One in five wild plant species are in danger of extinction, according to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Domestic plants aren’t faring much better. More than 20 years ago, the United Nations estimated that 94 percent of vegetable varieties and 85 percent of apples had already been lost.
Species diversity might be more rare now, but wild seeds are still abundant. To increase their chances for survival, plants make lots and lots of seeds. If you visit a wild meadow, how many burs get stuck in your socks or entangled in your dog’s fur? This is a natural reminder that seeds like to travel. You can help wild plants by intentionally relocating some of their kind to your farm or garden. With a little planning and selective collection, you can add wild native foods to your meals, harvesting from perennial crops that are increasingly easier to maintain each year.
Here are three keys to collecting wild seeds.
1. Know the Place
The most important aspect of wild collection is to preserve the population not only for future harvests, but also for the present community of wildlife, water, soil and other plants. Follow the Cherokee tradition’s rule of four: harvest only after passing a particular type of plant four times. The fifth time you see this plant, make an offering and ask the plant for permission to take some of it. This way, only one-fifth or less of the local population is affected by your seed collection.
Be respectful to the people as well as to the plants. As with any foraging foray, make sure you have permission to be on the land and to collect. Know the local regulations and boundaries. Don’t make assumptions about this matter if you hope to return to the space and collect again. National forests, national parks, state parks, municipal green spaces, your neighbor’s yard and even country roads have different owners and methods of management.
2. Know The Plants
The Nature Conservancy studies the sites where it harvests wild seeds to understand the impact it makes on the health of the donor site. In a meadow or prairie in particular, if you want to harvest flower seeds on a regular basis, it’s best that you understand the plant’s habits. Plants that use vegetative reproduction, such as underground runners, don’t necessarily rely on their seeds, so taking plenty of their seeds is not a great risk to the plant. Short-lived species, on the other hand, are the most susceptible to damage if seed harvesting is frequent. The Nature Conservancy report summarizes, “[M]oderation is the key to balancing the health of the donor and the recipient.”
Forest seeds include a wide variety of tree nuts, and knowing what you will have to do to enjoy them is valuable information before you go foraging or plant them at home. Acorns from oak trees are bitter with tannins and require dedication to processing them to make them palatable. Shagbark hickory nuts are sweet and tender without any work other than cracking the shell. Black walnuts taste good but are difficult to separate nut meats from shell, and they stain hands black in the process. Toasted chestnuts crack open readily and are delicious hot from the shell.
Collect fruit and seeds that are ready to let go. Where I live, wild plums ripen in the early summer, paw paws are ready in August, and persimmons are ready around the time of the first frost. Hazelnuts ripen earlier than most nuts, so don’t wait until the middle of fall to begin collecting them or you’ll miss out. The plant’s perfect timing is in sync with the seasons and the activities of animals that partner in seed distribution. You and I are some of those animals. If it’s edible, and you enjoy eating it, that’s a good reason to save it and to try growing it.
3. Be Prepared
Walking around my neighborhood, I had to duck under the heavy branches of a tree encroaching on the sidewalk. I almost tripped over apples before I realized this street tree was freely offering its fruit and the seeds within. In my region, apples are notoriously hard to grow because of fire blight, but this tree looked like it must be resistant. I grabbed a couple of apples and made a mental note to return with an empty bag to gather more.
Tools are simple for most wild seed collecting: buckets, tarps, pruners, cloth bags and paper bags.
Hand picking large fruit is a simple and obvious way to collect seed. For smaller, softer fruits like cherries, apricots, plums or persimmons, shake a small tree gently, and collect what freely falls to the ground. A more passive way to collect is to spread a tarp under a tree and return in a day or two to dump its droppings into a bucket. This reduces the hunting and pecking time you spend looking for nuts or fruit in the leaf litter.
Seed heads of grasses and wildflowers can be clipped off at the stem or stripped and dropped into cloth or paper bags. Cut seed clusters from branches of shrubs and trees only if pruning will benefit the entire plant, and do so with proper pruning technique. Another passive collection technique is to tie a cloth or paper bag over a flower head that is going to seed. If the seeds are easily loosened or wind-dispersed, this will catch and hold the seeds until you can retrieve them.
The fun of bringing home wild seeds doesn’t stop when the collection excursion is over. Consult guides such as the Native Plant Network’s Propagation Protocols for processing techniques, which might include cleaning, drying, winnowing, stratification or scarification, and storage at certain temperatures.
Botanists around the world scale mountains, brave dense jungles and endure extreme temperatures to collect wild seeds from threatened regions in hopes of supporting and restoring biodiversity. You can contribute to the preservation of wild plants while nourishing yourself and your community. Food forests, for example, are designed to incorporate edible varieties in layers that can be customized to fit your climate, available space and available light. When you collect wild seeds and include native fruit- or nut-bearing trees and shrubs into your landscape, you’ll experience a deeper, richer relationship with your land and your food. If you take your harvests to market, share their story and inspire your customers to pay attention to the wild abundance they might not notice otherwise.