Seed Collecting and Climate Change

by Richard T. Haard, Ph.D., Propagation Manager, Fourth Corner Nurseries

Every catalog issue I have a chance to write on something that might be interesting to our readers. At times this column has news of our work on native plant cultivation, propagation and marketing. At other times I have tried to link our mutual interests in native plants to contemporary topics such as urbanization, invasive exotics or sustainable agriculture.

This time I would like to tell you about my favorite pastime during late spring, summer and the fall months – seed collecting and to make some observations from my own perspective, a native plant seed collector, on global climate change and our own denial of the problem.

Every year the beginning of the new growing season is marked by the appearance in late February of the showy white spring blooms in Indian Plum, Oemleria cerasiformis and the yellow catkins of Red Alder, Alnus rubra and Hazel, Corylus cornuta. In rapid sequence there is a wonderful sequence of events of other native shrubs with conspicuous flowers bud up and bloom. The Big Leaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum puts on its temporary yellow cloak and Vine Maple, Acer circinatum, appears with its’ less conspicuous but equally beautiful blossoms. Red Flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, appears at roadsides and in clear cuts where formerly no hint of presence along with the more common Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa. Nutka Rose, Rosa  nutkana, appears and later in the spring the humble Thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus is cloaking the roadsides with white blossoms about the same time as Ninebark,Physocarpus capitatus, Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia, Black Hawthorne, Crataegus suksdorfii and wild Crabapple, Malus fusca. This wondrous mix of flowering native plants all become evident in our stream banks, roadsides and woodlots only to become inconspicuous again as blossom  time passes.

By mid June around here the peak of blooming season reaches a spectacular crescendo with the appearance of prominent flowers of Pea fruit Rose, Rosa pisocarpa, then Mock Orange, Philadelphus lewisi, and our most noteworthy forerunner of summer the Ocean Spray, Holodiscus discolor. It’s creamy blossoms line the roadsides making this time of the year a perfect time to get in your car, leave your smelly urban environ and take a drive out to the Olympic Peninsula, windows open, enjoying the sweet smell of early summer and marvel at the crisp looking bright green new foliage of our Pacific Northwest deciduous native trees and shrubs.

Needless to say I neglected to highlight our eye-catching roadside perennials, Coltsfoot, Skunk Cabbage, Water Parsley, Bleeding Heart, Cow Parsnip, Fireweed and Pearly Everlasting in their own sequence competing for your roadside attention as you drive to and from your own personally mandated missions to consume fossil fuels with these machines we use for personal transportation.

So here we all are, myself included as a grower of native plants, and landscape contractors, environmental restorationists, and designers and simple consumers of farm grown natives for beautification of our personal living spaces and protection of natural habitats; driving and or consuming while becoming more numerous all the time and at the same time leaving our residue for nature to deal with. We all have our own ways of either thinking about, denying this reality or compensating for these individually insignificant but collectively damaging actions we all take. In the present day at minimum people should get ready to prepare themselves for some time in the possible near future when we will have to give up these personal transportation machines and to eat and to live quite differently than today.

This brings me to my own seed collecting, what I have learned about nature and friendships cultivated with people I have encountered on this journey.

It’s just about 20 years now I have been doing this. My daily activities from early May to late October are determined by native plants coming into bloom, setting fruits and ripening with a final frenzy of activity harvesting and processing the fruits before they either fall to the ground or are consumed by wildlife. In the early years I drove many thousands of miles just to find the fertile populations and to secure access to the ripened fruits. Those years gave me an understanding of the distribution of native plants by realizing there are reasons why plants are not randomly distributed in nature. In time, a new sensory skill was acquired, which allowed me to see more than just scenery when I looked at the countryside. It is a kind of pattern recognition that may be partial reinvention of lost skills of our predecessors.

Later on as our operations expanded and duties on farm called I slowly began to accumulate a short list of acquaintances and companies to supply us with seed from the outlying districts, freeing me from the endless road adventures from Montana to California. What I learned during this period however was valuable to our customers through our own mix of plants we offered. I also met and became friends with local people in these areas. While he was still kicking I looked forward to visit with the old gentleman with the productive grove of Oregon Ash. This ninety-year-old drove out to our collecting site on his tractor to chat about his grandfathers pioneer days and everything else us farmers talk about. Worthy also to mention is my Inuit friend, a genuine Wildman from Alaska who regularly comes to help with my roadside harvest, in-between his hunting and gathering activities in the far north and his lobbying work in Washington, DC for his tribes land rights, all carefully timed elements of both our own natural cycles.

This brings me to Ken Boettiger who introduced himself via Internet as an Ellensburg based seed collector wanting to supply us with shrub and perennial seeds from his neighborhood – the eastern foothills of the Cascade Range. We have become great friends over last 5 years and we enjoy what else, seed collecting forays together. No need for toys like golf clubs or a boat, just a few plastic buckets, paper bags and an ice chest. Ken studied rangeland management at Washington State University and computer science at CWU. He came to seed collecting in the aftermath of a dotcom career with a desire to put his hands back into the real world. More recently Ken has joined us to help with our information technology solutions.

We have both created our own computer databases to record and to track our collection locations and timing. I have 20 years of seed collecting recollections and more recently good data entries. Ken also his lifelong experiences living Idaho to Washington.

It has occurred to me that the collecting dates i.e. the ripening dates for specific native species that bloom early in the season and ripen late are maturing their seed 2 to 3 weeks earlier than 10 years ago. Before 1995 we would be collecting Vine Maple in Early to mid September. Now we begin collecting a full three weeks earlier, in mid to late August. Finding the proper collecting date for Vine is especially critical because the seed must be harvested while the moisture content of the seeds is still high otherwise the seeds go into a funky dormancy that never breaks. As with most other natives there are localities and strains that exhibit waves of ripening patterns that allow us to collect our seed over an extended time. Nevertheless specific locations once ready on September 10 are long gone by this time.

We also have noticed successive good seed sets for some species over the last 10 years, (not typical earlier), and poor set for different species in the last 3 successive years. These observations lead both of us to look at our local NOAA airport weather data with a focus on limited 12 week periods, winter and summer. My own work with the Bellingham data, daily maximums, minimums and mean temps for the fruit ripening period has only shown minor, not conclusive, differences in our coastal location over the last 50 years. But Ken’s review of data since 1900 from Ellensburg has shown dramatic changes in winter lows and summer highs. As much as 20 degrees F!

The inland areas of the northwest may be showing more warming than coastal areas. Even the Fish and Game have been suggesting a change to more warm water fish species over stocking trout in our desert lakes in their confession of global warming. These observations do not make the sort of articles seen reviewed at, but clearly to me, to Ken and I, something is going on and as our own anecdotal comments indicate we will need to adapt to this changing environment as are our native plants adapting to these climate changes.