Photographs by Kylee Warren
Top: Megan Soldatke, Lila O. Wilson Biological Monitoring Fellow, and Matt Urbanski, Saunders Conservation Fellow walk to a seed collection site.
Middle: Megan Soldatke Collecting prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata)
Bottom: Full 5-gallon bucket of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Every year the Crane Trust collects seeds from as many native plants as possible; all to restore land. Most of the land we restore is cropland, depleted grassland, areas where woody species have encroached or been removed, or areas of disturbance. A more diverse seed collection creates a more resilient area once our seeds germinate. This sounds simple, but it is tricky to collect a diverse supply of seeds. Below is a list of challenges we face.
- Different plants produce seeds at different times of the year
- Identifying between related species can be challenging
- Some plants don’t go to seed in great quantity
- Populations shift
- Finding smaller species can be challenging in grasslands
- Many species mature and release their seeds quickly
- There is never enough time to collect seeds throughout the seasons
We collect seeds by hand, use pruning shears or pull-off seed heads, and use a small towable seed harvester. The seed harvester is pretty simple. It can be raised or lowered to the level of surrounding vegetation and its drum (with teeth) spins and collects seed into a bin. Once done collecting in an area the bin on the back of the harvester can be opened and seed removed.
Collecting by hand or using shears is pretty simple; you identify which plants you are going to be collecting, drive to where they are, and start collecting into buckets. Using the seed harvester tends to be more challenging. It takes teamwork to run a harvester, one person drives and the other operates the harvester; raising, lowering, and spinning the drum. Both the driver and the operator have to know what plants they aim to collect and which invasives and other undesirable plants to stay away from (like brome, phragmites, and purple loosestrife). Direct communication is prevented by the harvester’s roaring engine, making a well-discussed game plan crucial. Besides these challenges, our seed-collecting team found using the seed harvester to be enjoyable.
These efforts save us between 5,000 and 30,000 dollars each year. We collect 50-60 acres worth of seed, which would cost 100-500 dollars per acre if we purchased a restoration mix instead of collecting ourselves. The higher the diversity of a seed mix the more it costs.
As I collected plants by hand, I found myself noticing structural patterns. Identifying these patterns was a product of identifying the plants and attempting to discover the most efficient way to collect different species. Without trying, plant identification of each targeted plant started to stick the more seeds I collected. Distinguishing one specific plant from other plants and interacting with the same plant over and over burnt the identification into my brain. I may not be able to connect the scientific name of each plant I have collected, but I will have a handful memorized and be familiar with countless more before we are done seed collecting. There are more plant species than I expected.
Before starting at the Crane Trust I would look out into the prairie and think wow there must be like ten different plants out there making this giant living carpet. I did not understand the diversity hidden in plain sight. Since being in the prairie extensively I have found that our prairies are a dense web of competing plant species. As they fight, above and below ground, for space to absorb nutrients and reproduce, they create food, shelter, hazards, and more for the surrounding life. This is why seed collecting is so important, plants are the foundation which makes the existence of each trophic level above them possible.
Megan Soldatke, Lila O. Wilson Biological Monitoring Fellow, found the various strategies for containing seeds and dispersing seeds, and the variation in seed structure to be very interesting in addition to the other thoughts above. Some seeds are round and smooth, others have fluff to ride the wind, and some are spikey to hitch a ride on furry animals.
Final Thoughts from Josh Wiese, Range Manager
Prairies are difficult to bring back once they have been destroyed. Even after being restored they will not be as healthy as before. The diversity of plants that were present before most likely will not fully return, even with seeding. A prairie that has been built over the course of thousands of years is not easily replicated. The prairie now has a different point of origin, and different circumstances to adapt to. While the truth is harsh, a restored prairie is still more useful to a wider range of species in comparison to a monoculture or agricultural field. We can even do something to improve these issues. Volunteer your time seed collecting, planting native plants at your house, or even sharing this blog can help protect prairies.
I’ll see you in the next blog,
Matt Urbanski, Saunders Conservation Fellow