Harvesting Native and Indigenous Perennial Seeds

CARTERVILLE, Ill.— Native species are a great addition to butterfly gardens, rain gardens and backyards. These plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur. One way to acquire native plants is to collect your own seeds. This can come from plants you already have or from those growing wild in your area.

During a recent seed collecting workshop hosted by University of Illinois Extension, Horticulture Educator Austin Little shared tips and techniques on collecting and harvesting seeds for use in the spring.

So where can you find native plant seeds? These seeds can often be found in areas 10-15 feet along roadways, power line right-of-ways and remnant prairies which are undisturbed or non-farmed areas. Do not collect in scientific areas undergoing reestablishment or restoration, areas being naturalized, arboretums or private land.

How do you know when the seeds are ripe and ready to be harvested? Seed ripening and timing of harvest will differ by species, environmental conditions and regional adaptation of plants. Signs to look for are seeds that fall easily from a plant, pods that lose their green color and begin to turn brown, seed capsules that are busting open or stems that are brown, dry and brittle. Most seeds are ripe 4-6 weeks after blooming and will be plump, hard and dark in color. Seeds that are soft and green are not ripe.

What are tips and best practices for seed collecting? Seeds can be stripped by hand from many species or scissors or shears can also be used. To get a good diverse sample of each species, follow the 10:1 rule: for every ten plants of species, collect seeds from one plant. Generally speaking, near neighbors are more closely related genetically than distant plants, so it is important to collect seed from throughout the population. Collect on a dry day when seeds are not wet with dew or rain. Do not take more than fifty percent of seeds, especially when collecting on remnant prairies.

To prevent microbial infection, collect seeds in a brown paper bags to allow moisture to escape. Label the seed bag with the date, location, type of site (dry, mesic, sandy, etc.) and the name of the plant. Do not leave collected material in closed vehicles that may heat up in the sun and become humid. If seeds are excessively fleshy or moist, spread them out on newspaper to dry which will prevent molding during storage. Collected seeds can be dispersed immediately in another area, however, if you plan to store the seeds to plant at a later date, additional steps need to be taken to ensure the quality of the seeds.

Stratification simulates the natural conditions seeds undergo in nature to germinate. The exposure to cold, damp conditions signals to the seed that winter has occurred and that it will be safe to germinate when the soil warms up in spring. Stratification can be done by putting seeds in a moist, inert media such as peat, sand or perlite. It should then be stored cold (in a refrigerator) for 6-10 weeks. 

Little concluded the program be sharing resources for seed collecting and storing including a restoration guide from the Tallgrass Prairie Center as well as a listing of Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) sites through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

As Horticulture Educator, Little oversees horticulture programming within Franklin, Jackson, Perry, Randolph and Williamson counties. He is instrumental in working with the Master Gardener and Master Naturalist volunteer programs. He is available to assist the community and answer questions on a variety horticulture related topics including home gardening, residential and commercial horticulture, small-scale fruit and vegetable production and urban agriculture, soil fertility, integrated pest management as well as landscaping. For more information on seed collecting, contact Little at (618) 687-1727.

University of Illinois Extension provides equal opportunities in programs and employment. If you need a reasonable accommodation to participate in any of our programs, please contact your local county extension office. Early requests are strongly encouraged to allow sufficient time for meeting access needs.

News Source: Austin Little (618) 687-1727, little84@illinois.edu

News Writer: Heather Willis (618) 357-2126, hdwillis@illinois.edu