Collecting seeds to help build habitats

The New England Seeds of Success 2015 season has now come to an end and it’s time to reflect on what we were able to accomplish. Each of us on the team has learned so much about the local environment, native taxa and not the least of which, how to describe the Seeds of Success program.

Throughout the past season our team has traveled throughout New England collecting seeds for restoration projects that ranged from establishing salt marsh plants in the face of rising sea levels to proving seeds to help stabilize river banks after removing dams. The common theme between all of these species, regardless of state or habitat, are that these species are the building blocks for each plant community.

It is these common and often under appreciated species that create and define each habitat. By collecting and storing these familiar species we are able to provide locally sourced native plant seeds to conservation efforts in the future. Although it sounds more glamorous to work with rare and endangered species, it is crucial that we also work on the commonplace species, because they provide the structure to support everything else.

Fall days in New England

Acer rubrum leaf litter

Leaf litter from the aptly named red maple (Acer rubrum).


Falls has come and the maples trees have been turning brilliant colors.

Falls has come and the maples trees have been turning brilliant colors.

Salicornia, red

Pickle weed (Salicornia depressa) turning a beautiful scarlet in the salt marshes of Massachusetts.

Witch Hazel bloom

The beautiful flowers of the Witch Hazel come out as the other woodland species are dropping their leaves. Depending on the timing, these flowers can be hidden by the fall foliage or be wonderfully conspicuous as one of the bright spots in an otherwise bare forest.


One of the great joys of working outside is connecting with natural areas and seeing dramatic shifts occur throughout the seasons. Collecting seeds from a wide range of habitats, from mountain peaks to coast lines, has allowed the New England team for the Seeds of Success program to experience each season.

Early summer felt like spring would never leave us (after a particularly long and harsh winter) with cold rainy day and mud everywhere. This was a great time to familiarize ourselves with the team and the protocols that we would be using throughout the field season. As Summer came into full swing the days grew hotter and flowers bloomed all around us. Extremely hot days ensued, with us taking refuge in the shade in between collections.

Fall has come and the temperature has been dropping as the number of collections are picking up the pace. The cool, dry air works well with a lot of the wind dispersed species, which in this area can range from Milk Weeds (Asclepias sp.), Golden rods (Solidago sp.) and grasses (Littile blue stem, Schizachyrium scoparium in particular).

These days have been a delight to behold and with the sun low in the sky the autumn leaves are beautifully colored. Many of the places that we have been visiting all season have changed yet again, as a last hurrah before the inevitable winter. Soon enough the colors will fade and we will have a lot of white snow.

Something familiar, yet new

Marsh grass (Spartina alterniflora)

Marsh grass (Spartina alterniflora)

Spartina alterniflora covered in seed, ready for harvesting.

Spartina alterniflora covered in seed, ready for harvesting.

A natural rope of Spartina alterniflora

A natural rope of Spartina alterniflora

The days are getting shorter, particularly for the New England crew, but despite that, there is always so much to see. Fall has descended upon us and the seed collection has been kicked in to high gear.

Throughout the summer we had been visiting salt marshes as various species go into seed. Despite going to areas several times, each visit allowed us to experience something new, be it a another species going into flower/seed or unexpected wildlife. Many of these places/species have become very familiar and after months of waiting for the marsh grass (Spartina alterniflora) to go into seed, and when at last we were able to collect the large fruiting spikes, it was a like meeting up with a long awaited friend.

This past week we visited the Boston Harbor Islands and as the wind picked up and the waves splashed against the marsh grass, I noticed this long rope spanning the length of the shore. The recent tides and larger than normal waves had plucked the dead and freed marsh grass leaves and rolled them into a long contiguous cord. I would have never imagined these natural phenomena and look forward to future wonders.

Catching up with the seasons.

Late summer is a great time to find oneself collecting along a pond edge.

Late summer is a great time to find oneself collecting along a pond edge.

The fruit of Swida amomum develop a lovely blue color when ripe.

The fruit of Swida amomum develop a lovely blue color when ripe.

In the past couple of years I have undergone a major migration, moving from Hawaii to the eastern seaboard and then up to New England. There are the obvious differences between the two places, such as weather and the amount of palms. One of the largest contrasts that I’ve felt is in the pace of every day life. Hawaii is known for its laid back and welcoming attitudes, while New England has a reputation for being focused and productive to the point of being a bit frenzied.

These traits persist in other aspects of life such as the rapid change of seasons found in the North East. As our team works closely with the plants in this area, it is easy to imagine how the swift passage of time (in this case the fruiting times of plants) motivates people to act with alacrity, knowing that it common to have things come and go very quickly.

In Hawaii the seasons (yes, there are seasons) are gentle and seem to linger a lot longer, whereas any missed opportunities in collecting plants north east means it will be another year before you can get another chance. As we move into crunch time with many different types of plants producing seeds we are feeling the pressure, trying to not to let any species slip past our notice.

One of the species that made this very clear was the Silky Dogwood (Swida amomum), this shrub is very common along wet edges and we have seen it frequently. It is a robust plant that has been requested for several dam removal projects. In the past three trips, the fruit ripened into a beautiful blue color and we started to collect gallon bags full of seeds. With the passing of each week the seeds seemed harder to find in large quantities, and I’m expecting that last week was our final collection of this species for the season.

It is possible we will find other populations that are fruiting a bit later than others and perhaps we will see more as we travel to states further south, but it is likely this species is done fruiting in our area.

Swida amomum, it was a pleasure working with you this year and I look forward to doing it again in 2016!

Days at the Salt Marsh


Salt being exuded from Spartina alterniflora


The dried shell of a crab found within Spartina patens.

The dried shell of a crab found within Spartina patens.


Make sure to consult tide charts while on the marsh so that you don’t get stuck behind the rising water.

The New England Seeds of Success team has been traveling throughout the North East searching out ripening seeds that will be used in various conservation projects ranging from dune rehabilitation to stream stabilization. We are also collecting a wide range of common species that will be stored and become available in the case of future disasters and damage to plant communities.

Much of our time collecting in New England has been spent collecting salt marsh graminoides (grass-like plants), where rising sea levels threaten the delicate balance of fresh and salt water habitat. These systems are very important in keeping our coasts stable and act as a large filter as water makes its way to the sea. Despite being hugely important, these are not very diverse systems, often relying on only a few species.

There are no trees in the salt marsh, so sun beats down on us while we collect and the wind leaves us parched. The area is ruled by the tides and if one isn’t careful the water will quietly rise and leaving them stranded in a limited area of solid ground. It is also due to these factors that these areas are so beautiful and surprises abound when one takes a closer look.

It is partly due to the monotonous nature of these spaces that make the small things stand out. Watching the breeze roll across the huge open landscape can be memorizing. Spartina alterniflora, the salt marsh cord grass, glistens in the summer heat as it exudes salt directly out of its leaves. Small treasures can be seen throughout the marsh, from the dessicated shells of crabs that were deposited during a high tide to watching a horse shoe crab feeding the mucky bottom of a canal.

Salt marshes have so much to offer to both the function of an areas as well as to provide a beautiful landscape. We are fortunate to spend our days in such amazing spaces and to have the presence of mind to notice the things that are often overlooked.

On Nature’s Schedule

The northeast faced a cold winter this past year with record breaking snowfall, some of which still persists in our fare city of Boston. A harsh season can have major impacts on plant communities, including damage to the plants themselves as well as delaying flowering and fruiting.

To collect enough seed for the Seeds of Success program, our team must reach plants at the peak of their fruiting season. This requires our team to keep a keen eye on the dozens of species we work with and how each population is developing.

As colleagues in the south and out west report that their seed collections have started, we closely watch our forests and salt marshes for sign of ripening seeds. Mother nature does not abide by our schedules and all we can do is to prepare and observe so that we are ready when the time is right.

The anticipation is building as our fieldwork increases and we are very mindful of potential opportunities to collect viable seeds. It is still too early to tell how the past winter will effect this season’s seed collection.  But with the current long, hot days, the biting cold of early winter seems long ago and there is huge amount of work to be done before the end of this work season.

Clear skies and a fresh breeze (but no ripe seed) greeted us at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, ME

Clear skies and a fresh breeze (but no ripe seed) greeted us at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, ME

Team building on our first day

Like all of the interns, I had been eagerly awaiting the start of our program and was looking forward to meeting the team I would be working with for the next six months. The interns working with New England Wild Flower Society first met at the check-in counter of Logan International Airport and, after only a brief introduction to one another, we set off on our journey. Conversation flowed easily as we shared stories of past field experience and places that inspired us to follow our passion for conservation. It’s no wonder our excitement built up thinking about our trip to North Carolina Botanical Garden for our training on field protocol.

Our flight between Boston and New York went by quickly, and soon enough we found ourselves at our next gate ‘talking story’ and enjoying each others company. Meanwhile, fog had rolled in and delayed in our flight. On the upside, we had more time to bond. But as we chatted, the weather got worse and our lighthearted conversations did not match the increasing heaviness of the weather outside. Soon enough our “Delayed” flight changed to “Canceled”.

In a matter or moments we had come together and started brainstorming about the possibilities of making it down to NC for as much of three day training as possible. There would be no flights for 24 hours and flying to nearby cities would not pan out. In the end, we made the decision that if we drove, we could arrive before the training started (short of a first dinner together and a bit of sleep).

For the next nine hours we rotated driving, making our way south through the night. At times the rain came down in buckets and I was afraid that the thunder would wake the crew that was fortunate enough to fall asleep in the back of the van. At 4:30 in the morning we made it to our hotel, just in time for a quick nap before waking up and attending the first day of our training. Despite being a bit tired, we were all excited to start this new chapter, all the more because we knew that we had a strong team that willing and able to take on unexpected challenges (with great attitudes too boot!).