Saving Native and Other Plant Seeds
Spotted Horsemint Seedlings
Saving Heirloom Vegetables and Native Plants
Saving seeds from your favorite plants is an easy and economical thing to do. Whether it be native plants, pass-along flowers or heirloom vegetables, when you harvest and store seeds, you know that you are perpetuating a species of plant that might have otherwise been lost.
Planting seeds is also the least expensive way to garden if you have large areas to cover. We've provided plenty of tips, books and links that tell how to collect, prepare and store your own seeds and also made some lists of some of the easiest ones to collect and save.
Seedling photo by Y.L. Bordelon, All Rights Reserved
Red Buckeye Flowers
Growing Techniques Book
Planting seeds is a good way for the gardener on a small budget to grow masses of plants. They can be collected, saved and stored for years. Heirloom varieties, natives and hard to find old favorites can be rescued without moving the original plant. Collecting from favorite plants is easy to do and we'll give you some pointers that will ensure your success.
Most native plants start easily from seed, though some must be exposed to periods of cold and warm weather. There are some good books about propagating native plants and a lot of good information is also available on the web. We've included our favorite books below and some links, too.
Starting plants this way is easy, though it does take a little longer than other methods and you will not be successful if the seeds were collected from hybrid plants because they will not breed true due to their mixed parentage.
Whether harvesting seed from the wild or from your yard, timing is crucial. It is much easier to identify plants when they are flowering, so plants should be marked in some way so that you will be sure to collect from the right plant when the heads are mature. We use surveyor's tape in the wild and/or plant labels in our yard. You can also write down specific directions, but it's easier to just mark the plant.
If you have a smart phone and have the location feature enabled, just snap a picture of the stand. The phone will record the location of the picture so that you can find it again. However, it doesn't hurt to write down the location, too, just-in-case.
Some Do's and Don'ts for collecting in the wild.
- Always get a landowners permission.
- Never collect in public parks, refuges, preserves, etc. Most of these places prohibit plant or seed collection because they have provided a protected natural environment for the plants to thrive.
- Try to collect from property scheduled for construction with the land owner's permission.
- Please don't collect from rare or endangered plants unless the bulldozers are bearing down on the stand and/or you are working with a group like The Nature Conservancy. Even collecting pods from an endangered stand may threaten its survival.
- Take no more than one-tenth of the seeds in a stand so that enough will be left for reseeding to perpetuate the stand.
- Collect when they are dark colored, dry and fully mature.
- Don't gather ones that have been on moist ground as they may have begun to decay, mold or could be infested with insects.
Tools and Materials needed for collecting in the wild include:
- drop cloths
- pruning shears
- paper bags
- canvas bags
- permanent marking pen for labeling
For more information download these informative guidelines from Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Determining if They are Ready
Because flowering and fruiting dates may vary due to weather conditions from year to year, you must learn by observing the process of seed maturation. Keep a journal or a calendar and make notes when plants flower and when the seeds mature. Joining your local native plant society will put you in contact with knowledgeable people who can give you hands-on experience with recognizing native plant seed processes.
Once the pods or heads are dark colored, firm and dry, they are usually ready to harvest. Green ones should not be harvested because they usually will not germinate healthy seedlings. Fleshy fruiting plants should be harvested when the fruit has turned from green or yellowish to reddish or blue-purple. You must be vigilant in your observations because delaying just a few days may make the difference between success and failure.
There are many plants, like Salvia coccinea (Scarlett Sage), in which all don't mature at the same time and which drop their seeds as they mature. An easy way to gather these is to tie a small paper bag placed over the immature head.
Hummer Sips from Small Red Morning Glory
Turk's Cap Fruit
Cleaning and Preparing
It's best to collect when the pods or capsules are brown and before they open. We put the pods or heads into a brown paper bag and close it with a rubber band or a twist tie. We label the bag with the plant name, date and place collected. Then we hang a couple of bags from a coat hanger and place them in a dark, dry place. Here in the south that means inside the house somewhere. Since collecting usually coincides with the fall of the year, you can use white bags and draw little ghost faces on them for Halloween. (Just Kidding!)
When they are dry, they should be removed from the pod or capsule. We place a batch of pods or heads in an old margarine container and put on the lid then agitate it. The lighter chaff goes to the top. You can use a colander or screen to separate the pod / capsule. The seeds can be stored with the chaff, but you run the risk of also storing insect eggs and mold that may ruin the them.
Seedheads in the Garden
Store them in paper bags or envelopes in a cool, dark place. Ideal conditions are a temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit or less and 50% humidity or lower. If you have room in your refrigerator, then place them there. It's best to stay away from plastic or other containers that do not provide good air circulation, unless they have been thoroughly air dried. Be sure to label each packet with the plant name, date, collector's name and the place collected.
Sweet Basil Seedheads
Some That Are Easy to Save
I've included both native and introduced flowering plants that have seeds that are easy to save and will germinate well. Most are hummingbird and butterfly plants, while some are ornamental. This is an on-going list and I'll add more later. I'll also organize them according to harvest time at a later date.
Red Morning Glory
Cardinal Flower and other Lobelia spp.
Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea) and other Salvias
Black-eyed Susans and other Rudbeckia spp.
Stokes Aster (Stokesia)
Butterfly Weed and other Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Monarda (Bee Balm, Spotted Horsemint, etc.)
Hibiscus family (Texas Star, Confederate Rose, H. moscheutos)
Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris)
Blazing Star (Liatris)
Beard-tongue (Penstemon spp.)
Cassia family (Rattle Box - some are native)
Luffa Gourd and others in the Gourd family
Hyacinth Bean (Lab Lab)
Impatien family (Spotted Jewelweed (native), Balsam and Impatiens are introduced)
Heirloom vegetable plants
Sharing With Friends
For years, we have been sharing both native plant and easy to grow introduced plant seeds with our friends and family. We discovered that the 2 1/4" X 3 1/2" paper coin envelopes are perfect for giving. We print out a label containing the planting information and description and stick that to the front of the envelope. Then we put a package into each of our Christmas cards (more for the gardeners on our list). Most people really enjoy and will plant the little extra gift and it's our way of spreading natives and hummingbird and butterfly plants around.
Through the Folsom Native Plant Society, one of Louisiana's two native plant societies (of which I hold the office of president), we give out hundreds of packages at our informational booths and when we give presentations about gardening and landscaping with native plants. Besides putting native plant in interested hands, these little packages also help to advertise our organization's website which contains an abundance of valuable information about the native plants of Louisiana.
Poem by Alice Crowell Hoffman
I cannot dig a great big hole
And set a tree into it,
But I can make a little hole
And I am going to do it.
Then in the little hole I'll drop
This acorn brown and shiny,
And that way I can plant a tree
Although I am so tiny.
Native Hibiscus moscheutos is easy to start from seed.
Cardinal Flower - Lobelia cardinalis
Good How-to Video
Native Purple Aster Seeds
Tiny Seeds - Poem by Vera L. Stafford
Tiny seeds are everywhere
Out of doors today.
Some have strong though airy wings
To take them far away;
Some in cradles soft and brown,
From the trees to earth drop down,
Seeking for their winter's nap
A soft, dark place to stay.
© 2008 Yvonne L B