Seedy Business

A collecting trip brings with it an awareness of earth and a sense of well being which adds to the larger life. You exchange confusion for peace; the feverish occupations of the city for the calm and quiet business of stalking plants in Nature’s planless plantings…

Lester Rowntree, Hardy Californians

Despite what you might have heard, the world’s oldest profession is probably seed collecting. Not long after our ancestors emerged on the African savannas, they put their ingenuity to work making baskets to collect and store edible seeds. Today’s seed collector sets out with paper bags from the supermarket, forest service permits, the indulgence of friendly landowners, and, of course, a motor vehicle. Though the collector’s equipage has evolved considerably, the intervening millennia have not changed the essence of seed collecting — keen attention to the life cycles of plants.

Motivations have changed more than methods. The seeds I collect are not destined for the grinding stone, but for the cool recesses of the seed room of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants. Some remain there as part of a reference seed collection that serves archaeologists as well as botanists and horticulturists. Others will be used for propagation of nursery stock, while many more will be sown on the nursery grounds, there to grow for display and as a future source of seeds or other propagules.

These efforts continue the work of pioneer plantsman Theodore Payne, who emigrated from England to California in the summer of 1893 (Pacific Horticulture, Spring ‘92). Payne devoted his life to introducing native plants to cultivation and collected seeds until his death in 1963 at the age of ninety-one. Longevity apparently accrues to those who gather seeds, for the Payne Foundation’s honored seedsman, Edward L Peterson, is still hard at work in his eighty-eighth year. With nearly twenty years experience, I am only a promising nov­ice.

Winters Wet and Dry

Seed collectors are students of climate and weather, and in California that can be a dismal science. In three of the past six rainfall years (precipitation measured from July 1 to June 30) eight inches of rain or less was recorded at Los Angeles, scarcely half the normal total of about fifteen inches. Nevertheless, rainfall was sufficient in the 1987–88 and 1991–92 seasons to produce sensational wildflower displays throughout southern California.

Comparing those two memorable seasons illustrates why wildflowers are so much more abundant one year than another. The springtime wildflower display of 1988 was one of the most beautiful in memory, even though the rainfall measured at Los Angeles was only 12.48 inches, or sixteen percent below normal. The season started with a heavy storm the first week of November 1987, followed by light but well spaced rains until the end of April. The long growing season allowed by this happy combination of fall, winter, and, rarest of all, spring rains resulted in spectacular flowers in such wildlands as remain between the Teha­chapi Mountains and the Mexican border. California poppies usually confined to gently rolling grasslands bloomed to perfection on nearly vertical slopes in Kern County’s Grapevine Canyon. At the bottom of the Grapevine grade, an expanse of lupines (Lupinus nanus, L. subvexus) and owl’s clover (Orthocarpus purpurascens) recalled the glory of the once immense flower fields of the southern San Joaquin Valley, extolled and lamented by James Roof and other writers.

In contrast to 1987, the autumn of 1991 was absolutely dry. The rains finally began the last week of December and continued, often in torrential downpours, until the end of March for a season total of twenty-one inches, or forty-one percent above normal. The sheer amount of rainfall did not compensate for the lack of fall rains, and the wildflower display of spring 1992, though impressive to behold and bountiful for seed collectors, was not quite as good as that of 1988.

Linanthus dianthiflorus. Photographs by Dede Gilman

Linanthus dianthiflorus. Photographs by Dede Gilman

Seed Season

I spent a total of twenty-eight days out and about in southern California from mid-April to the end of July last year. By August I was cleaning seed of a dozen plants I had never before collected, including evening snow (Linanthus dichotomus), ground pink (L. dianthiflorus), devil’s claw (Proboscidea altheaefolia), Indian pink (Silene californica), and fire poppy (Papaver californicum).

A pleasing feature of the unusually good season is that one finds unfamiliar plants in familiar places. Annuals suddenly grow in abundance in spots where normally they occur sparsely or not at all, their seeds having long lain dormant waiting for the right conditions. What a welcome sight to see, for the first time in years, bright pink Grant’s gilia (Gilia splendens ssp. grantii) against the gray granite walls of the San Gabriel Mountains and ground pink in solid sheets around live oaks on a Riverside County ranch.

Perennials, too, make themselves conspicuous by blooming more freely and for longer periods after a season of good rains. I was happy to make the acquaintance of two distinctive penstemons (Penstemon thurberi and P. incertus) in spots I had passed dozens of times without an inkling of their presence. I especially look forward to having the desert-dwelling P. thurberi in the garden. Its small, lavender-pink flowers, quite different from any of our coastal species, sport dark pink guidelines that make them look a bit like tiny ivy geranium blossoms. This half-woody perennial may be longer lived than most herbaceous penstemons. Published records of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden show that a specimen of P. thurberi lived seven years before being “accidentally chopped out by workmen.”

Desert wishbone (Mirabilis froebelii)

Desert wishbone (Mirabilis froebelii)

Over the years a seed collector comes to know many stands of wild plants and may visit them regularly during their bloom and seeding periods. After dry winters seed pro­duction is so scanty that collecting is impractical, making it all the more important to visit those plants following abundant rains. One of southern California’s showiest native perennials, giant four-o’clock (Mirabilis froebelii syn M. multiflora var pubescens) had a banner year in 1992. Found scattered in habitats ranging from desert scrub to oak woodland, giant four-o’clocks rarely grow in mass. Their rose-purple flowers are both larger and later (April to August) than most of our wildflowers, and they sometimes give the impression of an escaped garden flower. From three to ten flowers are borne within a single bell-shaped involucre. Seeds in varying stages of ripeness are found in each involucre, and seeking out the ripe ones takes too long. A good shake sends the ripe seeds flying out. If they land on gravelly soil, the large (eight millimeter long) striped seeds resembling small brown melons are easy to find and gather.

Paeonea californica

Paeonea californica

California peony (Paeonea californica) was another extraordinary performer last year. Its modest blackish red flowers are no competition for the popular hybrids, although it has been suggested that the native could be useful in breeding garden peonies for mild-winter areas. California peony’s handsome red-margined leaves appear after the first soaking rains in the shade of oak groves and chaparral thickets or in quite exposed spots, and plants flower from January through April. The large seeds ripen over a period of months in fruit composed of two to five fleshy follicles, which are resting on the ground by the time they split and release the seeds.

Tricks and Troubles of the Trade

Successful collecting depends on taking detailed notes about the location of plants from which one wishes to collect. At first it can be hard to grasp that the stand of plants producing a blinding patch of color in April will be nothing more than inconspicuous bits of dried herbage just weeks later when the seed is ripe. Plants of devil’s claw that were lushly leafy and in full bloom in late April were so black and shriveled by the first week of June that I thought I was seeing dead specimens from the previous year. In the intervening weeks large seedpods had developed and split open, their segments curving back to form a pair of wickedly sharp-pointed claws (Pacific Horticulture, Winter ‘92). Fortunately, the seeds were still firmly enclosed in the leathery confines of the seed capsule. At no little peril, the claws may be firmly grasped, one in each hand, and clapped together so the seeds fall out. These seeds are described in botanical literature as “black, nearly oblong, sculptured, somewhat compressed” without mentioning that they are perfect replicas of mouse feces.

If the exact location of suitable plants has been noted, the next hurdle is to return in time to collect ripe seed. This is often easier said than done. I repeat the phrase “comps go quickly” to remind myself that members of the aster family ripen their seed promptly after flowering. It still comes as a shock to return to a stand of scalebud (Anisocoma acaulis) or desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) to find that the feathery objects of desire already have been blown away by the breeze.

The phlox family is another frustrating group because many of its attractive members have short capsules from which seeds scatter quickly as soon as they ripen. Last April, when I stumbled upon large drifts of ground pink blooming in an oak woodland, I thought I had at last found enough of this charming dwarf annual in one place to make a good collection, Three weeks after seeing the plants in full bloom I returned to find that the seeds had already matured and scattered. Facing defeat, I fell back on a time-honored practice of tardy seed collectors. Out came the whisk broom and coffee cans to scoop up a few pounds of seed-laden soil. This brings seeds, desirable and otherwise, of plants other than those intended, yet it was the preferred method of one wise seed collector, the late Marcella Juhren of the California Institute of Technology. Seeds used in studies there on germination of desert annuals all came in the form of randomly collected soil samples.

Lupinus excubitus austromontanus

Lupinus excubitus austromontanus

The beautiful shrub lupines (Lupinus excubitus, L. albifrons) occupy a special place in seeds­men’s tales of woe. The abundant, large, and fragrant flowers are followed by plump green pods that Spanish-speakers liken to miniature ears of corn. They do indeed promise a bountiful harvest, but collectors will find that the ones at the bottom, the oldest, have matured and twisted open, sending their seeds flying hither and yon. The rest of the pods are quite green and so immature that they will not ripen if picked and kept in a bag. Why are there no pods in a state of near ripeness that can be collected intact? My guess is that the final stage of ripening takes place over a brief period, perhaps even at night, as I have searched for seed at all hours of the day with only occasional success. The stunning L. excubitus var austromontanus had tremendous bloom at the beginning of last May. Three weeks later I returned and found the usual situation — all seeds either green or gone. Then I noticed that the large speckled seeds that had been shed were easily visible in the pale sandy soil of the roadway. It was slow business, picking seed by seed, to finally garner about a tablespoonful, but their future in cultivation is brighter than it was lying in the road.

Picking seeds off the ground can be a laborsaving method when it comes to mountain lilac (Ceanothus species). Whole, ripe fruits are easily collected, but the seeds are difficult to extract. If you wait until a good hot spell, the chaparral sounds like a giant bowl of rice krispies as heat and low humidity cause the pods to burst. The black seeds can then be collected one by one from the trail or roadway. Fortunately, it is easy to find large stands of a single ceanothus species from which to collect.

Viola pedunculata

Viola pedunculata

What works for mountain lilac does not work for johnny-jump-ups (Viola pedunculata). These jaunty yellow-flowered perennials grow in grassy areas, and their seeds are impossible to find once the capsules have exploded. Luckily, full-sized seedpods that are beginning to turn tawny can be collected intact, and they will complete their ripening in a closed paper bag. The same is true of bush poppies (Dendromecon rigida) as well as California poppies and other members of the genus Eschscholzia.

Many wildflowers are fire followers, and seed collectors must be too. Keeping a file of newspaper reports of brushfires is helpful, but newspaper accounts give sketchy information on locations, and a visit to the scene immediately after a blaze is a good idea. Wildfire is so essential to native flowers that burned sites sometimes have great stands of dozens of kinds of plants that normally appear only as scattered individuals or not at all. Yet there is no guarantee of this happening, for the show of annual wildflowers after a burn still depends on the vagaries of precipitation and temperature. The season immediately after a fire is not the last word, however, for a variety of colorful perennials and shrubs are commonly abundant two to five years after a brushfire. Bush poppy, scarlet bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius), golden eardrops (Dicentra chrysantha), cream eardrops (D. ochroleuca), turricula (Turricula parryi), scarlet larkspur (Delphinium cardinale), and perennial snapdragon (Antirrhinum multiflorum) are some that can be found in good quantity after fire.

Even when the collector is in synchrony with his plants, other factors can intervene. Deer are notoriously fond of the capsules of Humboldt lilies (Lilium humboldtii), and maintenance crews seem determined to scrape roadsides clean of seeding wildflowers. Even those eventualities are cheerfully accepted compared with the shock of finding a site being bulldozed for a new house. Every year I wonder if my favorite spot for collecting woolly blue-curls (Trichostema lanatum) will remain intact as one grandiose home after another sprouts from the Santa Monica Mountains chaparral. Surely one year the woolly blue-curls and their beautiful companions — Parry’s delphinium (Delphinium parryi), yellow mariposa lilies (Calochortus clavatus), and chalk lettuce (Dudleya pulverulenta)will be gone, but, because the owner permitted me to collect seeds, their descendants will live on in our gardens.

Wooly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum)

Wooly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum)

Back in the Garden

Seed collecting in the wild is a necessary first step in bringing native plants to cultivation. Many of the difficulties encountered in the wild are avoided when one has plants growing where they can be checked frequently and their seeds collected as they reach maturity. This is a great help, especially with plants such as fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla), which ripen seeds continuously over a period of months. Another advantage is that cultivated plants can be irrigated during dry spells, allowing them to produce better seed crops than wild plants. Once a single well grown specimen of Campo pea (Lathyrus splendens) became established at the Payne Foundation, it yielded many times the amount of seed I was able to gather from several wild plants.

Annuals are more difficult to keep in cultivation and may need to be collected repeatedly from the wild. At one time I thought I had fiesta flower (Pholistoma auritum) and cream cups (Platystemon californicus) thoroughly naturalized in a garden, and yet I lost them. Competition from other plants and weakness due to inbreeding are sometimes the culprits, and certainly misapplied irrigation can cause seeds unadapted to summer moisture to rot.

At the Payne Foundation some sixty wildflowers are grown for display and seed production on an unirrigated hillside called Flowerhill. Seed harvested on Flowerhill is sold for garden and revegetation use, adding to the number of wildflowers grown by commercial seed producers. This project brings us closer to the day when, with a little continuing help from seed collectors, all of California’s deserving native plants will thrive in cultivation.