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!
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…
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!