Photo of the Week – October 4, 2012

This is the time of year when I get the most satisfaction from harvesting prairie seeds.  Early in the year, seed harvest consists largely of hunting around for little plants hidden here and there in the prairie, and bending low to pluck their seeds.  It’s an important time, but it often feels like a lot of work for not much seed.  In the fall, however, we’re grabbing big handfuls of seed heads from tall plants, and our buckets fill quickly.

One corner of our seed storage barn, showing drying seeds in the foreground and cleaned and bagged seeds on the shelf behind.

The other day, I stepped back to admire the bounty in our seed storage area and thought – not for the first time – how attractive piles of drying seeds can be.  The textures, shapes, and colors all jumbled up together make interesting patterns that beg to be the subjects of still life photographs.

Here are some photos of our seed piles, taken earlier this week.  Because I know some of you will enjoy it, I left the species names off so you can try to guess their identities.  The correct answers will be at the bottom of this post – good luck!
















Did you guess them all?  Knowing that they’ve all been harvested within the last couple weeks should help.  (This is probably more difficult for those of you living on other continents… sorry about that!)


#1 – Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

#2 – Blue lobelia, aka great lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

#3 – Lanceleaf gayfeather (Liatris lancifolia)

#4 – Prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana)

#5 – Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis)

#6 – Showy tick trefoil, aka Canada tick clover (Desmodium canadense)

#7 – Common evening primrose (Oenothera villosa)

#8 – Pitcher sage (Salvia azurea)


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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20 Responses to Photo of the Week – October 4, 2012

  1. Tim Siegmund says:

    I got 5/8!! Chris, how much bulk forb seed do you establish on a per acre basis on your new restoration sites??

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Tim – pretty good for someone several states south of us!

      We seed at a pretty light rate. Around 4 PLS lbs per acre (grasses, sedges, and forbs together). That’s about 9 lbs of bulk seed per acre, and a little less than half of that is forbs. We actually measure more by volume than weight. We plant about 2 gallons of hand-harvested seed (moderately cleaned) per acre and about 10 gallons of grass seed (harvested by combine – mostly big bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass). That changes a little year to year, but that’s the basic standard. We’ve tried varying the forb/grass ratio quite a bit (up to 3x more forbs and 1/3 as much grass) but in the long run the plantings don’t really look much different. So we stick with the tried and true formula. For the most part, the site seems to dictate the establishment more than the seed rates.

      • Tim Siegmund says:

        I work with a Master Naturalist Group here in Central TX, and we are taking on a 2 acre portion of a 15 acre restoration. We hope to use locally hand harvested seed (most harvested over the coming weeks) on those 2 acres. The rest will be planted using commercially available native varieties and a much lower diversity.
        I have found lots of information on seed collection methods, but not much on the volume/weight of hand collected seed planted at establishment. I appreciate the volume and weight values you gave as a good measure of what we should expect to do. We will be doing a little bluestem, side oats grama, slender yellow indiangrass grass mix ( plus a few others), with a mix of Liatris elegans, Helianthus debilis, snake cotton (Froelichia spp.), Gaillardia amblyodon, and about 20-30 others depending on what we can find in large enough quantity.

  2. Susan C. says:

    Great post. How is the drought affecting yield?
    I got the ones we have up here in Wisconsin–thought #7 was Oenothera??

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Susan – you caught me! Yep, that was a mistake. #7 should be Oenothera, not Onosmodium. I’ve made the change on the post, but for people who read this on their email, they’ll still see the wrong version.

      Interestingly, we’re running short on a few species, but we’re having bumper crops of others. In many cases, I think it’s our fire/grazing management that has a stronger impact than the drought, though the drought certainly interacts with our management. For example, we’re not getting much stiff sunflower this year, but we burned/grazed our best harvest site for that, so while the cattle are eating more sunflower than they typically would have because the drought suppressed grass growth, I can’t really say we’re short on stiff sunflower because of the drought! We’re fortunate that we have multiple harvest sites for most species, and for the most part we’ve found at least some seed for nearly everything. We also have a built-in strategy for years like this, which is that we carry over seed every year so that we mix 2-3 years worth of seed together for each planting. That helps smooth over good and bad harvest years.

  3. J. Crumpler says:

    I just got a job collecting native seeds for the Texas Native Seeds Project, so it was good to see these photos as they give me an idea of just how much seed I’ll probably be helping to collect.

    I have been told that, in general, native plant seed germination rates are anywhere from 10-30%. So, at a minimum you would need to harvest 3 times as many seeds as you think you’ll need, if not more. On the other hand, once you start a restoration, it is amazing what kind of recruitment of native plants you will get from seeds that weren’t even sown on the site.

  4. Karen Hamburger says:

    Hey Chris

    Because Nelson and I picked lots of thoese seeds I guessed them all correctly!!!!! :D Great quiz though!


  5. Natalie Goergen says:

    I remember harvesting seeds there. How could I forget? It was such dusty fun!

  6. James C. Trager says:

    Since the particular Liatris and the Oentohera are not part of our prairies, I got only the genus on those.
    (Note: Desmodium canadense)

    • James C. Trager says:

      It’d be nice if I could type – Oenothera!
      Also, now that it has been mentioned, you could add a picture of the starkly beautiful, pearl-studded infructescence of Onosmodium.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks James. I changed the Desmodium to the correct name. I’m sure there’s a good reason why some species are canadensis and some are canadense, but it’s awfully confusing for me!

      • James C. Trager says:

        Elementary … For any genus name ending in -um, -oma, -omma, or -ama, endings of species names of the -ensis, -aris, -alis sorts change to -ense, -are, -ale, to agree with the neuter grammatical gender of the noun that preceeds them.
        Another example: Helenium autumnale

  7. Randy Crowl says:

    Great seed pictures! I got at least the genus right on all but the pitcher sage. I thought it was a hyssop. I’m better at it when the seed is out of the pod or flower parts. Probably the opposite of most people. I would love to come out and help harvest seeds sometime.

  8. Ian Lunt says:

    Hi Chris, as a reader from a distant other continent, I was happy to guess the families correctly, but I got an extra kick out of getting Desmodium right. We have native Desmodium species in our grasslands and woodlands in Australia, and their seed pods look just like yours – perfect for sticking in wooly socks! I hope all your seeds bear fruit, best wishes Ian

  9. Very nice pictures. i liked the wild roses specially… Great work!

  10. It would be cool to have those photos along with the flowers in bloom on a calendar.


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