How to collect and plant native wildflower seeds

Farm & Dairy
These coneflower seedheads are ripe and ready to harvest. Sara Welch photo.

These coneflower seedheads are ripe and ready to harvest. Sara Welch photo.

(FARM AND DAIRY) – One of the most beneficial things you can do for local ecosystems is incorporate native wildflowers into your landscaping.

We could not survive without pollinators. Bees are the most important keystone species on the planet and they’re running out of food sources. You may already plant flowers in your garden that the bees visit from time to time; however, none are more suited to the bees’ needs than native wildflowers from the same area. It’s in their genetics.

Native plants have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to make themselves uniquely adapted to survive where they naturally grow. All of this evolution makes them genetically superior to non-native plants, which need special maintenance to survive in the same conditions. Because natives are able to thrive so easily, without cultivation, they have more to offer their natural communities, which include pollinators.

Pollinators rely on native plants for food, shelter and reproduction. As areas where native plants are allowed to grow freely disappear and become developed, pollinator populations continue to decline. It’s important to incorporate them in residential landscapes to help these struggling populations survive, and hopefully, start growing.

You can purchase wildflower seed packs that contain native varieties at local garden centers, but it’s better to collect seedheads from the wildflowers around your home. For one, you don’t have to worry about unintended weeds or invasive seeds being accidentally included in the mixture of seeds you’re planting. And for two, seeds from plants near your home are uniquely equipped to survive in your backyard — they’re used to the soil, climate and perfectly equipped to fulfill the needs of the pollinators nearby.

Where to find native seeds

Varieties to collect. If you’ve never collected seeds from native plant varieties you may be wondering what to collect. You can collect seeds from common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed, black-eyed Susan, grey-headed coneflower, purple coneflower, spiderworts, aster, goldenrod and more in Ohio and Pennsylvania during fall. (Find more native wildflower varieties in the related links below.)

Rural areas. In rural areas, you might be able to collect seeds on your own property or ask your neighbor or the farmers down the road to collect them on their property. You can find native wildflowers growing along fields, woods, roads, railroad tracks and in highline corridors.

Suburban areas. You may still be able to find native plants in your yard or your neighbor’s yard. But it’s more likely you’ll have to look along roads, railroad tracks, bike trails and around commercial property that hasn’t been developed yet or has been sitting vacant for a while. Before you collect on anyone’s property — commercial or residential — make sure to ask permission first.

Urban areas. It’s going to be a lot harder to find native wildflowers in the city. There may be some opportunities in grown-up industrial lots and commercial properties, but make sure you have permission first. You may have to travel just outside of the city to find wildflowers growing along the roadside.

Do not collect from areas where there isn’t an abundance. You don’t want to destroy an established native plant colony or compromise the survival of wildlife that depend on it by collecting too many seeds for it to continue on next season. The general rule of thumb is to take no more than 10% of the seeds from the colony. So only harvest from one out of every 10 plants and make sure to collect seeds from throughout the population rather than one clump to ensure genetic diversity among your seeds. If you notice signs of trampled grass or stripped or removed seedheads like someone else has already collected from the area, do not take any more seeds from that area.

Do not collect from areas with an established population of invasive plant species. Before you head out to collect species, you should acquaint yourself with invasive plants that grow in your region to avoid accidentally collecting those seeds and planting them in your yard. Not only will they be tough to get rid of and out-compete other plants in your garden, but you will also be aiding the spread of the invasive to a new location where it can spread and take root on its own.

Do not collect from public lands or protected areas. State, national and local parks are often homes to research and protected areas that house sensitive or federally protected plant species. Not only do you not want to compromise these plants by collecting seeds from them, but you also don’t want to damage them by walking through them to collect seeds from more abundant native wildflowers. That’s why it’s best to appreciate them from a distance on public lands.

Do not collect from rare or endangered species. Never collect seeds from rare or endangered species except as part of an authorized species recovery program approved by the appropriate government regulatory body. 

How to collect native seeds

goldenrod seedheads
Ripe goldenrod seedheads can be collected by removing the entire seedhead, picking the individual seeds from the wilted and fuzzy blooms or by placing paper bags over the seedheads and waiting for them to drop naturally. Sara Welch photo.

Determining when they are ready to be collected. Seeds should be harvested when they are ripe, about 4-6 weeks after blooming. Indicators of ripeness include seeds that fall easily from a plant, pods that have turned from green to brown, seed capsules that are bursting open and dry and brittle stems. Seeds will be plump[, hard and dark-colored. Soft, green seeds are not ripe. Seed ripening time will differ depending on species, environmental conditions and regional adaptation of plants. Because seeds do not have an exact time when they become ripe, checking every couple of days can help you harvest at the right time.

Collect seeds on a dry day. Collect seeds when they are not wet with dew or rain to prevent the possibility of mold growth.

Paper bags. Using paper bags to harvest seeds may be an option to ensure you harvest seeds at the right time. By placing a paper sack over immature seeds and tying it off with string, you’ll be able to collect the seeds as they mature and drop. Meanwhile, enough light and air will reach the plant to allow it to continue growing.

Using a tarp. Catching seeds in a drop cloth or tarp is another option for harvesting seeds. When seeds are ripe, they will release from the plant on their own. Shake the plant gently and catch the seeds by placing a tarp beneath.

Cutting them away from the plant. Seed pods and seedheads are sometimes easier to harvest by removing the entire pod or seedhead with pruners or scissors. When you get home you can separate the seeds from the other plant material.

Record information about the seeds you collected. Regardless of how you collect your native wildflower seeds, you should label the paper bags you put them in when you collect them. The seed bag should be labeled with the date, location, type of site (based on moisture, soil type and sun exposure) and the name of the plant.

How to store and stratify native seeds

Removing plant debris to separate seeds. Separating seeds from plant debris reduces the volume of seeds to be stored and reduces the chances of contamination with insect eggs, mold spores and other seed-disease vectors. The easiest way to separate seeds from plant debris is by rubbing the seeds with the plant material attached against a screen with a gloved hand.

Drying and storing native seeds. If seeds are moist or fleshy allow them to dry out on newspaper before storing. After they are dry and ready for storage, keep them in paper bags or envelopes and keep them in a dry, dark, cool place. A temperature of 50 F or less and humidity of 50% or lower are ideal for storing seeds.

Stratifying native seeds. Stratification simulates the natural conditions seeds need to experience to germinate. Cold, damp conditions signal that winter has occurred and it’s safe to germinate when the soil warms up in the spring. Complete stratification by putting seeds in moist peat, sand or perlite and storing them in a refrigerator for 6-10 weeks.

Planting native seeds. Native seeds can actually be planted in the soil in the fall without cleaning, drying, storing or stratifying. They will be exposed to natural winter weather outdoors and take root on their own in the spring. However, if you prefer to store them, they should be planted in the spring when the soil warms up.

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