Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Seed Collecting for Biodiversity and Conservation

By Sarah Leach Smith
Visitor Services Coordinator

It was a cool, gray day in late October. Leaves were starting to change color, there were more seed heads than blooms in the Gardens and the morning was chilly enough that I needed a jacket. While this may be prime time for hot chocolate and fluffy scarves, it is also the optimal time for seed-collecting in central North Carolina.

On this day, I excitedly joined Horticulturist Annabel Renwick and Plant Collections Manager Beth Hall on a seed-collecting trip around Orange County. They were gathering native plant seeds for use in the new Piedmont Prairie, located in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. I had no idea what a seed-collecting trip entailed, but I was looking forward to finding out

We started the day in Chapel Hill, visiting our friends at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.  We had a nice time chatting with our counterparts – seed program coordinator Heather Summer, greenhouse and nursery manager Matt Gocke and curator of habitat gardens Chris Liloia – and it was a treat to briefly stroll through the gardens. The fall color is looking fantastic! Heather sent us on our way with two species of seeds we were seeking, Symphyotrichum concolor (eastern silver aster) and Clematis ochroleuca (curly heads).

Our next destination was a great hidden gem. Niche Gardens is a mail-order and retail nursery near Chapel Hill that specializes in nursery-propagated plants. They have a unique selection of wildflowers and native plants, so they were a natural stop for us on our trip. Annabel spoke with Lauri Lawson, who helped us purchase several native species: Rudbekia laciniata (cut-leaf coneflower), Symphyotrichum cordifolium (blue wood aster) and Scutellaria incana (hoary skullcap). We loaded the flats into the truck and were off.
For the rest of the afternoon, we cruised around rural Orange County scouting roadsides for wildflowers in seed. Armed with brown paper bags and sharpies for labeling, we walked along the road and through ditches to find our treasures.

“I was particularly excited in finding such a rich vein of wild flowers,” Annabel told me when we returned to Duke Gardens. One of the highlights of the roadside collection was finding Solidago rugosa (wrinkleleaf goldenrod) in seed. Gathering seeds can be a waiting game, Annabel said. “I have one more outing to collect seed, and I have been waiting for several flowers to go to seed.” Annabel’s wishlist includes Solidago bicolor (white goldenrod), Symphyotrichum grandiflora (large flowered aster), Symphyotrichum puniceum (purple stemmed aster) and Silphium asteriscus (starry rosinweed).

Why go to the trouble of collecting seed from roadside ditches? For Annabel, it’s important that the Piedmont Prairie has “a sense of place," she says. "We want it to contain the progeny of plants whose parents populated the roadsides of this region before there were roads.”

Additionally, growing plants from seeds ensures genetic diversity, unlike asexually-propagated cultivars. Creating a prairie landscape rich in biodiversity is one of Annabel’s primary goals.

Joining Annabel and Beth was a wonderful experience that will cause me to forever look at roadsides in a different way. We are in an area that is so rich with native plant species! We’re excited to be part of this conservation effort and hope you make time to enjoy the Piedmont Prairie on your next visit to Duke Gardens.

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