Seed Collecting: A Shared Experience

October 1, 2019

The world of botanists, horticulturists and landscape architects is a tight knit community, one in which conversations often result in tracing back crossed paths and common friends while sharing favorite plants and gardens with one another. One of the greatest benefits of such intersections are the opportunities that spring forth.

The majority of plants at SHR are grown from seed collected onsite. However, by continually using the same plants for seed collection, we limit the genetic diversity and representation of flora across the Southern Appalachians. Therefore, seed collecting trips in our own backyard are important not only to grow the number of plant species we hold in our collections, but also for the genetic diversity of these plants. Recently we were invited by the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston, MA to join them for two days of their three-week long plant collecting trip to the region. This partnership opened the opportunity for SHR staff to join in the adventure and gather seed for our own collections.

This time of year, tucked back from the main thoroughfare in the Nantahala National Forest, native plants are bursting with seeds. During this most recent excursion, staff scaled up the steep slopes of Jake Ridge, crossing rock scrambles and avoiding the prick of smilax stretched across the path. The climb was worth it, as gems such as doll’s eye, blue cohosh and towering buckeye were found at every turn, bearing seed ready to be harvested. The group passed through a variety of ecosystems while descending into the valley at Buck Creek Serpentine Barrens where both rare and unique plants were growing. The Serpentine Barrens are a uniquely complex mixture of mesic and xeric plantings interspersed together, thanks to a perched water table in combination with clay soils. Twenty-two state-listed rare plant species and four state-listed butterfly species occur at the site. While special permits are necessary to secure seed from listed rare plants, seed was collected from plants such as the Canadian burnet and hearts-a-bustin’. Over the fall, we will enter records into our plant database and the collected seeds will be prepared and stored, ready for planting or sharing with other partners.

While the collected seeds were a welcomed prize after a great deal of bushwacking, not to mention the mental challenge of plant identification, the biggest rewards were the new professional partnership and many personal friendships that were created. Other faces in the group included those from Arnold Arboretum, the Beijing Botanical Gardens (Beijing, China), the Chengdu Institute of Biology (Chengdu, China), the Kunming Institute of Botany (Kunming, China), the US National Arboretum (Washington D.C.) and the US National Forest Service Nantahala Office (Franklin, NC). As the world shifts due to climate change, sprawling cities and growing populations, it becomes all the more important for botanical partnerships to lay the groundwork to collect and preserve our native plant species. You can help by planting natives in your own garden, visiting the Center for Plant Conservation website and joining us at our next Native Plant Sale, where the proceeds go toward making trips like this one possible.