The end of an era

My second year as an intern for SOS East has come to an end, and its been a heck of a ride. I’ve done 571.5 hours of driving (just shy of 24 days), 308 hours of seed collecting (nearly 13 days), and 254 hours of seed cleaning (about 10.5 days). To say I’m sick of driving would be a huge understatement, but I’ve loved everything else. Well that’s not true, I don’t like dealing with the odd anal retentive land manager, or the absolute nightmare that has been Enterprise Rent-A-Car, nor have I been a big fan of the dreaded location details on our data sheets (all of you SOS interns out there know what I’m talking about).

But even with those annoyances, I can truly say I’ve loved being a part of something so dear to my heart. Not enough people care about the natural world the way I suspect all of us CLM interns, mentors, coordinators, etc. do, but it has been my mission over these past two years to help educate those that I encounter. My family is sick of me talking about seeds, my friends are tired of hearing that their beloved plants are invasive and need to be removed immediately, and I’m sure many of my friends on Facebook want to throw their phones into traffic each time I post another plant or seed picture on Instagram. I’ll be honest though, I don’t really care. If my annoying, persistent message reaches anyone, then that’s one more person on our side.

On a more drear note, just in these two years I’ve seen beautiful, natural areas go to pot. I’ve seen subdivision after subdivision built on what used to be pristine forest, grassland, or wetland – and of course, just to add insult to injury, they’re named “such-and-such Preserve”, “blah blah Reserve”, or “this-and-that Farm”. In addition, I’ve seen Phragmites growing in the woods, Lespedeza in crotch of a tree, and powerline corridors filled with the majestic Miscanthus sinensis. It’s sickening.

But at the same time, I’ve seen such passionate people working to reverse those trends. I’ve spoken to countless park rangers, land managers and lay people that all have a common goal. They want to see the natural areas around them become what they used to be. They want to educate the public and get younger people interested in the environment. They want more reasons for us all to come together for “the greater good”, and that’s not such a bad thing.

On the subject of meeting passionate and hardworking people, I’d like to give a shout out to my fellow interns from both years: Emily, Lauren, Maggie, Sammy, Melanie, and Caroline – it’s been a pleasure to work alongside each and every one of you. You each taught me something, plant related or not, and I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything. I wish all of you the best in your future endeavors.

I can’t wait to get back out into the field, be it for work or leisure. I know that this internship has affected me greatly and positively, and I feel that my place is definitely in Field Botany and Conservation Botany. I couldn’t think of a field I’d be happier in. Even to this day, with 2 days left in my internship, I can’t believe I get paid to do this!

Our last seed shipment... good luck CMPMC!

Our last seed shipment… good luck CMPMC!

I'm gonna miss this motley crew!

I’m gonna miss this motley crew!

Jake Dakar

SOS East – North Carolina Botanical Garden

We’re basically truck drivers

My last collecting trip has come and gone, but by no means was it as sad as the overall feeling here at the North Carolina Botanical Garden with the impending end to our internship. We wanted to go out with a bang, and I feel like we really did. It’s surprising too, considering our days had to end around 5:00 because of daylight savings (which in my opinion is pure garbage and helps no one in this century).

We planned for the longest trip we could feasibly do in one week, and it actually panned out really well. Starting off here in Chapel Hill, NC, our first stop was Rocks State Park, a 5 and a half hour drive, but it was worth it, since we made our first Kalmia latifolia collection. Kalmia has the tiniest seeds, but true to form with it being in Ericaceae, the seeds take forever to mature. We first saw the very same plants flowering in mid-May when we scoped the place out, and it took until mid-November for the seeds to be ready for collection. And then they have the nerve to grow just as slowly once they germinate. Ericaceae has some of my favorite plants, but the glacial-pace growth from seed keeps me from growing my own.

Kalmia latifolia

Kalmia latifolia

Next we stopped at Elk Neck State Park, where we met a really friendly character, Joe, in a neighborhood we had to pass through. If anyone reading this hasn’t been to Elk Neck and plans to be in the area, it’s worth a visit. The views are gorgeous, and the people are so nice and passionate about their special peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay.

We continued on, stopping of course in our favorite town, Chestertown, MD, before hitting up Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, where we collected loads of Solidago sempervirens and a very late in the season Bolboschoenus robustus.

Solidago sempervirens

Solidago sempervirens

Bolboschoenus robustus

Bolboschoenus robustus

Our day ended with another long drive to Chincoteague Island, VA. That of course didn’t happen until we had first stopped for dinner at my favorite place to eat on the Virginia Eastern Shore – El Crucero Tienda y Taquería. In case you’ve been living under a rock in our melting pot of a country, that’s Spanish, and they sell tacos. But not just any tacos. The best street-food style tacos and pupusas and tortas and huaraches and tamales and and and… you get the picture. Look them up on yelp – they’re located in the biggest city I know, Temperanceville, VA.

The following day we went to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which has been hands down the best site we’ve been to. We collected so many things there that it’s hard to decide what to share with you all, but I’ll keep the list short. We got Strophostyles helvolaPityopsis graminifolia var. tenuifoliaPanicum rigidulum var. rigidulum, and plenty of others.

Panicum rigidulum var. rigidulum

Panicum rigidulum var. rigidulum

Pityopsis graminifolia var. tenuifolia

Pityopsis graminifolia var. tenuifolia

We spent so much time there (as usual), that we had to seriously book it to our other stop for the day, Brownsville Preserve in Nassawadox, VA. Mostly everything there was a bust, but we learned that Bolboschoenus is not at all a genus set in stone. I think the taxonomists that have described it thus far just gave up on trying to truly differentiate between species. There are hybrids all over the place, and with no certain characteristics. So at least something was accomplished at Brownsville!

What even is this? It doesn't fit comfortably into any species!

What even is this? It doesn’t fit comfortably into any species!

Our night ended with a drive down to Virginia Beach, which is really nice this time of year. The place is almost devoid of tourists, and the hotels are much cheaper.

The next morning we went to First Landing State Park where we finished a collection of Ammophila breviligulata, and made another hundred collections there including Panicum amarumStrophostyles helvolaSolidago sempervirensUniola paniculataCenchrus tribuloides, and more. We also got to see an LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushion), AKA the loudest vehicle on the planet. It’s amphibious, and large enough to carry a tank. Amanda, who’s a Navy veteran for those who have no reason to know that, said that you need hearing protection to even be inside of it. I could definitely believe that, considering we were a good mile from the thing and it was deafening!

Uniola paniculata

Uniola paniculata

Cenchrus tribuloides

Cenchrus tribuloides

Strophostyles helvola

Strophostyles helvola

Panicum amarum

Panicum amarum, which we’ve been told sets seed horribly, but not in our experience

Once we yelled our goodbyes to the folks at First Landing, we headed down to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to collect Bidens laevis which sticks into your skin like you wouldn’t believe, Euthamia caroliniana, and a few others, after a nice chat with one of our contacts there who’s thrilled to receive seeds from us for a huge meadow they want to restore this coming Spring.

Euthamia caroliniana

Euthamia caroliniana

Bidens laevis

Bidens laevis and my fingertip

We spent the night in Elizabeth City, NC, and headed to the area around Phelps Lake for our last bit. We collected Conoclinium coelestinumSaccharum alopecuroides (which USDA Plants won’t admit is now Erianthus – they’re so August), and Andropogon glomeratus.

ERIANTHUS alopecuroides

ERIANTHUS alopecuroides

Conoclinium coelestinum in flower and fruit

Conoclinium coelestinum in flower and fruit

We returned home that afternoon with 24 collections – a new record for us. That’s just over 1 collection for every hour of driving we did that week! But honestly, we spend way too much time driving. We’re lucky to make as many collections as we do. The only drawback to collection so much seed is the fact that we have to clean it all. Not to pure seed, that’s Cape May Plant Materials Center’s job. But we sure do have a lot of work ahead of us before we close out the season.


One last blog post till the end. See you then.

Jake Dakar

SOS East – North Carolina Botanical Garden

Helping friends near and far

A while back, our team here at the North Carolina Botanical Garden agreed to help our friends at the Greenbelt Native Plant Center with a collection they were making at Ted Harvey Wildlife Area just outside of Dover, DE. We were in touch with Barbara and Gio, and they described in brief what kind of help they were looking for. We were to meet them at Ted Harvey on a Tuesday afternoon, work through to the evening, and continue the following day until we could help no longer. We planned our trip that week around helping with their collection, making a few stops along the way, and on our way back at the end of the week.


Courtesy of Google Maps – our trip to Ted Harvey Wildlife Area, had we not stopped at a few sites along the way. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t fly to our collection sites…

On our way to Delaware, we had to first stop at a spot in Maryland we knew to have a large population of Bidens aristosa (Bearded Beggarticks). One of our closest collection sites, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge – a mere 4 hours from home base – requested a lot of seed from B. aristosa, and boy are they gonna get a lot! Once we finished that, we spent the night in MD and headed toward DE the following morning.


Bidens aristosa seeds… maybe one five hundred thousandth of what we collected

Our hotel room filled with drying Bidens aristosa

Our hotel room filled with drying Bidens aristosa

We knew we were to collect Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass), but we had no idea how much. We arrived that afternoon to see jumbo trash bags behind Barbara’s car absolutely jam-packed with Spartina inflorescences. We met up with the two of them, whom we hadn’t seen since training in June, and began our short hike to the collection area. Never have I seen so much S. alterniflora in one place, nor have I seen such tall plants either! They were easily 7-8 feet tall in some spots. The plants were on steroids. The tallest I’d seen up until then had been at most 5 feet tall. To add, the S. alterniflora we encounter at our own collection sites tends to have a whopping 2-3 seeds per spike, but these had in excess of 50 seeds per spike upon first inspection!

Spartina alterniflora inforescences - you can see how plump each spikelet is

Spartina alterniflora inflorescences – you can see how plump each floret is!

By the time we finished collecting that first day, I was convinced we had leaps and bounds more than we needed. Our bags were full of thousands upon thousands of spikes. But the following day when we met up with Barabara and Gio’s mentor Clara, she explained that the project for which they were collecting wanted to direct sow the seed in an area covering 1500-2000 acres! Not only that, but since they were seeding FROM AN AIRPLANE, they require massive quantities of seed. Somewhere in the area of 10-30 pounds of collected material per acre. You do the math. That’s a gargantuan collection that needs to be made!

Each of us filled around two of these on our first day!

Each of us filled around two of these on our first afternoon!

Anyway, we spent that second day split between Bombay Hook NWR and Prime Hook NWR, collecting both from boat and by foot. Clara and I were at Prime Hook on foot, and I took the opportunity to ask what her thoughts were on the stark difference in culm height between the shorter plants I was used to, and the tall ones I was noticing in DE. We both agreed we needed to educate ourselves better on the subject. I did some research into the height differences and found that a number of scientists refer to the two as short and tall forms of S. alterniflora. The two forms seem to be distinct on a hereditary level, but I have not read any studies which have proven that claim.

I do not envy the NY crew. As exciting as it is to have such a large project requesting so much seed, its a large order to fill! I hope they appreciated our help!

On our way back to the garden at the end of our trip, we stopped in at a brand new Maryland state park, so new in fact, that it won’t be open until March of 2017. It’s called Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park. I can’t wait for it to open so I can finally see first hand what it was like for Harriet Tubman and the many families and friends she saved to travel via the Underground Railroad.

And here’s a picture of some interesting looking Spartina patens from Ted Harvey:

Spartina patens flattened and discolored

Spartina patens flattened and discolored

Till next time.

Jake Dakar

SOS East – North Carolina Botanical Garden

Hibiscus seed beetles and Cenchrus for days!

This past week was hugely productive for our team! All in all we made 36 collections between three groups. That means Fall has definitely arrived. We also managed to make a wide array of collections, as opposed to earlier in the season when we were making many collections of the same species.

I started off my week at Patuxent Research Refuge, a collection of contiguous tracts owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (as is the case with many of our sites), around Washington D.C. I was really excited to see that a rather large population of Asclepias syriaca or common milkweed along a power line corridor – right where we had noted it was the last time we were there. As I was alone, the collection took a bit longer than I was used to. Many of the pods had already opened and shed their wind-dispersed seeds. The rest were either still green and closed or partly green and partly moldy. The most tedious part was picking through the pods to find ones that were both mold-free and fully mature. One trick we learned from last year’s collections is that the pods can be picked when they’re still green and the seeds are fully matured, but before they fluff out and float away. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to stuff more milkweed seeds into a bag that keeps spitting out the ones you’ve already put in it. One really cool thing I saw a few times was that a few seeds here and there had already germinated. For those not familiar with A. syriaca, it requires stratification to germinate (or a thorough soaking in Gibberelic Acid), so spontaneous germination before any bit of cold weather is a bit strange.


Monarch caterpillars on Asclepias syriaca

My next stop after an awesome stay in the always pleasant Chestertown, MD was Tuckahoe State Park. I met up with my mentor, Amanda, there to take a leisurely paddle up the Tuckahoe Creek while furiously collecting Hibiscus moscheutos (Crimsoneyed Rosemallow) seeds. As is typical of the Malvaceae family, the capsules were insanely mucilaginous with all the rain we were having that week and in the preceding days. Our cloth bags were practically dripping with a snot-like substance. They were so wet, in fact, that our collection didn’t dry even after being spread out on newspaper every night, until 4 days later. And the bugs! There are these little bugs that lay their eggs in the fertilized ovaries of the Hibiscus capsule. When the seeds are mature, the little jerks eat their way out of the seeds, leaving empty seeds with a single large gaping hole in the side. They then crawl out and fly away to continue their life cycle. Unfortunately for me, the majority of the bugs in our collection decided to eat their way out and fly around in my car for the rest of my trip. I can’t describe how many bugs I had crawling all over me, all over the windows, all over my luggage – it was insane! Amanda and I also collected some Decodon verticillatus, or Swamp Loosestrife. That ended up being a partial collection, since most were not ready yet.


Decodon verticillatus capsules


Mucilaginous Hibiscus moscheutos capsules


Those ugly Hibiscus moscheutos capsules started off as flowers much like this pretty one

Next for me was Myrtle Point Park in St. Mary’s County, MD. There I made quite possibly the worst collection to make by yourself – Cenchrus tribuloides, or Sanddune Sandbur. I had forgotten my gloves back in my car, and was already pressed for time, so I ended up having to make that collection bare-handed. Even though the mature fruits come off the panicle quite easily and with little resistance, those things hurt like you wouldn’t believe. The spine tips on the lemmas are armed with retrorse barbs, and let me tell you, when those things stick into your skin, good luck getting them out. I only ended up bleeding in two spots, but both times I bled enough to drip blood off my finger tips. The rest of the injuries I sustained were from the very tips of the lemma awns, and for the next few days, even just driving hurt. But I was really excited to say that I had made that collection. If I could do it alone and without gloves, there’s no excuse for anyone else!


Menacing Cenchrus tribuloides plant


Cenchrus tribuloides raceme – even more menacing

My last stop for the day was Mason Neck State Park in Virginia. It’s one of the sites we had a permit for last year, but that I hadn’t ever visited, so it was definitely a treat for me. I wasn’t able to make any collections there since I arrived too late to visit the one part of the park I intended to visit, but I did get to survey some new areas. It was pretty fruitful though – I found a really large population of Sagittaria latifolia (Broadleaf Arrowhead) and in the same spot, a population of Leersia oryzoides (Rice Cutgrass).


Sagittaria latifolia leaves and inflorescence

I may not have ended that day until around 9 PM, making it a 14 hour day, but as I tell everyone that asks how I like my job, I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else!


Sunset from Mason Neck State Park

The following day I started at Occoquan Bay NWR and made collections of Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass), Typha angustifolia (Narrowleaf Cattail), and Rhus copallinum (Winged Sumac). The Typha and Rhus were awesome collections to make. Both were ready to be collected, and it doesn’t take much to make a full collection. And true to form, most grasses aren’t very straightforward or quick collections.


Rhus copallinum with characteristic winged rachis


Typha angustifolia collection underway – no, they’re not swamp corndogs, they taste terrible


Hibiscus moscheutos and Rhus copallinum drying in my hotel room

After Occoquan I went to Caledon State Park where I met face-to-face with one of our contacts working with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. I also was able to make another collection of Typha angustifolia.


Viburnum prunifolium blushing

I then took to the road again and headed for one of the many units of the Rappahannock River Valley NWR Complex. I did loads of scouting since I had never visited that particular unit. I was a little disconcerted to learn that a lot of “warm-season grasses” there were planted, but in the coming weeks I hope to find out which particular species that includes, and maybe I’ll be able to return to make a collection or two.

I ended the day at my new favorite burger joint – NN Burger in Tappahannock, VA. They make the best burgers I’ve had anywhere, with such toppings as Brie, Apple Onion Relish, Red Wine Reduction, Field Greens, and Balsamic Vinaigrette on their Porch Burger. If that doesn’t sound good, you simply don’t know good food. I finished off my meal with a Nutella milkshake! They sure don’t skimp – I could taste the hazelnuts, which I can’t say for any other Nutella flavored food I’ve had. It was a great ending to a long day!


Worth every last penny and then some

My last day was spent at Belle Isle State park where I collected the highly requested Distichlis spicata (Saltgrass), as well as Fimbristylis castanea (Marsh Fimbry) and Typha angustifolia again. I was especially excited to collect the Distichlis, since it’s been extremely difficult to A) find a population large enough consisting of female plants (Distichlis is dioecious), and B) they are terrible at producing seed, so making a collection of 20,000+ seeds tends up being very difficult.


Fimbristylis castanea in a collection bag


Distichlis spicata spike


Distichlis spicata and other saltmarsh grasses made for a gorgeous view

My final stop for the week was New Point Comfort Preserve, a Virginia TNC property. There’s a really great salt marsh there with tons of great species like Limonium carolinianum (Sea Lavender), Salicornia depressa (Virginia Glasswort), and Symphyotrichum tenuifolium (Perennial Saltmarsh Aster).

When I finally got back to our home base at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, I was able to see the fruits of my labor. It was quite impressive! Maybe less so still packed into brown paper bags, but in the end I made 14 collections. Not too shabby for a solo week!


A week’s worth of seeds

Can’t wait to see what next week has in store for us.

Jake Dakar

SOS East – North Carolina Botanical Garden

Spreading the word

Since my last blog entry, this collecting season has been crazy! My team and I have made way more collections than we had by this time last year, and we’ve visited nearly all of our 84 or so sites that we have permits for.

In addition to seed collections, I had the opportunity to attend the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in Cullowhee, NC for 4 days! I had heard about the conference over the past few years, both working at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, and studying at North Carolina State University for my undergrad degree. Everyone that had been to the conference raved about it. There were remarks ranging from “…you’ll learn more about native plants than you thought possible…” to “…it’s the one place I feel comfortable geeking out about plants…”.

I must say, my experience was leaps and bounds better than I imagined it to be, and I had pretty high hopes going into it. One part that I particularly enjoyed, and that is pertinent to this blog, was the poster session. I had the honor of presenting a poster on SOS East to anyone and everyone that was interested in learning about it. Most people were very familiar with seed banking, whether by first-hand experience, or indirectly via their own personal involvement with plants and seeds. Some people here and there were knowledgeable on Seeds of Success and its presence out West, where most of my fellow interns are enjoying their time.

Being generous, I’d say 10% of the people I spoke to were aware of SOS on the East Coast. The fact that my team and I, at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, along with the teams at the Greenbelt Native Plant Center in New York, and the New England Wildflower Society in Massachusetts, are doing large scale native plant seed collection on the East Coast was a huge shock to people. One comment that I heard, phrased in many different ways, was this – “It’s about time.” Every person I spoke to had a very strong opinion when it came to seed banking, and especially for the purpose of restoration on the East Coast. Don’t get me wrong, the need for seed in the West is huge, and I’m so incredibly grateful for the work everyone is doing out there, but the fact that until last year there was no comparable work being done East of the Mississippi River, is a joke. The East Coast gets battered by hurricanes constantly. The rate at which development here is happening at an ever quickening pace is painful to watch. Habitat loss is happening everywhere you look, and there is not enough locally adapted and locally sourced seed to fill the need for restoration efforts. Not to mention, most people don’t even know about the presence of SOS on the East Coast.

I did what I could to inform my fellow botanists, hobbyists, nursery managers, researchers, etc. on our work, and the response was fantastic. Everyone loved the work we’re doing, it seems word is spreading (albeit slowly) throughout the ‘plant world’.

My personal mission while at the conference was to get people thinking about how important the work that SOS does, truly is, and by the same token, convince people that SOS needs to broaden its reach. Right now, we on the East Coast only cover from Maine down to North Carolina. I believe it is of utmost importance to extent SOS East down south through Florida and West along the Gulf Coast, where damage is caused quite frequently. Anyone with memory of Hurricanes Andrew, Wilma, Katrina, Floyd, Fran… knows just how devastating storms on the East Coast are.

Anyway, I’ll end my rant there. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference and am forever grateful for the funding I received from the North Carolina Native Plant Society that allowed me to attend this year. I hope very much to attend next year and every year thereafter.

Here’s a photo of me with my poster:


SOS East poster at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in Cullowhee, NC

And for those of you wanting to see some nice native plants and seeds from my travels with SOS:

Borrichia frutescens

Borrichia frutescens flowers

Sabatia brachiata

Sabatia brachiata flower

Bolobschoenus robustus

Bolboschoenus robustus seeds

Viburnum dentatum

Viburnum dentatum fruits

Rubus hispidus

Rubus hispidus fruits

Asclepias incarnata

Asclepias incarnata flowers

Hibiscus moscheutos

Hibiscus moscheutos flowers

Schoenoplectus americanus

Schoenoplectus americanus fruits

Pontederia cordata

Pontederia cordata flowers

Filling the gaps

Last year we didn’t manage to get out into the field to make seed collections until the second of week of July. Prior to that, we had the arduous task of applying for seed collection permits with the 75+ sites we intended to visit for SOS East. The application process was similar for most – they took forever to be approved.

This year, however, all of our permits were already in place for us. Most of them carried over from last year, some had to be renewed, and some were new. I took care of renewing and applying for new permits while I was waiting for this year’s internship to start. That allowed us to hit the ground running after our training here at the North Carolina Botanical Garden at the start of June.

Now, anyone that has any gardening or seed collecting experience can tell you that if you miss a collection time for any of your early summer fruits (the ones birds tend to really enjoy), you might as well hang up your hat and wait until next year. Maybe then you can be the early bird that gets the [fruit]. Anyway, that’s how last year started for us. We completely missed all but one Vaccinium collection in the whole of our range, as well as many of our other enticing fruit collections and early bloomers. Here’s the Vaccinium we were able to collect both last year and this year


Vaccinium fuscatum

So far we have been able to collect 9 species that we missed last year! A few were only just collected this year because we hadn’t found (or overlooked) populations large enough. Others were simply eaten or otherwise dispersed before we could collect them.

Our first was Acer rubrum (Red maple), whose natural period of dispersal is purported to end by July. My mentor, Amanda Faucette, and I took a trip in mid-April to the NC coast and made a collection at that time, after seeing that most Red maples had already disseminated their samaras.

Next we collected Salix nigra (Black willow), which, as with Acer rubrum, does it’s thing early in the year. We didn’t expect to make a collection at all, but we happened upon a fantastic population serendipitously.

We managed collections of Gaillardia pulchella and Rubus pensilvanicus shortly thereafter, and moved on to Viburnum dentatumSambucus canadensis, and Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani.

Rubus pensilvanicus

Rubus pensilvanicus


Viburnum dentatum


Sambucus canadensis (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)


Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani


















Our most recent collections were Danthonia spicata and Deschampsia flexuosa, which we were astonished to find in large enough populations, especially this late in the season.

One interesting plant I keep seeing time and time again is Platanthera lacera (Green fringed orchid). I hadn’t ever seen it before.  I first noticed it at Smallwood State Park in Maryland about 3 weeks ago. Since then I’ve seen it a couple more times. Here’s what it looks like

Platanthera lacera

Platanthera lacera

And just in case anyone is under the impression that seed collecting is all sunshine and rainbows, here’s a photo of our crew right after we collected many thousands of Eleocharis fallax spikes at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge in the rain


We don’t look too bad after a torrential downpour!

But all joking aside, even in the rain when our boots are filling with water, our vests start stinking to high heaven, and we have trouble filling our seed collection bags, this is the most fun job I’ve ever had! I’ll let the others make their own judgements, but I’m sure they feel the same way.

Till next time.

Jake, North Carolina Botanical Garden, SOS East

Maryland State Parks for Days

Hello again! Jake Dakar here. I was a Seeds of Success (East) intern last year based out of the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC, and I’m at it again this year in the same location. During the interim period between November 30 and May 31, I stayed on as a temporary employee at NCBG doing a multitude of things, some of which were behind the scenes work in preparation for this year’s SOS East collecting season.

After months of work, countless email correspondences, and the tireless help of many involved, I recently received good news – we had succeeded in getting permission to collect seeds at 19 different Maryland State Park properties. Most of them are surrounding the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, as well as one on the Atlantic coast, and a few inland parks.

Just a couple of weeks ago, my mentor, Amanda, and I visited 18 of the 19, the 19th being Assateague State Park, which would have been extremely out of our way. We spent the entire week State Park-hopping to survey plant communities for our collection season this year.

It’s difficult to remember every detail about each park, but I did take pictures at a bunch of them.

We started off our tour at Seneca Creek State Park, where we found great populations of Asclepias syriaca, Kalmia latifolia, and Gaylussacia frondosa. Here is a picture of the Kalmia.


Next we stopped at Patuxent River State Park, which was really pretty, but wasn’t suitable for our needs.

After that we went to Patapsco Valley State Park. The traffic was awful getting there, but we got some beautiful views of old railroads and some pretty rock formations. Again, though beautiful, we didn’t find large enough populations of species on our target list.

We ended our first day at North Point State Park, where we found good populations of Prunus serotina and Cornus amomum, though we saw Phragmites australis growing everywhere, including in the woods.

The next morning we started off at Gunpowder Falls State Park where we noted a nice population of Carex vulpinoidea. Here is a photo of the very first Adiantum pedatum population I’ve ever seen in the wild!


Next we stopped at Rocks State Park where we saw, once again, a really nice population of Kalmia latifolia as well as some Rhododendron viscosum var. viscosum which is the first population we’ve seen large enough to make an SOS collection from!

Following that we went to Susquehanna State Park where we found a population that may be large enough to collect from, of Asimina triloba, which would be a fun collection to clean, as the Paw Paw is our continent’s largest fruit, and also one of my favorites. Here is a photo of some water fowl around one of their ponds.


Our last stop on day 2 was Elk Neck State Park, which was a really great spot. We saw tons of Kalmia latifoliaPontederia cordataGaylussacia frondosaAsimina trilobaTeucrium canadensePrunus serotinaTypha latifolia, and the list goes on. Here’s a picture of the lighthouse at the tip of the neck.


The following morning we began at Sassafras Natural Resources Management Area, where we saw a bunch of Viburnum dentatum, Pontederia cordata, Cornus amomum, and Asclepias sp. (the flowers weren’t quite ready yet.

This isn’t a MD State Park, but we had time to stop off at Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, where we saw a great population of Typha angustifolia, Iva frutescens, Schoenoplectus americanus, Spartina patens, Distichlis spicata, and Juncus roemerianus. Here is a photo of some Amorpha fruticosa.


Our next stop was Tuckahoe State Park. We found our first great population of Iris versicolor, as well as lots of Saururus cernuus, Sambucus canadensis, and Cephalanthus occidentalis. I took a photo of a plant I had never seen before, Medeola virginiana.


We then visited Rosaryville State Park, which unfortunately didn’t have anything for us, but it was nice to visit, since we pass it quite often during our travels.

Our last stop on day 3 was Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary, where we saw some Pinus virginiana, and a nice wetland that will be a little difficult to access. Here is a photo of some Juglans nigra I found there.


In the morning we headed off to Calvert Cliffs State Park, which was fantastic. There were incredible populations of Gaylussacia frondosa, Kalmia latifolia, and Pinus virginiana. I couldn’t help but photograph a caterpillar (maybe someone here knows what type) on some Packera aurea.


Next was Greenwell State Park, which didn’t have much in the way of natural areas, but had a well developed Equestrian area, pictured below.


We then visited St. Mary’s River State Park where we found our very first population of Rubus hispidus, as well as some Dichanthelium scoparium and many species of Eleocharis. Here is the Rubus I mentioned.


Following that we visited Point Lookout State Park, which looked very familiar to a lot of places we collected last year. There was Solidago sempervirens, Spartina patens, Iva frutescens, Smilax rotundifolia, and Juncus roemerianus, among other things. Here is a photo of some Diospyros virginiana.


Our last stop on day 4 was Smallwood State Park. We found lots of good stuff there, including Saurus cernuus, Carex lurida, Alnus serrulata, Typha latifolia, and Glyceria striata. Here is a photo of some Salix nigra in fruit!


Our first and last stop on day 5 was Chapman State Park. We saw pretty much the same flora there as we found at Smallwood, since they are within 15 minutes of each other. I did, however, take a photo of Liriodendron tulipifera.


All in all, it was a very productive scouting trip, and we had a lot of fun botanizing and seeing the beauty of MD State Parks.

I look forward to a fruitful season with SOS once again. Until next time…

Jake Dakar, NC Botanical Garden, SOS East

Not for the faint of heart

On our way out of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks back, we spent a good ten minutes talking to a couple of women from the Midwest and Oregon who happened to be traveling around the country with their husbands after having sold their homes. We had a nice chat about conservation and restoration, and how the two of them had been academics.

We parted ways, at which point we came across another interesting character: a man who claimed to be working for the National Audubon Society taking photos of wildlife, namely birds, in the salt marshes. He said he had been a Marine Biologist and stressed the importance of having a wide skill set. His had helped him stay afloat – there wasn’t always a lot of money in Marine Biology, and having photography as a hobby paid off during the lulls in his main career.

He spoke to us about a trip he took with his wife during the summer in which they encountered a family that claimed to have fields and fields of Ginseng, which for any of you that are familiar with the plant know that it sells for a lot money. Apparently a lot of people in the mountains of NC (and probably elsewhere) make such claims to impress their friends, so take the story as you will.

Anyway, once we left his company we headed back to our car to stow our seeds and press our herbarium specimens. While getting everything packed up, one of the women we spoke to earlier came up to us and exclaimed, “have you two heard about the whale”? We obviously didn’t know what she was talking about since we had been in an interdune marsh all afternoon, so we asked what she meant. A whale had washed ashore and she and her friend went to see it, as there were many people stopping on the side of the road, pulling out their cameras, and hiking the dunes to gawk.

We assumed it was probably still alive, and maybe there would be a need for our new Marine Biologist friend to have a look at it and contact the necessary authorities to help it back into the ocean, if that’s what it needed. Much to our dismay, the whale was dead. Very dead. Like d-e-a-d dead. It must’ve been sitting there on the shore for well over a week, rotting in the sun and being eaten, inside and out, by who knows what.

The smell was awful, for one thing, and the sight of it was pretty bad too. For those of you that have smelled a dead animal before, but are not quite sure what a dead whale might smell like, imagine this: take a dead deer, for example, maybe roadkill. Stuff the body with all the seaweed you can find, throw a few fish in there for good measure, then let the corpse do its thing on the side of the road for a while in the heat. That’s about what this whale smelled like.

Once we got over the smell, we took a good look at this thing. The skin was mottled and stretched, full of holes like a balloon that’s been blown up too far and is wearing thinner and thinner. The entire back end was gone. The tail and what seemed like half the distance from the tail to the dorsal fins had been torn off. We’re not sure if it was a someone or a something that took it, but it made for an interesting view of the vertebrae. The head was mostly eaten away, but the big wide tongue remained.

Neither one of us knows a whole lot about whales, so maybe someone else can enlighten us on what type of whale it was. I’ll include one picture for that purpose, and I’ll spare the ones of the rotting flesh dripping from the skeleton.

We see a lot of interesting things on our travels. Maybe one of these days we’ll get to see a live whale!

Whale corpseTill next time.

A Chill in the Air

Fall has arrived, and so have the collections we’ve been waiting so long to make! We first saw Baccharis halimifolia start to flower 6-8 weeks ago, but just last week we were able to make our first – and second – and third collection with ease. This species produces wind-dispersed seeds, which is definitely evident when you shake the shrub and watch the seeds drift through the air, blanketing everything in white.

Baccharis halimifolia

Another long-awaited collecting was Helenium autumnale, common sneezeweed, which we first saw doing its thing at the start of September. The notched petals of the ray flowers on this wetland species are a dead giveaway. That, and the fact that we found it first among Lobelia cardinalis made for a gorgeous scene around my partner Maggie and me.

Helenium autumnale

Rhexia has also been on our radar for some time now. Probably longer than the Baccharis, since the showy pinkish-purple flowers have been visible from yards away for the majority of our time in this internship. The capsules, however, are my favorite part. They’re shaped like little vases, and when not filled with insects and their excrement, are full of the tiniest, tan-colored seeds that resemble miniature kidney beans.


And of course I can’t forget to mention Juniperus virginiana! Now is the perfect time of year to collect their fruits, as they are a vibrant blue color, not often seen in nature, and stand out among the green backdrop of foliage. They even smell nice! Some of the trees we found were up to 40 feet tall! Standing between these trees I felt almost as though I were in a Bob Ross painting! How many people can say that about their jobs?Juniperus virginiana

Last, but certainly my favorite, was Diospyros virginiana, Persimmon. We finally found a population large enough to collect from, and boy did we! You won’t hear us complaining about cleaning this collection! I see Persimmon Pudding in our future!

Diospyros virginiana

Until next time…

Taking matters into our own hands

Cenchrus tribuloides – Sanddune sandbur

Definitely one of the more interesting plants in our range here. If you’ve never had the misfortune of encountering these jerks of the grass family, let me paint the scene for you. Imagine you’re walking along, heading toward the beach with your family and friends, dragging a beach chair and complaining about how hot the sand is on your feet, despite the sandals you’re wearing. You’re just getting to the part of the conversation when start feeling hopeful about the cool water you’re about to step into, when – BAM! No, that wasn’t your beach chair unfolding on its own and bruising your ankle. That was a sanddune sandbur. 8 mm long spines have pierced your flesh, and its not just one, but 15 burs that are sticking out of you like you’re made of Velcro.

Now you can stop imagining – because you have to collect the seeds of this gem.

image1But seriously, how do you collect something like this? My partner Maggie and I had planned on buying a raggedy old bed sheet from a consignment store, and dragging it across the landscape to collect our burs, however, we forgot to get the bed sheet. Luckily though, Maggie had two old towels in her car, so we decided to try our luck with them. Towels are more like Vecro than human skin, right? And more so than a bed sheet.

Anyway, we tried that, and as it turns out, there is a critical mass of burs that will stick to any given towel. I’m going to approximate that the number is around 200 burs per side. Seeing as how we had two towels, two sides per towel, that only gives us about 800 burs. I was finding there to be 1 seed per bur, so in the grand scheme of things, 800 seeds will do us no good when our goal is 20,000.

image2We then tried a different method – walk through this big patch of Cenchrus tribuloides wearing our rubber boots, and clip the mature inflorescences with our pruners into a paper bag. That worked for a while, but after noticing how many burs were sticking to our gloves and pants, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Quite literally. I threw my pruners to the ground, readied myself, and grasped an inflorescence with my (gloved) hands. Applying only the slightest amount of pressure, I attempted to strip the stalk of its burs – and voila! The mature burs stuck to my glove, and the immature burs remained on the stalk.

After that we were able to collect our goal – and then some – in record time. The sheet was an inventive idea, as were the towels, but lo and behold, our hands were the best tool we had.

Never again will I underestimate what my hands can do – and neither should you.

Till next time.