A lot of my fieldwork relies on locating populations of local wildflower species that meet a certain set of criteria. Those criteria can include life history, population size, disturbance regime, crowdedness, etc. Whenever we locate a beautiful population, everyone gets excited. The kicker is that we don’t need anything to do with the flowers…we need their seeds so that we can sow them into various experiments. Seed collection from wild plants, however, is not an easy thing. Locating the populations can be challenging in itself, but collecting the seeds, and dealing with them is even harder…and these are my stories.
Plant populations are never really safe
One of the battles we are constantly fighting is the battle with the city/township we are sampling in. We always find beautiful populations of species that fit all of the necessary criteria, we monitor them all summer, and when the seed is ready to collect, boom, they are gone. Cut down… no more… gone. One time, I was monitoring a fairly rare species population for months, and I checked the seeds to make sure they were fully mature. After I looked at them, I decided to wait another couple of days just to be sure. A few days later we were driving down windy old Opinicon Rd and we were just rounding a curve where the population was. There it was, right around the bend, the flashing yield light on the back… the county tractor mowing the roadsides. We pulled the field van over, staring at the remnants of the once perfectly mature seeds now mixed in with gravel and dirt along the side of the road. I’ll be the first to admit that roadside sampling isn’t the best idea, but sometimes you’re limited to that. It’s always a dangerous choice, but when it does work out it is so, so, so worth it.
Collecting seeds is easier said than done
In the summer of 2013, we were collecting the seeds of houndstongue, a fairly uncommon local species. There was one big population with hundreds of individuals right by the water in the west end of Kingston. We knew they didn’t mow this area, and as such, the safety of these populations was not an issue…phew. However, houndstongue have a thick, burr-like outer coating with little barbs that often stick to, well, anything it comes in contact with. I was walking through the population and didn’t notice that when I walked out, my black pants were covered in seeds. Good thing I had field assistants. After all that is what they are perfect for, helping with things like picking seeds off of your pants. I’ll have to start including that in future job descriptions.
We have also collected a lot of seed from species that have a papus on their seed, which is useful in wind dispersal. The problem with wind-dispersed seeds like this is that the second they are ready, they are gone. Too many times we have visited populations that were ready for seed collection and a sudden gust of wind sent all the seeds trickling down the road in the wind. It’s a hard life as a seed collector, I tell you.
Seed processing can be soul-crushing
For various experiments over the years, seeds had to be processed. Processing a seed can mean different things for different species. For example, some seeds require very little processing, like common mullein. You just walk up to the plant, shake it into a bag, and hundreds of thousands of seeds fall nicely into the bag. Other species are more difficult – like cow vetch, which grows in a bean-like pod and requires you to sit at a table for endless hours, popping open the seed pods. The seeds often project outwards, bumping along the table and crashing to the floor. I’m sure we have an entire seed bank under the cupboards in the lab. Another problem when processing seeds is that often material from the seed pods gets stuck in the processed seeds. This can affect the seeds when weighing them and thus this debris has to be removed. I had a particularly annoying species for this: motherwort. I tried using sieves of all different grades to remove the debris, but I just couldn’t make it work. So in a moment of desperation I turned my desk fan towards the sieve filled with seeds and debris and just turned it on. Just like magic, the seeds stayed in place and the debris blew away. Albeit, that could have ended very poorly and of course there was a lot of clean up after that but it was well worth it.
Every now and then I’m sure you walk past a dandelion here and there and pull its seeds off, rolling them between your fingers and maybe even sending them floating away into the sky. Sometimes seed collection can be just that easy but more often than not you’re met with one or many challenges along the way!