Hubbard Fellowship Post – Emma Rhapsodizes About Seeds

Emma Greenlee is nearing the end of her time as a Hubbard Fellow in Nebraska. Stay tuned for a future post from her with the results of an excellent field research project she designed and carried out for us. That was just one of many contributions she’s made to our work over the last 11 months or so. In this post, Emma compares her seed-related work at the Platte River Prairies to other experiences she’s had. Please enjoy this post written and illustrated by Emma:

Seeds are a key part of prairie restoration, and I’ve been wanting to write about them since the hot days I spent seed collecting in July and August on the Platte River Prairies. The field season was so busy that I never made the time for it, but recently, as I’ve been working on preparing the summer’s seeds for use, I decided to finally put my prairie seed reflections on paper.

This summer at PRP wasn’t my first time seed collecting. In fact, my previous job in Nevada was six months of primarily scouting for and collecting seeds for the national Seeds of Success (SOS) program, which sends interns across the western U.S.’s public lands each year to collect native seeds for use in research, restoration, and seed banking. My internship was based in Nevada, where I explored the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and learned about the sagebrush steppe ecosystem while scouting for and collecting native plant seeds. Having this background made seed-related work at the Platte all the more interesting! (I also wrote blog posts for that job, in case you want to hear more!

Sights while collecting wild buckwheat species Eriogonum heracleoides in the Santa Rosa Range in Nevada. Photo by Emma Greenlee

Some quick contrasts between my SOS internship and collecting seeds with TNC in Nebraska are illustrative of the different scales and goals of the two programs. Starting with scale, the section of the National Forest I worked on in Nevada (the Santa Rosa Ranger District) covered 280,000 acres, while TNC’s Platte River Prairies take up about 3,500 acres. In Nevada I could drive around the Santa Rosa range all day and not find a satisfactory seed population to collect from, while in Nebraska I was able to find seeds to collect most days I set out to do so (in both cases I considered it a day well spent!).

Seeds of Success collections are supposed to contain 10,000 or more viable seeds, and I referenced a list of native Great Basin species (mostly grasses and a few Asters and other forbs) of high restoration and conservation interest as priorities to collect. At the Platte, one of our main restoration goals is to create diverse restorations from local seeds, so even a handful of seed from a less abundant species can be considered worth collecting. I’m not saying either approach is better; I’ve appreciated seeing how restoration happens at different scales.

In Nevada, I sent my collections to a seed processing facility and never saw them again. It’s been fun at the Platte this winter to learn about what happens to seed once it’s collected for restoration! After being collected, the seed sits in buckets in the “seed barn” (thusly named) until it’s processed, which involves running seeds through a machine that separates them from the hulls, pods, and stems they might be attached to or mixed in with. This was a meditative process for me—as I processed each sample, wearing earplugs to muffle the machine’s noise, I thought about the times I’d spent collecting these seeds, when the prairie was green and bustling and most days were hot and humid.

Every species is different to process—some have very tiny seeds that inevitably get all over the floor, in addition to the bucket they’re supposed to drop into from the seed processor, and need to be swept up. Some come out of their seedheads easily and processing them doesn’t seem to change much, but for some species it may scarify the seeds, helping them germinate. Some are attached to bits of downy fluff, like thistles and milkweeds, which brings me to a funny mouse incident I must tell you about…

To give you an idea of the “downy thistle fluff” I’m talking about… Photo by Emma Greenlee

As I mentioned, these buckets of seed wait in the seed barn for several months before being processed. Perhaps surprising no one, a bucket of downy fluff with some seeds mixed in turns out to be an optimal habitat for mice. One day I was processing thistle seeds and became very thankful I was adding seed to the processor handful by handful rather than dumping it in: approximately 12 mice were dwelling in this 2’x2’ barrel!

The mice didn’t reveal themselves to me all at once, but rather made their escapes in ones and twos, often requiring some coaxing to leave their fluffy mansion. Some were adults, and some were smaller and clumsier…it seemed they had started a community! I hope there were still some seeds mixed in with their playground of fluff and they hadn’t all gone to feeding the family.

The goals of the Seeds of Success program and of TNC’s restoration efforts in Nebraska are very different—contributing to restoration and conservation efforts across the Great Basin versus restoring prairie and adding diversity to existing prairie fragments along the Platte River in central Nebraska—and I’ve appreciated this small window into the diversity of approaches to restoration that exist out there. For me, seed collecting is a relaxing process and a chance to explore, and its results (here, new prairies and all the benefits more prairie brings) can be so beneficial and rewarding. Seed comes from seed, giving the process a certain symmetry, too.

What are everyone’s favorite seeds and/or favorite seed stories? Drop yours in the comments!

Marbleseed (Onosmodium molle), one of my favorite seeds because they’re pearly and really hard. Not fun to collect though, due to the fine, scratchy hairs on the leaves! Photo by Emma Greenlee
Monarch butterfly on a native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum). Thistles feed creatures all year round! Photo by Emma Greenlee
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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.

29 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Post – Emma Rhapsodizes About Seeds

    • Henry, we’ve had pretty good luck with Lithospermum here, which is interesting, given the issues I’ve heard from others to the east of us. Our major issues have come from waiting to long to harvest – we found that the seeds that hang on for a while tend to be empty or otherwise non-viable. Harvesting closer to the initial ripening has given us the best results. We’ve never done greenhouse work but both Lithospermum incisum and Lithospermum caroliniense have shown up where we’ve planted them in our sites. We don’t do anything with them other than hand harvest, store, and broadcast.

      • I always enjoy these blogs from your Restoration Fellows.
        This is really good news and info on Lithospermum, Chris. Cuz yeah, I’m among the aforementioned easterners who’ve had little success with them.

  1. My favorite seed is that of Geranium oreganum: Oregon or Cranesbill geranium. Its five capsules each contain a seed, and when mature, they curl back and unfurl from the stem, so it looks like a little chandelier.

  2. Hey Emma thanks for sharing your story. I learned about the SOS program from this article very interesting.
    I’m interested in the seed processing machine you have used and where I can get one. I work for a natural areas team in local government, and when we collect seeds we process by hand. I love doing it but sometimes we just have so much.

  3. Emma. To all appearances, you had a great round of experiences in that special little piece of Nebraska. (I visited it several years ago to study ants.) I expect a wonderful future of nature experiences and service to nature lie ahead for you. Best wishes as you go forth…

  4. Great post Emma. Seed collection and processing are so important to restoration efforts.
    When we visited our daughter Eliza, one of the two first Hubbard Fellows, at North Platte nearly a decade ago her mum and I helped her broadcast the collected seeds. I drove the pick up and she handled the distribution. It was a memorable day.
    The Fellowship is a wonderful opportunity and it sounds like you have made the most of it. Best of luck to you in next adventure.

    • Aww, thank you very much!! That sounds like a great memory helping Eliza sow a prairie! Pretty cool that the Fellowship has been going since her time too. It has been a very good experience, and thank you for the good wishes:)

  5. What a pleasure to read this, Emma! Fun to hear your comparisons of your seed collecting experiences and fun for me to learn about SOS – I’m very glad to know that work is underway~ One of this aspects of prairie seed collecting and processing that I love the most is the scent of the some of the seeds – particularly rattlesnake master and yellow coneflower – those are two favorites!

    • Thank you, Carolyn!! I haven’t smelled either of those types of seeds but now I’d like to! I am a fan of the smell of purple prairie clover seeds though so I know what you mean:) I’m glad you brought that sensory aspect of the experience up!

  6. Hey Emma. I have collected lots of different species of seeds and hand-cleaned many of them under a magnifying glass. I found all of them quite fascinating and cannot pick just one favorite. The ones that explode are probably the most fun to clean. They all have so many different and varied structures and dispersal strategies that I am quite addicted to the process. It was great meeting you this year. Please come back and visit us.

    • Hi Karen! That’s really cool you’ve hand-cleaned and looked so closely at the seeds. They really are crazy! I was over at Prairie Plains in Aurora recently helping plant prairie seeds to be grown in their greenhouse and saw some spiderwort seeds for the first time…so wild looking! Thinking about how the shape might relate to their dispersal is really interesting too. It was great meeting you too and I hope to be back for some visits this spring and maybe summer!:)

    • That’s such a good answer. I also think it’s wild how the dried seedheads look significantly than the actual flowers on IL bundleflower! :)

  7. Dear Emma,
    I enjoyed reading your post about your seed collecting projects. It was interesting to hear the comparison of your two experiences.

    I wanted to alert you to some scholarship and fellowship opportunities offered by the Garden Club of America. There might be one you could apply for. You may only apply for one scholarship per year. Here’s a link:
    Please share this with anyone else you know who might be looking for financial assistance in continuing their education. You are welcome to contact me if you have any questions. Chris Helzer is familiar with our club.

    Anne Hall
    Loveland Garden Club of Omaha
    Scholarship Chairman

    • Hi Anne–thank you very much for letting me know about those! I do hope to attend grad school in the fall so I will be taking a look at the GCA scholarships available! I will reach out if I have any questions; thank you for offering!! :)

  8. Thanks for this Emma, I am a total “seedaholic” since realizing that I was introducing problems into my local rural ecology such as diseases and insects through potted garden stock. I love it…there are little bags everywhere, and you remind me that it is soon time to get started on stratification/germination. I make bags of the mixed more common plants and keep them in the car…and when I see untended places where the ground has been exposed try to give the native plants come competitive advantage by scattering them about. It is a rewarding and not very labour intensive way to improve the world a little bit at a time. The maturation to over my head of trees I started from seed is SO much more satisfying than buying something at a store and plunking it in the ground.

    • I love the term seedaholic, that’s awesome! That seems like a really fun project to keep mini-restoration bags on hand for when you see an opportune spot…it sounds very rewarding! Getting to watch things you planted flourish is pretty special, whether trees, prairie plants, or tomatoes in a garden. I’m glad this post reminded you to start stratifying your seeds too!:)

  9. Hey Emma, nice piece! I also had a surprise with some swamp mw seeds I had setting out to dry in a box in my garage. The mice enjoyed the ease of access and probably playing in the shiny fluff :) I am pretty sure they got them all lol. I left the box with the fluff hoping they might stick around, but I didn’t see them using it. Seeds are very cool! One question I have is what does the process of processing them do to the success rate of the various species? I wonder if the containers that they come in serve a purpose in their dissemination and survival. I know they do in many cases as far as distribution (a fav documentary of mine from when I was young on pbs), but implantation, survival of the elements, predators, etc.? A good research topic don’t you think? Suzanne

    • Hi Suzanne. I’ll let Emma chime in too, if she has opinions on your question, but I wanted to add my thoughts too, because it’s a topic I think about a lot. The answer, of course, starts with ‘it depends’ and ‘it’s complicated’. As you say, a lot of the packaging around seeds can help them travel. Removing that feature probably doesn’t matter much since we’re helping them travel by broadcasting them in places we hope they’ll succeed.

      More importantly, though, are we hurting the viability or longevity of the seed by removing or damaging their packaging. In most cases, we’re probably having the opposite effect. With many hard-seeded species, the journey through our equipment can scratch up seed coats and trigger them to germinate more easily during their first year in the ground (before they get eaten by something). We’ve seen that from some experimentation, especially legumes. Purple prairie clover had much higher germ rates after being run through one of our machines that knocks the seed around in a metal fan than it did when we just planted the seed in the condition it had been harvested in.

      We do, though, have to be very careful not to crack seed coats or break seeds too much during processing, and have changed our approach with some species (sunflowers, for example) so that we’re a little more gentle with them. And I’m sure there are seeds for which removing the packaging around the seed could leave them less protected or even reduce viability, though I can’t come up with any specific examples at the moment.

      Anyway, it’s a great question and I don’t know all the answers, but my overall impression is that the impacts of processing are probably much more positive than negative, at least for the species I’m most familiar with.


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