The Northwest Perennial Alliance (NPA), a Pacific Northwest nonprofit horticulture organization with 1,400 members, was founded in 1984. Its seed exchange has been a part of its programs from the earliest days. Currently NPA produces about 7,000 packets annually of some 400 types of seed, which are sold to our members at meetings, and to the public at plant sales and through the NPA website.
Seed packaging parties are lots of fun, and a great way to pick up gardening tips and lore from participants. When our Seed Committee meets, volunteers are rewarded with four packets of their choice—a nice bonus in these days of $3.95 to $6.95 seed packets. If you want to do your part to ensure the planet’s future biodiversity, then collecting, packaging, and sharing varieties of seeds—the minute building blocks of life—makes the perfect project.
Members of NPA designed and maintain the Perennial Borders at the Bellevue Botanical Garden (see Pacific Horticulture, October 2002). About half of our seed comes from the plants there—both the common and the unusual—while the other half comes from our members. Because our dedicated members are often plant collectors, their seeds tend to be choice, desirable, and occasionally rare.
We recommend that gardeners cut seed stalks when a few seed heads or capsules are ripe, place them upside down in paper grocery bags (never plastic), and loosely fold the top shut. On the outside of the bag, note the name of the plant (be as specific as possible), flower color, seed collection date, and any comments on growth habit. Set the bags aside to allow the seeds to fully ripen; seeds will then fall to the bottom of the sack.
Some seeds may need encouragement to leave their protective containers. There are a variety of methods to do this, depending upon how much time and effort you want to invest. You can shake the bag roughly so they fall out, meticulously pick the seeds out by hand, squash the outer husks with a rolling pin, and even lightly step on the truly stubborn seedheads. After the seeds are collected, place them in labeled bowls for several days, out of the house in a sheltered spot, to allow any insects previously feeding on the seedheads to move on.
In all these steps, be aware that some seeds are irritating and some are poisonous (for example, Daphne mezereum). Take precautions to protect yourself by washing hands, wearing gloves, and avoiding contact with eyes and mouth while packaging. It’s always best to know what you are dealing with before you touch it.
Cleaning the Seeds
An array of sieves helps in straining the seed to separate it from the chaff. If more cleaning is necessary, put the seed into a white cereal bowl, lean over a sink and blow gently and steadily on the inside wall of the bowl as you swirl it around. You’ll lose a bit of seed, but the chaff will fly out of the swirling seeds. For seeds contained in fleshy fruits, such as those of arums, roses, and berries, squash the fruits through a sieve, soak the seeds for up to a week in water, then wash off any remaining pulp. Set the seeds out to dry on a cloth.
When seeds have been cleaned, store them in paper envelopes; transfer all the information from the paper bags to the envelopes.
Packaging the Seed
For packaging seeds, you will need small, flat bottomed bowls, small spoons (demitasse spoons with a pointed tip are best), #1 glassine envelopes (available in some stamp-collecting shops), #1 manila coin envelopes (available at office supply stores), 3 × 5 index cards, and transparent tape. If packaging large numbers of seed, use your computer to print the information on white mailing labels.
Once ready to package, empty a single kind of seed into a bowl and divide it up among the appropriate number of glassine envelopes. Tape the flap shut, place it inside the manila envelope, tape that flap shut (no licking, to avoid unwanted moisture), and label the outer envelope. Separate the seed packets in a tray with labeled index cards. Add a small color photograph of the flower or plant for easier identification. Store the seeds in a dry spot at room temperature.
Pricing and Marketing Seeds
When our seed sales were limited to NPA members, our goal was to cover our costs for the packaging materials. Seed packets were bargain-priced at twenty-five cents each. (All that dedicated volunteer labor was free, right?) Today, seeds are still only twenty-five cents to NPA members, but we now sell to the public for a dollar per packet; that covers our expenses and raises funds for NPA. When mailing seeds, we charge two dollars to cover the postage for up to twenty packets. We always use padded envelopes to protect the seeds being mailed.
In recent years, the seed list has been posted on the NPA website (www.northwestperennial alliance.org), and the response has been astonishing. Gardeners and institutions all over the United States, Canada, and Europe have found our list. One university botany department told us we were the only source in the country for Tagetes lemmonii, which they needed for an experiment. Many others have spoken of searching for certain seeds for years until they stumbled across the NPA website. The rarer the plants we offer, the more often this happens; once they have found us, buyers become repeat customers, happily choosing more common seeds as well as the rarer sorts.
A Sense of Wonder
I have not mentioned the most remarkable aspect of all: the seeds themselves. We are constantly amazed at the wondrous variety of their colors and textures—and are sometimes amused by some of the shapes. One seed we pack, Cardiospermum halicacabum, looks a bit like an orca; the seed of Omphalodes linifolia is a perfect little bellybutton.
Nature lovers delight in the variety of colors, want to touch the ones that have an oddly silky feel, and are mesmerized by how they swirl in the bowl with a kind of sensual flow. We often wonder why there are such vast differences in size between, for instance, seeds of pole bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), as big as a fingertip, and those of Juncus patens ‘Carman’s Gray’, so minute that a teaspoon would hold thousands. To have all these miraculous bits of potential life pass through one’s hands is a humbling experience. We humans are nowhere nearly as varied as the seeds of the plant kingdom.
The book Seeds: Time Capsules of Life, by Rob Kesseler and Wolfgang Stuppy (Firefly Books, 2006), gives witness to the extraordinary engineering design of seeds: the photographs of seeds, made with a scanning electron photomicroscope, reveal a world of astounding alien beauty and ingenious adaptation for dispersal.
Sometimes I tire of the boxes of seeds decorating my home; sometimes I’m frustrated by a balky printer; but mostly I think, “How lucky can a person be to be working with such tiny miracles of life?”