By Judy Ferring
Wildflowers are in bloom. It’s time to start collecting the seeds for Spring 2022.
The job has become increasingly familiar on gardeners’ to-do lists. Many of the pollinators that support their work are in dire need of help. In some instances, Patrick County is in a unique position to help, lying as it does on the eastern edge of routes frequented by Monarch butterflies and Rusty Patched Bumble Bees, both endangered
“New seed harvests are coming in,” reported Prairie Moon Nursery in early July. By then, wood hyacinth and Virginia bluebells had finished storing nutrients and gone dormant, their bulbs ready for collection. Wild geranium, marsh marigolds and dutchmen’s breeches weren’t far behind. Various milkweeds and Joe Pye weeds are lifting their colorful heads right now.
You can order wildflower seeds and bulbs from specialists like Prairie Moon, and in some cases there may be no choice. But collecting them from local fields and gardens offers more advantages than simply saving money.
It’s another excuse to get out in the open air.
The plants you harvest have already proven they’re right for this environment.
These field trips will help increased familiarity with the stems and leaves of the young plants when they appear next spring.
Basic equipment is simple: small scissors or clippers, a marker and a porous (not plastic) collection bag for each type of seed you’re hunting. Most collectors used brown paper lunch bags but some gathering milkweed seed prefer to use those little net gift bags used for favors at showers and weddings. (More about that later.) Gloves are also a good idea for protection against thorns and plant sap that induces skin rashes in some people.
Best bets for collection can be as close as your own back yard. Always seek permission to forage on any land that’s not your own. It’s not only ethical, it’s smart, especially when searching rough terrain.
Tempting as it may be, don’t risk roadside collection. “We typically don’t want to encourage people to be in our medians and shoulders for safety reasons, which is a large part of our reason for creating our pollinator gardens at Safety Rest Areas, Park & Rides and other VDOT-owned facilities.” says Stacey Moulds of the Virginia Department og Transportation. “We have made exceptions, but this requires a Land Use Permit and also additional safety requirements such as PPE, traffic control, etc., which can be quite costly.”
In the case of lands under federal jurisdiction, there are permits (minimum $20) to be obtained, and fines as high as $5,000 if you collect without one.
The Xerxes Society recommends that no more than 20 percent of available seed from a wildflower stand being collected each year. Others advise that no more than a-third of the seed heads be taken from any one plant. Either way, the aim is to preserve the parent colony for the coming year as a hedge against a collector’s possible crop failure.
It’s important to avoid use of plastic containers for collecting. They’ll trap moisture and promote mold growth, making your seeds unusable. Cut the dried seed pod or flower head from the plant and drop it into the bag, then mark the bag with the seed type, date and location site.
Many veteran collectors use small net gift bags for milkweed pods, often color coding the bags to the type of milkweed. They slip the bags over a developing pod, gently tie it shut and leave it to ripen further.
When the seed pods start to pop at the sutures and the seeds “are a nice toffee brown,” it’s time to gather, counsels Rebecca Chandler, ethno-botonist at Save Our Monarchs. If you’re using the gift bag method, leave the seeds and fluff inside to dry; brown-baggers can spread them out inside an open cardboard box, or place the closed bag in a cool dry area. Estimates of drying time for either method vary from three days to three weeks.
The gift bag method appears well-suited for wild geranium, whose seed pods are said to resemble a crane’s bill. As the pod dries, its unique shape catapults the seed away from the parent plant.
Seed threshing is recommended by Skylar Christensen of NatureSeed.com. “Once the seeds have been collected, rub the collected material against a coarse screen to separate the chaff.” This helps cut down on mold spores and other potentially harmful debris, he explains.
Store the seeds until planting in a paper bag or envelope, “ideally a refrigerator set at 50 degrees Fahrenheit or less,” said Christensen. His company specializes in seed mixtures for specific areas and/or specific conditions – wildflower patches, deer resistance, beef cattle forage, big game food plots, etc.
More information about seed collecting for wildflower gardens will be available from members of the Patrick County Master Gardeners at 8:30 a.m. on July 27 on WHEO radio; and from 8 a.m. to noon on July 30 at the Stuart Farmers Market.