Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

All My Children

Plants in the Chicago area have been setting seed since at least late spring. Beginning with the earliest spring wildflowers, the succession of bloom through summer and into autumn has been followed by a succession of seeds. And throughout the season, the volunteers at Bluff Spring Fen have been collecting them. Early in the season, we collect the seeds and toss them into appropriate areas around the Fen. Beginning around mid August, the approach changes, and we begin collecting and saving the seeds. The go into paper bags (never plastic: they don’t breathe and the seeds mold), and get stored in our breezeway and garage. Other volunteers store seeds, as well. By Thanksgiving, our harvest is complete, and we will have tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of seeds from dozens of different plant species.

A truckload of prairie seeds ready to go to the party

A tiny fraction of what we had to process and mix

On Sunday, we had our annual seed processing party. About a dozen of the Fen’s volunteers gathered on a frigid afternoon to process and mix the seeds. Processing is simple, we strip seeds from stalks, pull them out of pods, and break up mats of fluff. Some of the seeds are forced through metal screens. Others are run through a leaf mulcher. The end result is an even mass of seeds and chaff, free from sticks, clods and lumps.

My friend Mary tries to stay warm while she processes wingstem seeds

Once the seeds are processed, we mix them. The mixes that we create are varied. Some are done on the basis of habitat to be restored. Will these seeds go into a sunny or shady area? How wet or dry is it? What species of plants are to be expected in an intact example of the habitat being restored? Other seeds go into areas that are already in the process of being restored. Here we ask the same questions, but also consider what species are already abundant in these areas, and what are absent of under-represented.

Smooth blue aster seeds being forced through a screen to break up the clumps of fluff and separate stems

We have a master sheet of the mixes, lots of bags of processed seeds, and a big blue tarp in the middle of the garage. Portions of the appropriate seed types get poured onto the tarp, vermiculite is added, and the mass is thoroughly mixed. The mixes are bagged, and stored in an unheated garage. The seeds will be distributed in late winter and spring.

After the work, we went inside for a potluck meal, and to thaw our feet out. The seed mixing party has a lot to recommend it. We are doing valuable work, and sharing food and fellowship at the same time. For me, the seed processing party has an additional meaning.

As a gay man, I came through the coming out process in a time when options were more limited than they are today. Nobody spoke of gay marriage. Lesbian couples were beginning to create families through artificial insemination (leading to lots of references to turkey basters), but it never would have occurred to me that gay couples would be allowed to do things like adopt children. I sought out the comfort and stability of an enduring relationship, but did not anticipate any direct contribution to future generations of children. My mark on the world that will endure beyond my own lifetime is my work at Bluff Spring Fen. The seeds that we plant there are a very tangible manifestation of that mark. The plants that will grow from them may live hundreds of years, and will (if we are successful) be parts of thriving populations. They aren’t just seeds- they’re my legacy.

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At 09:27, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This process sounds tedious to say the least. I hope you had good friendship to keep the party light and make things move quickly! You got all that done in a day!?

At 10:44, Anonymous mark h said...

Education! Thanks, Doug...I MUST immediately go take my Giant Sunflower Seeds, Fennel Seeds, etc, and get them OUT of the plastic bag I had them in. SO Glad I read this, as they always are, fascinating post. thanks.

At 08:46, Blogger Ur-spo said...

lovely post!
This is why I support Seed Savers, in Iowa, who are doing work like yours, saving heirloom and rare seeds.
Seeds are a promise and they have always given me a thrill to hold and have.

At 10:14, Blogger Doug said...

I love Seed Savers. I think that they are doing great work. I also enjoy growing heirloom vegetables and saving seeds from them. I like working with lettuces the best, because they're so easy.


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