Lessons in Seed Collecting

During my time in the Umpqua, I have learned a lot about the nature of seed and seed collection. As something that I had never really given much thought to before, I have picked up on quite a few things regarding the matter. Though not extensive or something that can possibly be used across the board, I caught myself this last month making a mental rule book for the dos and don’ts of seed collection. Noting the things that nature had to teach me, I learned along the way what was easiest, the best, or sometimes the worst way to go about a process.

1. Never force seed. One thing that has stuck out to me the most, and should perhaps have been the most obvious idea, is that that seed will freely give itself to you when it is ready. It’s the whole purpose and the thing it wants to do the most – be released in its time of maturity. So when walking up to a plant, I now take note of how easily the seed gives itself up to me. Do I have to force it off of the plant? Or if I move too quick, accidentally bumping the plant, am I in trouble of losing my collection because it has sprung away at the smallest of encounters. If so, chances are I can pass go and collect my $200… after a trusty cut test of course.

// note – I wouldn’t necessarily think of berries and fruits in this way.

2. Following that thought, I move on to lesson number two: Be careful where you tread and grab. The number of times that I have lost the seed that I was reaching for simply because I moved too quick, missing what I was reaching for or accidentally bumped a plant with my leg… embarrassing. Springy seed pods, such as the Aquilegia formosa, will have you flying seed halfway across your work area with the smallest of movements. While not all seed is positioned for a great launching, those that are require patience and precise work – and maybe a little less shaking from drinking too much coffee in the morning.

Gilia capitata – the springiest of springy seed

3. Avoid spiderwebs. Not necessarily a hill I’m willing to die on, but I can think of a few reasons to avoid spiderwebs. First, because of spiders, duh. The last thing I want to do is reach for a handful of material and have a spider or its web in my hand. Yuck. I don’t like it. I don’t want it. No thanks. Second, webs catch things. Mostly bugs, but sometimes other things too like seeds. Here in the Umpqua, one of our most treated non-native invasive species has a wispy seed comparable to that of a dandelion. There have been a few times that I have noticed these fluffy seeds caught in a spider’s web. For me, collecting spider webs full of other, perhaps unfriendly seeds is not worth it so I avoid it altogether.

Anaphalis margaritacea // Pearly Everlasting
Fluffy Anaphalis margaritacea seed up close.

4. South facing vs. north facing. Thanks to rocking climbing I knew that any rock, bluff, or thing facing south would be hotter than the north, and as a result, knew that any seed facing south would be ready for harvesting first (ignoring elevation). This is because the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the south side of any object will see the most hours of sunlight in a day.

5. Work in designated lines. When working in groups, it is important to assign work areas within your collection site. I have found that working in transects works best. This allows for all areas to be covered. No accidentally missing plants. No double-picking. You are responsible for an area – you know where you began, you know where you stopped, you know how much you’ve collected.

Eriophyllum lanatum //
Oregon Sunshine

Honorable Mentions

Don’t be greedy. Take your percentage, leave the rest, and trust that Nature will provide everything you are meant to take.

Don’t cry over spilled seed. Seed spilled in the wild isn’t really lost or wasted. It’s where it was originally meant to be.

Patient work, not speedy. Small collection species are tedious and require a lot of effort. Don’t give up on collecting early because it’s uncomfortable. Pay your dues. Take the time to do the work. Tomorrow’s collection species will probably be easier.

Walk around. Find the beginning or the end of a population to begin your work. Don’t start in the middle and make yourself all confused. Additionally, you might find something new that you missed before.

CM scouting for potential collection sites.

-Casey Mills

A Very Smoky August

Early this August, I got to make my first personal delivery to the Coeur d’Alene Forest Service Nursery in Coeur d’Alene, ID! Since the nursery is a 2.5 hour drive, it has proven to be quicker and more efficient to deliver the seed lots ourselves, rather than packing and shipping the large quantity of seeds that have take up all spare office space. Myself and the rest of the Lolo Botany Crew got to take a tour around the nursery facilities and take a look at all the different projects going on this time of year. The nursery is quite extensive, with many greenhouses and open warehouse space for plugs and seeds spread to dry.

Among the seeds and saplings are a more friendly nursery occupant: the nursery cats. Apparently three cats inhabit the Coeur d’Alene Nursery, although I only had the pleasure of meeting Smoky, who currently takes up residence in the seed extractory. What a hard worker! It was very impressive to see the success of current grow-outs from seed collections of years past from the Lolo NF. After surveying for much Whitebark Pine this season, one of my favorite parts of the nursery tour was to see the greenhouse designated for Whitebark Pine saplings.They typically ship out about 100,000 white bark pine saplings every year, so it was excellent to see great restoration hard at work. Super cool time!

Another fun event in early August was the Western Montana Fair, which I got to attend both for work and fun. I had the chance to participate in some community outreach with the Lolo National Forest, greeting the public at the FS booth had and got to talk to the community about some of the projects going on and how exciting it is to work in natural resources/restoration. The best part was meeting new coworkers from different programs in the Missoula office who I don’t get to see every day. Aside from work, I went to the rodeo at the fair, and it was actually my first rodeo! It was so much fun to watch all the events.

Earlier in August I took a trip up to Glacier National Park. It has been pretty smoky this August, but the views were still great! I hiked from Lake McDonald up to Snyder Lake. Beautiful hike I would recommend to anyone visiting Glacier.

A Seedy August: Reflections on seed collecting and life in Tonasket

Seed collection is a competition.

I’m not talking about competition between CLM interns or forest districts (ok well maybe just a little bit). Over the past month or so of seed collecting, I’ve been racing the wind, the clock, insects, and most notably, cattle to get to seeds first. Everywhere I look in the forest, there seems to be something or someone else looking to steal, eat, or stomp on my seeds before I can collect them, and I’ve learned that whether I’d like to be or not, I’m in competition with these forces.

The Tonasket Ranger District has 51 active range permits, and I’ve heard one of the highest range permit to area ratios of any national forest district in the country. Lucky us! Sometimes, it feels as if every square inch of our forest has been munched or trampled by cows. I’ve gotten used to the sight, even enjoy their presence from time to time. No matter how much mutual respect I believe we’ve built, though, they never hesitate to eat every Lupinus sericeus seed before they have the chance to mature to harvestability.

Our worst enemies best friends

Seeds want to be collected…

It’s not always easy to tell when a seed is ready to be collected. Take Carex utriculata, for example. No two spikes look exactly the same when they’re ready for harvest, but without fail, their akenes will slide right off when they’re ready, whether they’re completely brown, or still half green. Every plant looks different, but their seeds will always be easy to separate from their plants when they’re ready to be collected.

Like any living thing, the biological goal of a plant for its seeds to germinate, their offspring to thrive, and thus their genetic lineage to persist after their own lives end. I’d like to think that by collecting their seeds, I’m giving plants a better chance at achieving that goal than if they’re left to their own devices. I’ve kind of beat evolution in that way, become a god to these plants. So why wouldn’t they want me to collect their seeds?  

Carex utriculata, affectionately “corn cob sedge”. Photo © 2017 Matt Below

…and bugs do too.

While stripping a plant bare of its seeds, we’re often asked to abandon our botany hats in favor of entomology ones. It’s nearly impossible to remove the seeds from a plant crawling with bugs without taking a few of them with you, but most are friendly and seem to crawl out of our seed bags without too much prodding.

Luckily didn’t accidentally collect this guy

Not all seeds are made the same.

On a good day, we’re able to harvest 3 seeds from each Lupinus sericeus plant, while Chamerion angustifolium produces around 80,000 seeds per plant. Both wildflowers are on our target species list, but to complete a 30,000 seed collection for one, we’d need to find 10,000 plants, while one weed on the side of the road would suffice for the other. Seeds are kinda like us that way, all a little bit different.

A field of Chamerion angustifolium (fireweed)

The Unibrome

Awn the subject of grasses I have very little to say because I know very little. Much of my work this past month has been IDing grasses during plant surveys. This is difficult because all grasses look the same to me. To aid in grass identification I made the following dichotomous key: 

  1. Does it look like a brome?
    1. Yeah- 2
    1. No- 3
  2. Is it a brome?
    1. Yeah- Bromus sp.
    1. No- Festuca sp.  
  3. Could you use it to tickle someone? 
    1. Easily- Agrostis sp.
    1. Would be a challenge- 4
  4. One seed per spikelet? 
    1. Yeah- Poa sp.
    1. No- 5
  5. Hairy leaf margins?
    1. Yeah- Calamagrostis sp.
    1. No- 6
  6. Does it grow in a wet area?
    1. Yeah- 7
    1. No- 14
  7. Does it look kind of stringy?
    1. Yeah- 8
    1. No- 9
  8. Seeds rotund?
    1. Yeah- Glyceria sp.
    1. No- Cinna latifolia  
  9. Awns?
    1. Yeah- 10
    1. No- Phalaris arundinacea
  10. Looks like a corndog?
    1. Yeah- 11
    1. No- 12
  11. Describe the corndog
    1. Short and fat- Phleum pratense
    1. Long and skinny- Alopecurus aequalis
  12. Poofy?
    1. Yeah- Dactylis glomerata
    1. No- 13
  13. Droopy?
    1. Yeah- Deschampsia elongata
    1. No- Elymus glaucus
  14. Bulbed?
    1. Yeah- Melica bulbosa
    1. No- 15
  15. Spikelets on opposite sides of the stem?
    1. Yeah- 16
    1. No- 17
  16. Bunchgrass?
    1. Yeah- Pseudoroegneria spicata
    1. No- Thinopyrum intermedium
  17. Unkempt look?
    1. Yeah- Hordeum jubatum
    1. No- 18
  18. Comb-like?
    1. Yeah- Agropyon cristatum
    1. No- 19
  19. Poofy?
    1. Yeah- Koeleria macrantha
    1. No- Eriocoma nelsonii

When da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa he described the feeling of a divine presence guiding every brushstroke.1 Making this key felt sort of the same way. 

In the key I did not key many genera down to species-level because I feel that keying a grass down to genus-level often times suffices. Anything else just feels pretentious. I especially feel this way with the genus “Bromus”. I am of the correct opinion that, in an effort to make our jobs easier, all bromes should be combined into one species (the unibrome). 

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is a noxious weed invasive in much of the Western United States. But, there are a number of brome “species” already native to this area. If we combined all the bromes into one species then cheatgrass would no longer be invasive and we will save a lot of money by no longer needing to invest time and resources on invasive management for this species. As an added benefit, mountain brome (Bromus sitchensis) is one of the target seed collection species for myself and my co-intern. We are having some difficulty locating suitable populations for this species, but if mountain brome and cheatgrass get combined into one species then we could just collect cheatgrass seeds. This would save us a lot of time because the cheatgrass is everywhere, even in disturbed environments where you would expect to see mainly invasive species. I suspect the reason plant taxonomists have not thought of these changes is because they are cowards. Unfortunately, there is not a Nobel Prize in biology.

1 I made this up

The Cookcamp Chronicles

Our sylvan saunter sojourning for seeds has scattered us scouts though streamsides, summits, swamps, steppes and ski slopes. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of driving up and down many a bumpy dirt road, hunting far-flung patches of plants and filling bag after bag with countless thousands of seeds. Our basement is starting to be overrun with an ever-growing tower of brown paper bags with eerie-sounding Latin labels – are we botanists or Hogwarts wizards?
Our wide-ranging adventures over two national forests mean that we’ve been camping almost every week this month to cover enough ground. After the first few days of eating only hot dogs and peanut butter sandwiches, I shifted gears and decided that if I was going to do all this camp cooking this summer, I was going to do it right. I like a good camp-cooked meal as much as anyone, so it’s a good thing I have a job that makes me hike a lot.

With enough determination, one can cook (almost) anything over a campfire or a single-burner stove that can be made at home. On one such adventure, I spent an evening frying Monte Cristo sandwiches over a campfire – a delicious combination of ham and cheese between French toast, drizzled with pancake syrup. For dessert, I wrapped two Pillsbury crescent rolls around a stick, fried them over a fire, and filled the resulting tube with pudding and whipped cream for an eclair that would make any French chef proud. .I followed it up the next two nights with French toast and a recipe from the original 1911 edition of the Boy Scout Handbook for Canned Salmon on Toast, essentially a glorified if archaic tuna salad. The recipe begins, “Dip slices of stale bread into smoking hot lard.” I’d call the result mediocre at best, with a pallid gray color unbecoming of salmon, but nothing tasted better after a long day of hiking (especially when I followed it with a round of French toast for dessert). The next week, I went out on a limb and tried a recipe for spicy potato and leek soup with shrimp that originally came out of an old fantasy book I read in middle school. It took near the entire evening to simmer over our campfire but boy, it sure tasted good! On the contrary, the recipe feeds about four people – being only Dan and myself, we awkwardly taped the pot lid closed and set it in the trunk of our jeep. The next morning, Dan was souped out, leaving me staring down a very large breakfast of seemingly endless shrimp. If you’re going to cook enough to have leftovers the next morning, make sure you have someone who will actually eat them!

Summer is a social construct: Reflections of a post-grad

Few things are more characteristic of summer than a hot, stifling August. For the student, August means the end of summer and the start of classes. June and July show you that you have all the time in the world, to go outside, explore, hike, or run. August reminds you that maybe you don’t actually want to spend so much time outdoors since air conditioning is preferable to your shirt sticking to your back.

The South Dakota grassland from a plant-eye view

For me, this year is different. In a sentiment that I’m sure is expressed by most recent graduates, there is no school to bookend the summer this time. And it’s weird. For the past ~17 years of my life, school has been the schedule that I’ve built my life around. Work, vacations, and activities have all been dependent on school. I hear friends that are still enrolled, parents of young kids, my brother talk about the current transition, the start of the new (school) year. And for me nothing is changing* except the growth stages of the grass. It is abundantly apparent that the rigid structures I scheduled my life around were ephemeral, and if you have enough vacation days, summer vacation can happen at any time of year.

So I return to the grass. Among the other realizations I have gotten from this job, I have realized just how many different species of grasshopper there are. I really hadn’t had much grasshopper exposure before this (perhaps because I didn’t spend seven hours a day belly down in the grass), but I love having company for fieldwork in these little guys**.

Goob the Grasshopper

Now I know I’ve just spent a considerable amount of time and words talking about how the school schedule no longer applies to me, which is true, though there are aspects of my work that do feel like returning to school. Our fieldwork was slated to finish at the end of August, and now we are in the office, weighing biomass samples and entering data. In a way, this is the best of both worlds. I have escaped the iron grip of homework while still getting to enjoy the air conditioning during the hot days.

*This is not entirely true. I have less than a month in the job I’m currently in, but that life-change has nothing to do with the school year.
**One of my colleagues insists that grasshoppers are one of the worst insects, worse even than ticks, and he will have to accept that he is simply wrong in this case.