Fall Reflection: Last weeks as a Seed Collection Intern

It is November, and the New York weather is finally turning chilly and staying that way. The landscape is transformed by the fiery hues of fall foliage.


Gardiner County Park, Suffolk, NY

Here at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Seedbank, we CLM interns are wrapping up the last few weeks of work. Bundled up in hats, gloves and wool socks, my field partner Laura and I brave the cold for the last choice native seed collections. Our six months of work have gone by quickly, but were jam-packed full of productive work and memorable adventures.

As of the day I write this, I’ve been a part of a NY field team that has collected:

  • 110 collections of native plant seeds in Long Island (10,000-30,000 seeds per collection)
  • Over 60 species
  • 145 pounds of salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), a crucial part of the marsh ecosystem
  • Data, pictures and herbarium specimen for all these collections, and intel on collections to make next year!

We’ve had our ups and downs, but overall I am extremely proud of the efforts and achievements of my team. Here are some superlatives that highlight different moments we experienced along the way.

Handiest Item: Duct tape. I could write a love poem to duct tape. It comes in handy in so many situations! Tent poles you bought from Amazon break on your second camping trip? Duct tape. Seed collection bag ripping from moisture or tension? Duct tape. Strap holding your waders up by your belt disintegrates? Duct tape! I could go on, but you get the idea.

Toughest Field Day: mid-July collections at Wertheim NWR and Gardiner Cty Park. These were some of our best sites, but I remember a particular day in July when our collections there really tested us. We got several salt marsh species in the expanses of wetland at Wertheim, then scoured the forested areas of Gardiner for elderberry and viburnum shrubs in the afternoon. The temperature was in the 100s with high humidity, and the mosquitoes were in literal swarms. Luckily we had netted hats, but I remember struggling to pour water through my face net so that I could stay hydrated while being actively swarmed by mosquitoes. At the end of the day, I think I felt the most tired I’ve ever been, but I was really glad we made those collections.

Most Helpful Landowner: Robin at US Fish & Wildlife. This was a tough one! We couldn’t have made the collections we did without the amazing knowledge and support of staff members at our various sites. Robin was always prompt in our communications about collection sites. He took time to drive out and show us the salt marsh at Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge. In general he was just super helpful and great to work with. Honorable mention/shout out to Terry at Connetquot State Park and Andy and Andy of Easthampton Town Parks who are also fantastic!

Best View from a Seed Collection Site: Accabonac Harbor, Easthampton NY. We collected salt marsh plants here late in the field season. The site sits on a peninsula jutting out into the sea off of the South fork of Long Island. The early morning light glowing through fog over the ocean made the boundary between sea and sky indistinguishable. I wish I had photos so I could back this up, but I was honestly too breathtaken to think to get my phone out!

Favorite Collection: Nyssa sylvatica at Connetquot River State Park. This collection is memorable to me (and am getting a tattoo of this plant!) because I feel like it encapsulates my CLM internship experience as a whole. Nyssa sylvatica, or black tupelo, is a native tree that likes to grow near wet areas like pond or stream edges. The collection was quite challenging to make. Since each fruit has one seed, we needed to collect a large volume of fruit, and the trees were well dispersed throughout a system of streams. We snaked along the trails and climbed over downed pine trees to find fruit-bearing tupelos. Then we would use a clipper on the edge of a long poll (called a pull-pruner) to cut branches and harvest the precious fruit. In spite of, or maybe because of the challenge, we loved making this collection. The woods and streams were so beautiful, and every time we found a tree it was like a treasure trove of ripe fruit.

So in short, this collection and my internship experience as a whole boil down to this: challenging, but fruitful.

Week in the life of a NYC seed collector

I’m working at the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island, NY. Our small regional seed bank is working to make upwards of 300 collections of native plant seeds this year. These seeds will be used for restoration projects in areas damaged by hurricane Sandy. The first few weeks were filled with intensive training in plant identification and seed collection strategies. But now we’ve been loosed into the wild to do the work! We were assigned to teams in different geographic regions from which to collect. I’m working with my fellow intern, Laura, and we’re doing seed collection in the forests, dunes, and marshes of Long Island (which, in fact, is QUITE long, and quite a bit greener than I had expected). We have started to get into the swing of things, so here’s a look at what we did this week!

Monday: Every successful trip into the field starts with thorough planning in the office. Laura and I assess which species might be ready for collection and chose which new sites we want to scout. We book accommodation, plan meals, pick up our rental car, and contact park managers to let them know we’d be on site. We organize our tools: Plant press, clippers, GPS. rain gear, data sheets, collection envelopes etc. With (almost) everything accounted for, we head home and got an early night to prepare for the next day’s work.

Tuesday: I tote my backpack full of supplies through the subway crowded with commuters. I get some odd looks (my khaki field pants and and tie-dye t-shirt do not blend in with typical New York fashion) but I arrive on time at the subway station near Laura’s apartment in Brooklyn. We drive two hours until we reach our first field site: Rocky Point Pine Barrens Preserve. We spend a couple of hours hiking around, eagerly noting the abundance of bearberry (Arctostaphylus uva ursi) and wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria). After we’ve sufficiently scouted this site, we head to Brookhaven State Park. We find some nice populations around several small ponds, and along a powerline cut.

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pondside Cephalanthus occidentalis (Buttonbush)

Wednesday: Today we visit two new sites: Robert Cushman Murphy County Park and Sears Bellows County Park. Both are full of dried up pond beds, filled with interesting species. One of my favorite finds was a beautiful collection of Rhexia virginica growing happily in the mud of the dried up pond.

Rhexia virginica

Around the main pond on site we find an abundance of a rush called Juncus effusus that is seeding. It takes a bit of bushwhacking through the surrounding thickets, but we collect from the entire population.

We also find this little guy.

Thursday: We return to a site that we visited last week, Connetquot River State Park, to finish a collection of two grasses. We move swiftly through the roadside grasses, stopping to find another population of Juncus effusus around a stream that flows through the middle of the park. We finish up the day happy with our three completed seed collections.

Friday: Back in the office, we lay out our seed to dry in the lab, and plan for more botanical adventures ahead!