out the Native Seed and Plant Sourcing paper for indepth information on this topic.

Seed sourcing is the process of deciding which native seeds or plants will germinate and survive where you are planting them.

Historically, the native seed zones were created to limit movement of seeds; the goal was to prevent genetic maladaptation. When compared to current climate data, the 1960-1990 data used to create these maps is showing measurable differences. Climate change is happening quicker than we expect. The result is expected to be increases in extremes; for example, heat waves are expected to increase by 60% and increase in duration. Perhaps we need dynamic seed zones rather than the current static ones. Some work has been done to create provisional seed zones for the western part of the U.S.

What used to be “how local is local” has changed to “is local still local.” Speakers stressed the need to think ecologically when choosing species and sources. Latitude is an important component of ecologically-relevant seeds, especially as we consider climate change, which cannot be ignored.

Can we rely on adaptive evolution to rescue our wild populations from climate change? Can pollinators keep up with flowering evolution? Research is being done using trees in the northwest but we were cautioned that one species example cannot be extrapolated to another.

Commercial native seed companies were represented. They expressed a need for scientific evaluation of seed genetics. At present, their source identification is on the honor system. Native seed is not sold based on genetic standards; it is seed collected from native populations where no genetic testing of parent material has been conducted. It was emphasized that we are not able to genetically pinpoint a species. There is no historical genetic data on plants. We know genetic material is moved about via insects; we also know it is moved by bacteria and fungi.

Jack Pizzo, a commercial seed producer, used the analogy of Dr. Frankenstein to describe our current restoration practices. We take all these disparate parts with huge variability and put them together to recreate an ecosystem. These puzzle pieces are not static nor are they well studied. What is science and what is opinion when specifications of provenance for projects are written for commercial suppliers? Supply and demand must be considered. Is the demand for certain provenance, which may or may not be “genetically appropriate” keeping up with the economic realities?

A couple of presenters encouraged folks to “poke holes” in current practices. Not as a way to negatively criticize but as a way to “make it better.” Playing devil’s advocate and rethinking restoration practices is imperative and should be encouraged. Nature isn’t static. Nature doesn’t have a rote schedule. Neither should we.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has established a National Seed Strategy for Rehabialition and Restoration; the success of this is based on “a nationwide network of native seed collectors”—from private individuals to organizations. The ultimate goal is to preserve our native seed stock and develop driven seed zones for each plant and tree which can be used for seed transfer. Our current use of serendipity rather than strategy backed with scientific evidence will not create resilient ecosystems. “We need the same forward-thinking management we demand for other natural resources such as timber and oil,” states Peggy Olwell, BLM.

While the BLM has initiated the first steps to preserve and protect our native seed sources, they readily admit that making sure the “right seed is in the right place at the right time” is the responsibility of the practitioner. And gaps in getting the information from the scientific community to the practitioner cannot be denied.

Projects already initiated

  •  Natural Selections – The Natural Selections Program develops high quality, genetically diverse, regionally adapted native seed for prairie and wetland restorations.
  • Prairie on Farms – Tallgrass Prairie Center has begun a new project to share knowledge of prairie reconstruction and management techniques with rural landowners.
  • National Seed Strategy – Their mission is to ensure the availability of genetically appropriate seed to restore viable and productive plant communities and sustainable ecosystems.
  • Seed Zone Summit – The northeastern area of the Forest Service will be holding this summit in 2017 to develop seed zones, develop guidelines for their use, and define terminology. The date and location are to be determined.
  • Nature Serve has created a Climate Change Vulnerability Index to identify plants and animals most vulnerable to climate change.

Some needs that were discussed

  • Commercial seed producers need to unite and create a native seed organization that represents the interests of those producing, sourcing, and planting native seeds. At present, there is no political voice or educational component for this industry.
  • We need direct funding for plants in our federal, state, and local budget. The BLM has no direct funding for plants at present.
  • We need educational forums to connect the science to the practitioner. This is often lamented in restoration but was specifically noted with regard to seed sourcing and understanding of “genetically appropriate” plant materials.

Monitoring and Management—a sensible pairing

This article was written by Beth Goeppinger, WI DNR Naturalist at Richard Bong State Recreation Area. It demonstrates how important monitoring is to our management practices.

Richard Bong State Recreation Area is a heavily used 4,515 acre property in the Wisconsin State Park system.  It is located in western Kenosha County.  The area is oak woodland, savanna, wetland, sedge meadow, old field and restored and remnant prairie.   Surveys of many kinds and for many species are done on the property—frog and toad, drift fence, phenology, plants, ephemeral ponds,upland sandpiper, black tern, grassland and marsh birds, butterfly, small mammal, waterfowl, muskrat and wood ducks to name a few.  Moths, except for the showy and easy-to-identify species, have been ignored.

That is until volunteer moth surveyor, Steve Bransky, came onto the scene.  Steve had done a few moth and butterfly surveys here and there on the property. But that changed in 2013. Armed with mercury vapor lights, bait and a Wisconsin scientific collector’s permit, along with our permission, he began surveying in earnest.

He chose five sites in woodland, prairie and savanna habitats.  He came out many nights in the months moths might be flying.  After finding that moth populations seemed to cycle every 3-5 days, he came out more frequently.  His enthusiasm, dedication and never-ending energy have wielded some surprising results.  Those results have in turn, guided us in our habitat management practices.

Of the 2,000 moth species found in the state, Steve confirmed close to 700 on the property, and he isn’t done yet!  He found one of the biggest populations of the endangered Papaipema silphii moths (Silphium borer) in the state as well as 36 species of Catocola moths (underwings), one of the densest and most diverse populations in the state.  Six confirmed state records, over one hundred range extensions and over sixty county records make the monitoring even more impressive.

So what does all that have to do with management?   Obviously the way we have managed in the past has created appropriate habitat for these species.  Mowing and prescribed burning and invasive species removal is our management regime.  We try to burn each habitat unit on a three-year cycle but due to budgets and weather that often turned into 5-7 years which as it turns out, was beneficial to the insects.

There has long been a balance in prescribed burning, native habitat must be maintained and burning is the most efficient way to do that but you also don’t want to burn too much and negatively affect the insect life.  What the monitoring has helped us do is change and fine-tune our management strategies to better benefit the insects as well as the habitat.

We now make sure we have unburned habitat around the edges for recruitment.  We mow some of the higher quality remnants more frequently than we burn them.  We will also purposely try to leave unburned spots around host plants in places these populations are or could be.  The monitoring data has also affected our brushing decisions for instance, Catocala crataegii (Hawthorn Underwing) needs hawthorn, which is present but not in large numbers.  To that end, we are focusing on planting and keeping larger blocks of hawthorn.

They say that knowledge is power and I think that is true.  We were lucky before in our management but now that we know the amazing diversity of moths on the property, we can consciously and effectively manage for all the resources.  You have to know your site, whether it’s birds, plants, mammals or insects before you manage it, not just burn it all.  Now, I realize not everyone is lucky enough to have access to a moth expert but perhaps you could contact a local university or museum or resource expert to do some monitoring, or you could bait and take photographs for identification.    Just get out there and collect data to help guide your decision making, it makes good sense.

Note: Steve Branskey is a member of Wisconsin Entomological Society

Woodland Restoration Efforts

We bought additional acreage in 2012 and this summer the work in the woods begins. The additional land consists of 12 acres of prairie and about 2 acres of woods. These woods are adjacent to the other 3 acres we bought in 2005. Below are a couple of photos before any work began.

While one could walk through the woods, visually, it was just a wall of invasive brush.

While one could walk through the woods, visually, it was just a wall of invasive brush.


A different angle shows the complete neglect of this woodland ecosystem.

Our initial viewing of the first 3-acres of woods in 2005 was a struggle because it was filled with garlic mustard, box elder trees, and brambles. They had harvested the lumber many years ago and left the slash (tops of the trees) laying wherever it fell. These issues made managing it difficult because walking through it was a challenge. We tackled the box elder trees first, then the garlic mustard, and lastly the brambles – and we learned a great deal from this.

As we thought about and decided on a management plan for the new wooded acreage, we took our education from the prior woodland work and applied it. We reversed the plan, brushcutting through the brambles and non-native herbaceous plants using the saw blade of the brushcutter. Then we treated the clumps of stems from the brambles with 20% Garlon 4 and made the stems into brush piles. By doing this first, it allowed us to work on removing the boxelder trees without the tripping hazards of these brambles and also without them ripping at our clothes and skin. We realize some stems were probably missed being spraying; our plan is to spray the re-sprouts in spring.

Next we tackled the boxelders (and continue to tackle them at the writing of this). This is a difficult tree rid the woods of with one cutting because when the cut portion is treated, it will resprout around the base, underneath the felling cut! We are prepared to re-cut and treat those in the spring as well. We have a pretty good system where Jim fells the larger trees and I cut them up and we both work to pile them into brush piles. It’s amazing how much more can be done with both of us on chainsaws!

We have discovered many native plants in the woods already – Wild columbine and Blue cohosh to mention just a couple.  We’ve also seen some new types of fungi. Our first 3 acres has yielded some very nice native plants without having to plant or seed the woods. They just needed to be free of the invasive plants! 

We’ve made great progress as shown by this photo, which is the same location as the first one commenting on the “wall of invasive brush.” There is a view into the woods now!

An after view into the woods, showing the wall of invasives has been "tamed."

This fall, we will go through and spray for garlic mustard. We use the Escort cocktail (see below), applying is as a foliar spray using our backpack sprayers. This will be the first treatment of garlic mustard in these woods. In the other 3 acres, we worked diligently, spraying in spring and fall. We began treating with 2% glyphosate but after 4 years found the plants were coming up deformed, flowering, and setting seeds; we did not test to see if the seeds were viable as it didn’t matter at this point — we were not going to do double work, meaning spray AND pull the same plants!!! We now only spray in the spring and then go through and hand pull any that we missed or any that came up after our spraying. We consider this 3 acres to be “under control and manageable” for garlic mustard. So, there is hope!!

In winter, we will burn the many brush piles we have created by clearing the invasive bushes and trees. Although the brambles are native, we remove them because they wreak havoc with anyone who wants to manage the land for other invasives and they spread prolifically, creating less diversity.  They do not produce fruit so they have little value as food for wildlife.

In spring of 2014, we’ll do another spray of garlic mustard before any of the other herbaceous plants have popped through the soil, then we’ll include this acreage in our hand pulling efforts. We’ll also blow the ashes from the burned brush piles using our backpack blower. Ashes are quite acidic and if left will change the composition of the soil. The goal is to allow the soil to rejuvenate its healthy microbes and other life forms. We will have to control weeds in these areas for the first year but we aren’t planning to seed these areas. Our hope is that the natives will fill in these spots as they have done in the first 3-acre woodland.

Escort cocktail is a 2 step process:

1.  Make stock solution

  1. 2 oz Oust® or Escort®
  2. 1 gallon water
  3. 4 oz ammonia
  4. 16 oz Activator 90 surfactant

2.  To mix foliar solution

  • 8 oz stock solution
  • 3 gallon of water
  • Blue Hi-liter dye

NOTE: We no longer use Escort, but have switched to Garlon (trichlopyr) mixed with water.