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The Miracle of Seeds

Published on
27 September 2011

Millions of small miracles happen this time of the year, as pollinated flowers transform into seeds. Seeds that will feed birds and wildlife throughout the winter as well as seeds that will lie dormant on the ground until next spring when they emerge as a new generation of plants.

Seeds are being produced – large and small – as part of the lifecycle of the plant world. Plants spend much of the rest of the growing season preparing for reproduction. Flowers bloom to attract insects and birds that are necessary for pollination. Pollination is how plants reproduce – insects, birds or the wind move pollen (male gametes, aka sperm) from one part of a plant to the female part of the plant (female gametes, or eggs), resulting in fertilization and the production of seeds (potential future plants).

If one were to cut open even the tiniest seed, and examine the interior, one would find the beginning of a plant – a couple of leaf-like parts and a root – along with some substance that it can feed upon when the time is right to germinate.

What happens after a seed is created can be hit or miss, however, as the potential new plant must fend for itself – no nurturing womb or mother to tend a clutch of fertilized eggs in a nest. No, seeds fall to the ground, blow in the wind, affix themselves to passing animals, or are eaten right off the plant.

But don’t underestimate plants! Many have developed strategies not only to improve their odds of producing new plants, but also to promote their spread across the landscape.

Fruit is one means that plants developed to expand their ranges – birds and wildlife eat the fruit which typically contains a hard-shelled seed (or seeds) that pass through the animal’s digestive system intact and ready to germinate the following spring. These hard shelled seeds may remain viable in the soil for several years, biding their time until the conditions are right for germination. This allows plant populations to recover after catastrophic events like fires, droughts and tornadoes that destroy living specimens.

Other plants have evolved to produce such an abundance of seed that it is likely some will be missed by hungry wildlife, and thus survive to produce a new plant.

Another way that plant seeds are spread is by humans. Whether people are buying seed to grow next year’s crops or to plant a flower garden, according to a Purdue University report, the commercial seed business is estimated to be a $12 billion a year industry in the United States.

I was unable to find dollar figures for annual sales of native plant seeds, but suspect it is substantial given the high price charged by the native seed nurseries. Prices can range from $900 a pound for a species like thimbleweed, down to $10 a pound for something more common like Virginia wild rye grass.

Part of the price difference has to do with the number of seeds in a pound (some seeds are much larger than others.) Other factors relate to the difficulty in harvesting the seeds or the scarcity of the plants. Some particularly rare species sell for the equivalent of $2,000 or more a pound and can only be purchased 1/4 ounce at a time!
While it may be costly to purchase native seed, if one has some time and patience, a nice restoration can be accomplished for virtually no cost at all.

Each fall, in McHenry County, The Land Conservancy and the Wildflower Preservation and Propagation Committee work with private landowners who open their properties for “Seed Sharing Day.” These private landowners have mature restorations of prairies, woodlands, savannas and/or wetlands, and are willing to share the plants’ seed with others, provided those individuals collect the seed themselves. Seed collecting novices are given pointers on how to collect seed, and also directions about which species are ripe for collecting. Dozens of individuals have restored many acres of land through this cooperative program.

The event will take place on October 22nd in Alden Township this year. Please contact Linda Balek at TLC for more information:[email protected] or 815-337-9502. The event is free but registration is required.