Boots On The Ground Conservation

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  • Seed Shed Doings, July 2016

    Dear Prairie Enthusiast,
    Seed picking for the fall restorations is underway, although the bulk of seed harvesting won’t begin until August. Check our schedule here, if you forgot to print it out earlier. As always, we are depending on you to help us get the work done.

    The Prairie Divas have been busy and we already have 34 species dried, or drying, in the seed shed. Many of these are trace quantities harvested from small plant populations—but it only takes one seed to grow into a new population—and that’s our aim.

    I’ve kept busy with weeding, weeding and more weeding…if you’re a gardener, you know how it goes. I am also working out percentages for the seed that we harvest. So far I’ve calculated the amount of seed to chaff for 12 species and have a thirteenth drying for later processing. We do this to get a reasonable estimate of how much we need to pick to attain that magic formula of one seed from that plant on so many square feet of restoration.

    Here’s how it works: Barbara or Laura bring me a small quantity of the plant in question direct from the field and I lay it out on a cookie sheet to dry. I then weigh the sample to get a gross weight (usually no more than half an ounce of chaff and seed combined) and then I separate the seed from the chaff, weigh the seed and divide chaff into seed to get a percentage of seed in the sample.

    Here’s what I’ve found out: Bugs and caterpillars must be evicted before any weighing can take place! Every species has a different way of ‘packaging’ the seed it produces. Some seed comes in capsules that explode when dry, e.g. Phlox pilosa (to effect maximum seed distribution) some have fuzzy tails attached, e.g. Clematis virginiana (they remind me of kites floating on air, and perhaps that’s the aim.) Some have their own umbrellas for navigation, e.g. the Asclepias species (like Mary Poppins!)

    Some seed is wrapped in glumes (a term I learned from the Prairie meister) that are hard for the naked eye to differentiate from the true seed, e.g. Koeleria macrantha. This one also had a lot of LBIs—little black insects that were so small that I couldn’t see anything but a dark moving mote.  Some come double-wrapped and must be pried out one triangular seed at a time, e.g. Rumex altissimum and some seed is so small that the ‘seed dust’ looks like cinnamon in the bottom of the bag, e.g. Heuchera richardsonii.

    In this baker’s dozen the most interesting looking seed came from Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis). Just 8 % of the sample turned out to be seed which came in a variety of colors from bone white through beige and brown to almost black. The top looks different from the bottom and the shape reminded me of a fossilized sea critter I found in Florida.  Each seed is no wider than a millimeter but can produce a plant that is 2’ to 4’ tall.

    The lesson learned? It seems Nature has worked out some optimum shapes that she relies on again and again. As The Prairie meister says: “Nature’s underlying mechanisms are reflected in similar structures arising in different contexts” or, to quote Johannes Kepler: “Where there is matter, there is geometry.”

    Happy Prairie Gardening!
    Regards, Rickie Rachuy