Several years ago, when I first begun taking horticulture classes, I was assigned a research project that included the task of collecting about 70 different seeds. I recall I was asked to collect around 20 seeds from ornamentals, 15 – 20 from trees and shrubs, 15 – 20 from vegetables and herbs, and 15 – 20 from grasses. Although I was a mature student in my mid-40’s, I’m sure I acted like a pampered 18-year-old freshman when I whined to my professor that I thought it was impossible to collect that many varieties of seed, let alone that many from grasses! I went on to tell her that I lived in the suburbs and I doubted there were that many types of grasses even available to me. I asked for a reduction in number of seeds required on the assignment.
Thankfully, my professor didn’t coddle me. She matter-of -factly stated that indeed there were more than enough varieties of plants in my part of the world in which to collect seed and I was well expected to do so. However, prior to my going out into the field to perform the assignment, she offered me one very valuable bit of advice – always look for seed at the exact locations where the flowers of a plant were previously blooming. And yes, folks, grass blooms too! It is just that the blooms are usually so very tiny or inconspicuous that we don’t pay attention to them.
Needless to say, I learned a lot from this one particular course and its professor. In the end, I was ever so grateful that my professor held firm and didn’t cut me any slack on the amount of seeds required for the assignment – after all, that wouldn’t have been fair anyway. (I had a period of adjustment to endure when I went back to school in my 40’s. I learned it really wasn’t a factor that I was working full time AND going to school – the assignments still held all the same. And rightly so!)
Well on to the topic at hand – seed collecting. Now (late fall) is the time to collect seed from your spent summertime plants. This includes annuals, perennials, vines, trees, shrubs, vegetables and, don’t forget, grasses. Most seeds are enclosed in some sort of pod and in the case of fruits and vegetables, the seeds are in the fruit. Again, to look for seed of any type of plant, you should look closely in the area of the plant where the flowers had been blooming.
Sometimes, the spent flower heads dry out on the plant in pretty much the same form as the flower. The dried, shriveled petals become a part of the seed, or its “wind sail”, if you will. These types of seeds are easy to find, are usually very numerous, and are effortless to collect (that is, before they go wind sailing!) Think of the Dandelion, for example. Gerbera Daisy and Clematis are other examples. Maple tree seeds actually twirl through the air similar to helicopters! Another way seed is dispersed by wind, although indirectly you might say, is through tumbleweeds! I must admit I never thought of a tumbleweed being a form of wind hitchhiking for seeds!
Instead of seeds embedded in dried flower heads, other plants form pods in which one or more seeds are encapsulated. Again, you will find these pods at the point where the former flower dropped off the plant. Most times, seeds drop straight down from these types of plants (once the pod becomes dry and brittle) and they germinate nearby the mother plant. Think of Morning Glory, Moonflower, and Cardinal Climber. These seeds are relatively easy to collect by simply gathering the pods just prior to them dropping from the plant. You can also look directly below the mother plant and gather seed from the ground as well.
With other plants, the seed pods eventually become so brittle they shrink, separate with force and actually pop interior seeds in the air, dispersing them outward from the mother plant. Think about Dwarf Mexican Petunia. These types of seeds can be somewhat challenging to collect unless you happen across a dried pod just prior to it popping!
As we know, seeds of vegetables reside inside the mature fruit of the plants. And where on the plant are vegetables harvested? For the fourth time – at the point of a former flower! Think of Tomato, Pepper, Squash, Cucumber, and Pomegranate plants, for example. In nature, the pulp (or fruit) around the seeds serves as the ultimate fertilizer should the fruit drop or be left to rot on the ground. I can attest to this as one lazy winter I left pumpkins out to rot behind my greenhouse in my backyard after using them for Thanksgiving decorations. Come spring, I literally had hundreds of little pumpkin plants sprouting alongside my greenhouse! As you can imagine I got such a surprise! I had mainly been using my greenhouse to store all of my heat shrink plastic wrappings so at first, I could not understand where the pumpkin plants had come from. As you can imagine, after my discovery, I decided to put my greenhouse plastic to good use and got to work replanting the pumpkin seedlings. Leaving the fruit pulp among the seed greatly enhanced the success of germination. However, I do not recommend this method for many reasons – you’d probably prefer to eat the fruit if possible; it is too smelly and messy to plant an entire pumpkin, cantaloupe, etc.; and, of course, there are superb soil and fertilizer alternatives!
Well, if you had a prized plant or two or three in your garden this summer and would like the opportunity to grow additional ones from seed next year, take the time in the next week or so to look closely at the former flowering areas of your plants. You will most likely find seeds or seed pods in abundance at this time of year. However, let me provide you a few tips regarding harvesting the seeds:
- Keep in mind the size of a seed can vary greatly and may not correspond with the size of the plant necessarily. Some seed are so tiny you can barely see them with the naked eye and others are hard to miss. Moss Rose, Alyssum and some grasses have minute seeds. Among those plants with large seeds are the Avocado and Peach trees.
- Unless it is a fruit or vegetable plant, wait until the seed or seed pod is dried (brown and crunchy) before harvesting. I have never had success harvesting immature or green seeds. This means you will need to allow your prized plants to dry up and “go to seed” versus tidying up for fall. Think of Dill for example.
- If your seeds are inside a fruit/vegetable – after de-seeding the fruit, wash the seed and spread it in a single layer on a cookie sheet or paper towel and let dry on the counter for several days.
- Remove as much chaff as possible and store seed in a cool, dry area or container until planting time comes next spring. I usually store seed in sealed plastic ware or used coffee cans and place in my garage or pantry.
- Lastly, after all this talk about collecting seed I must let you know not all plants produce seed that is “true.” What this means is, if you purchased an amazingly beautiful, unusually-colored Moss Rose hanging basket this year and wanted to duplicate it via seed next year, unfortunately its seed may not produce the exact colored flowers or it might not even produce flowers at all. This is because the genetics and cross breeding involved with creating the unusual “hybrid” plant may have rendered it unable to reproduce “true.” If you are aware a plant is a hybrid, just keep in mind its seed may not produce an exact replica of the mother plant.
Well, after the last point I must redeem the virtues of seed collecting! Even if you don’t wish to capture seed for planting next spring, it is still an incredible experience to get up close and personal with plants and educate yourself, your kids or others about their amazing life cycle. To this day, I remain ever so grateful for the horticulture professor that one fall semester who made me stick out the search for 70 seeds!
Until next time,