On the sagebrush steppe or the Eastern Cascade foothills. Past the old farmhouse, near the spring, in the burned area, or on an ancient basalt flow. Seed collecting. I drive slow, both because the BLM road I am on seems to have more rocks in it than around it, and because I am intently focused on finding seeds to collect. Something catches my eye and I step on the brakes. I jump out of the truck and examine a plant, or remnant of a plant. Perhaps it is something I scouted out months before when it was in flower, before the landscape dried into shades of brown. A dehisced skeleton of a plant, but still offering a seedhead. I eagerly grab it, and use my fingernails or a knife to break open the seed head, capsule, silique, achene, spikelet, follicle, schizocarp or pod. I assess whether the seeds are ready. Too green and soft means its not ready yet. Some fruits may have a small hole in them and a worm rather than a seed, in which case I need to cut open more seeds to determine if they are all like that. If the seeds are dry and hard, they are ready. Then I look up at the population. Are there enough plants to collect from? If so, have they produced enough fruits? I once observed, on a quiet lunch break, a chipmunk running around grabbing lupine stalks with its tiny hands and bending the pods into its mouth, which likely expains why we haven’t been able to find many lupine pods despite its abundant flowers. How many seeds are in each seed head or fruit? Simple math equations run through my head as I keep in mind that our collection target is at least 10,000 seeds and only twenty percent of a population can be taken. If everything looks good, I get a bag and start collecting. If there are 100 seeds per seed head, it may take a matter of minutes, but sometimes there are only several seeds per fruit and it takes hours.
Despite the drought, my field partner and I have been able to make over twenty collections thus far. We have sought out the higher elevations and wetter areas of our field office. Plants also have staggered blooming and fruiting times, meaning that in one trip we may collect seed from an early flowering species and collect an herbarium specimen from a later flowering one. As we get into late August I can tell that the collections will get more and more sparse.
I often think about where the seed that we collect will go. Collection is the beginning of a long process. After being cleaned and sorted, it may end up in a seed bank. Or it may be grown out in fields, producing thousands more. Lately it has been over 90 degrees every day, and large fires are raging all around Alturas, blanketing the area in thick smoke. There will likely be a huge demand for seed in the coming years to stabilize slopes and out compete weeds in the vast areas of the West that have burned this season.
BLM Botany Intern