Thursday, October 15, 2015

Wildflower Seed Collecting by Melissa Baynes

Autumn - one of my favorite times of the year.  The air is crisp and cool, pumpkins are in season and the mountains are bright with the brilliant yellows and reds of the turning aspens.  However, as a gardener and wildflower enthusiast, I can’t help but be a little sad that my gardening days are coming to an end for the season.  Prepping the beds and cleaning and putting my tools away for winter are never my favorite things to do.  However, there is one thing I always look forward to doing every fall - collecting wildflower seed. 

I love hiking in the mountains and, during the spring and summer months, I always am spotting beautiful wildflowers that I would love to have in my own garden at home - plants I never can find at nurseries or, if I do, they are beyond expensive.  And, I’m sure I’m not alone… it is so tempting to just dig up plants from their native habitat to transplant them to your garden.  However, I resist this urge because I know removing them disrupts a very delicate ecological balance and can result in long-lasting, detrimental impacts to the environment.  So, I take lots of
Seed collecting, however, can be a great alternative   if you just HAVE to have that wildflower you’ve discovered.  Seeds collected from our local areas will result in plants that are mountain hardy, better adapted to your high altitude garden than packaged seed and will require fewer inputs (e.g., amendments) for survival.  Plus, it’s inexpensive and will result in lots of wonderful color for your garden!
Be aware though, seed collecting is not always an option.  Federal, state and county laws prohibit seed collecting on their respective lands (unless a permit is obtained).  So, I always make a point to spend some time exploring areas where I know I can collect seed when fall comes - the land around my house, other private land and land slated for development (with permission, of course), and County ROWs.  

Once I locate a plant from which I want to collect seed, I either GPS the location, mark the plant with colorful flagging and / or take notes on its specific location and botanical characteristics. If there is one thing I have learned when it comes to seed collecting, it is that no matter how confident I am that I can find the plant again, if I don’t mark it somehow, then my chances of relocating it are slim to none!

When collecting seed, there are a few basic rules to follow. Always know what you are collecting.  There are many invasive “look-a-likes” and it is so important not to collect and spread seed from these weeds.  Likewise, check your clothing, shoes and equipment for any seed; you don’t want to bring in any unwanted hitchhikers!  Minimize your impact to the collection site - avoid disturbing habitat and trampling the soil.  Only collect from plants that are abundant in a given population and never collect from rare or endangered species.  Once you are ready to collect, make sure the seed is mature (otherwise you are just wasting it) and never collect more than 10% from any given plant.  Paper bags are best for seed collecting and storage; plastic bags can lead to molding.  Make sure to label your bag with the species, date and location and make note of any site characteristics (e.g., aspect, microhabitat).

Timing is critical when it comes to seed collecting.  Chances are, you may have to make several trips in order to not miss the window between seed maturation and seed drop.  Know when the approximate flowering and fruiting dates are for the species you are interested in and be vigilant… species, weather (e.g., precipitation, frost) and elevation will all influence seed set.  Mature seeds will usually be dark, firm and dry.  If you are collecting seed from pulpy fruits, watch for the fruits to soften and change from yellows or greens to blues, purples or reds.  Once you’ve collected your seed, clean it (if necessary) and store in a cool, dark, dry location until you are ready to sow.
Fall is a great time to sow your seed; the winter snow and cold promote germination of our mountain wildflowers.  For each species, make sure you find a location in your garden with similar conditions as where the seed was collected.  If necessary, weed the site, before sowing.  To prevent overseeding, which is easy to accidentally do, mix your sand and seed at a ratio of 6:1. Spread over your newly prepped area, rake in and tamp down lightly.

Now, it is time to relax!  Let the snow come.  Dream about next year’s garden and eagerly await your new wildflower seedlings that will germinate next spring and summer!

If interested learning more about wildflower seed collecting, CSU Extension in Clear Creek County will be offering a “Wildflower Seed Collecting” presentation on October 26th at 6pm at the Georgetown Heritage Center in Georgetown, CO.   Master Gardeners will discuss in more detail the following topics:
      Why wildflower seed?
      Laws and ethics
      Identification and good seed plants
      Cleaning, storage and sowing

For more information, please visit:

The Heritage Center’s website at


CSU Extension in Clear Creek County at
Christine Crouse, Director | Agent
Office: 303-679-2424  |  Cell: 970-389-8724
1111 Rose Street  |  P.O. Box 2000
Georgetown, CO 80444

Additional References:
Fidelibus, M.W. and R.T.F. MacAller.  Native seed collection, processing, and storage for revegetation projects.  San Diego State University.  Available online at techniques/native.html/.
Klett, J.E., R.A. Cox, I. Shonle and L.G. Vickerman.  Wildflowers in Colorado.  Colorado State University Cooperative Extension No 7.233. 1996.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, University of Texas at Austin.  Available online at 8&front page=true. 
McClure, S. and J. Anderson. Hands On Gardener: Seeds and Propagation. 1997.
Managing bushland and wildlife habitat.  Seed Collecting.  Conservation Management Notes. Office of Environment and Heritage, Department of Premier and Cabinet NSW.  Sydney, Australia.  Available online at resources/cpp/ SeedCollecting.pdf.
Rao, N.K., Hanson, J., Dulloo, M.E., Ghosh, K., Nowell, D. and Larinde, M. Manual of Seed Handling in Genebanks. Handbooks for Genebanks No. 8.  2006.
Seed collection techniques.  Bureau of Land Management.  Available online at /wo/st/en/prog/more/fish_wildlife_and/plants/seeds_of_success/protocol/section_9.html. 

Shonle, I. High Altitude Native Grasses.  Colorado Master Gardener’s Mountain Gardening Website.  Available online at grasses.html.
Shonle, I.  Mountain Master Gardener Flower Favorites (adapted from Fact Sheet 7.406, by J. Feucht).  Colorado Master Gardener’s Mountain Gardening Website.  Available online at _pics.html.       
Way, M. and K. Gold.  Seed Collecting Techniques.  Technical Information Sheet 3, Millennium Seed Bank Project.  Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Seed Conservation Department.  Available online at _014344_Primary.pdf. 

Young, J.A. and C.G. Young.  Collecting, Processing, and Germinating Seeds of Wildland Plants. 1986.

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