Crucial restoration work is perfect for new volunteers
by Sheryl DeVore
Many of the season’s blooms in natural areas have withered, but life goes on as plant seeds get scattered by wind, air, water, animals and these days, even people. In fact, one of the more recent natural area restoration efforts throughout the Chicago region involves “human seed dispersers”. In October and November, volunteers, interns and staff of natural area conservation groups collect seeds in the wild to be processed and later sowed on natural lands.
“Restoration work involves removing invasive plants such as buckthorn and reed canary grass, but we also have to think about what comes next,” says Teri Valenzuela, stewardship program associate for Audubon Great Lakes of Chicago (GL.Audubon.org). Valenzuela leads interns and volunteers in collecting native plant seeds at Indian Ridge Marsh, near Calumet City, and Bartel Grassland, in Tinley Park.
Gathering native plant seeds and sowing them in the soil where the invasive species once grew can keep the non-native plants from returning or taking over. Valenzuela says, “Collecting seeds is a cost-effective management tool that helps increase the diversity and overall health of a preserve.” For example, the McHenry County Conservation District (MccDistrict.org) estimates it saves roughly $50,000 annually by enlisting volunteers to collect seeds.
Valenzuela says it’s important for humans to help the natural process of seed dispersal, explaining, “We are the ones who have developed the former green spaces where seeds were dispersed, so it is our responsibility to help. Collecting seeds is one of the best entry points for those who want to get involved in restoration. It’s not physically exhausting. You don’t have to be around chemicals, and you’re immersed in nature, learning every cycle of the plant.”
She notes, “Late-season seeds such as asters and goldenrods are important food sources for migratory birds.” At The Field Museum (FieldMuseum.org), in Chicago, she learned to collect one-third of the seeds, save another third for wildlife and leave one-third behind for plants to regenerate.
After plants are done blooming, seeds develop inside fruits, some of which are called seed pods. Seeds have adapted to dispersal by wind, water, air and animals. For example, willow tree seeds are light, so they can float on water to travel to another place to colonize. Some plant seeds have hooks that attach to animal fur, eventually getting transported elsewhere. Other seed pods explode, releasing seeds when the sun dries them or something rubs against them. One example is jewelweed, a native plant hummingbirds love.
The Lake County Forest Preserve District (lcfpd.org) operates a seed nursery at Rollins Savanna, near Grayslake, where volunteers and staff farm some 800 million seeds to be planted on hundreds of acres of prairie, wetlands, woodlands and meadows, according to Kelly Schultz, stewardship ecologist for the district. Plants are grown for their seeds and then planted on forest preserve property. Schultz and Valenzuela agree that seeds harvested locally have adapted to the region’s climate and soils, giving them a good chance of germinating.
Valenzuela says in September, October and early November, volunteers and staff collect a mix of seeds from wet prairie and mesic prairie species including obedient plant, swamp milkweed, lobelia, blazing star, Culver’s root, grey-headed coneflower, bee balm, various sedges and grasses like side oats grama and prairie dropseed. She provides boots, gloves, pruning shears and aprons for the collectors. “Some volunteers have never been out walking through wet grasslands, so we make sure they are prepared,” she says. “We make sure to always have water available and nutritional snacks.”
Seeds can be collected with pruning shears and then dropped into the aprons. Others can be collected with bare hands. “It’s almost more fun, especially with seeds like grey-headed coneflower to collect with your hands,” Valenzuela says. “That way, you can inhale the beautiful, lemony scent of the seeds. Being out in the wild collecting seeds brings you back to a different time when people were harvesting them for various uses, including food and medicinal purposes,” she adds.
After collecting, the seeds from 50 to 60 plant species are stored at a Cook County Forest Preserve (fpdcc.org) facility in Tinley Creek. “We hang them up in paper bags so they can dry out,” Valenzuela says. Then they screen the seeds to separate extra plant material collected with the seed. After cleaning and weighing the seed, they create mixes for planting just before or during the first snow.
“The best time to sow native seeds is in late fall and early winter,” Schultz says. “Native plants are in sync with the seasons—they have figured out that October may have days that are 70 degrees and sunny… but winter is coming, and that is a terrible time to be a seedling. They wait to experience months of cold temperatures, and then when it gets warm, they know spring is here and it’s time to germinate.” She notes that the Lake County Forest Preserve District has a climate-controlled room with low temperature and low humidity to store seeds for later planting.
Human seed dispersal is working, according to local natural land area managers. “Where seeds have been spread, we are starting to see pockets of more diversity,” Valenzuela says. “You can see areas where we’ve spread blazing star seeds and they’re popping up. There’s a lot more work to be done,” she advises, but it’s enjoyable work. “You’re in this space and you see all the different plants. You see pollinators or hear a secretive marsh bird or glimpse the beautiful waterfowl. You start to realize that this is one shared green space, and how critical it is for wildlife and people.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications.
Seed Collecting for Volunteers
Volunteers can spend a few hours enjoying natural areas in autumn while collecting seeds. No registration is required unless bringing a large group. Wear appropriate clothing, including gloves and boots, and bring water. Most seed-collecting workdays are suitable for all ages and experience levels. Many are planned throughout October on weekdays and weekends. Here’s a sampling.
Restoration Workday – 9 a.m. to noon, October 5. Greenbelt Forest Preserve, North Chicago. Seed-collecting also occurs at Almond Marsh, Grainger Woods, Grant Woods and other Lake County Forest Preserves in fall. Email [email protected] or visit lcfpd.org/volunteer/workdays.
Citizens for Conservation Seed Collecting Workday – 9 a.m. to noon, October 12. 459 Highway 22, Lake Barrington. Tools and refreshments provided. Other seed-collecting workdays scheduled in October. Call 847-382-7283 or visit CitizensForConservation.org/get-involved/regular-workdays.