Published: November 20, 2019

Planting the Seeds of Conservation

Izabella Redlinski, Conservation Ecologist, Keller Science Action Center

Alert

Stressed out by news about the climate and environment? You’re not alone. One Field scientist shares a surprising pastime for staying calm while making a difference.

It may feel like there’s a steady stream of reports about the upcoming environmental apocalypse: insect populations are plummeting, we only have 12 years to address climate change, and a million species face extinction. All this news can overwhelm us into inaction and create a sense of doom and anxiety. 

On the other hand, there’s research suggesting that nature helps us relax and lowers our stress levels. Physical exercise contributes to a higher quality of life and longevity. There's no quick fix for the serious threats to our planet, but there are ways to combine doing good for the natural world and enjoying the outdoors.

High school students join in seed collecting at Beaubien Woods Forest Preserve.

Iza Redlinski

Six-year-old Hania collects fragrant mountain mint seeds at Kickapoo Forest Preserve.

Iza Redlinski

Get started with seed collecting

Collecting seeds isn’t difficult; it’s something that anyone can do after learning a few pointers. The goal is to gather seeds from plants in one area to use them in another, similar location. You can save the seeds of edible plants for future crops, or as we do at the Field, for use in ecological restoration. This means returning health and resilience to local natural areas for the benefit of the organisms that live there.

Over time, people have degraded natural areas through fragmentation (cutting large swaths of land into smaller pieces for development), hydrological changes (building sewers, roads, and other impervious surfaces that change how water moves through a landscape), and invasive species (introducing plants and animals from other areas that displace native species). In order to bring back the ecological functions that benefit both nature and humans, we have to take certain steps to restore how the habitat looked and functioned in the past. 

In the Chicagoland area, many restorations begin with invasive species removal: cutting down shrubs and trees that took over what used to be prairies. Once that step is complete, we can reintroduce native plants. When we say a plant is native, that means it co-evolved with the local insects and other wildlife to establish long-term dependencies, and it’s adapted to the climate and other conditions present in this region. If we clear an area and leave it empty, that gives “weedy” species a chance to repopulate this empty space—often the same invasive species that were just removed. This is where our collected seeds from native plants come in.

Two women wearing hats walk through a forest where plants are waist-high. Some larger trees are behind them, and the area is mostly shady.

Redlinski and a volunteer collect seeds in the Calumet region where Illinois and Indiana meet.

Kate Golembiewski

From seed to sustainability

To restore a natural area, you want to gather seed from somewhere that has similar conditions—in the amount of sunlight, water availability, and soil composition. You can only collect seed if the landowner (for example, Forest Preserves of Cook County) permits it. Seeds should then be stored in dry paper bags, cleaned—separated from other parts of the plant—and mixed for redistribution into natural areas.

The whole experience of seed collecting feels restorative to me. Walking through natural areas allows me to forget the chores of everyday life, focus on the task at hand, and reconnect with a natural place. It also makes me more conscious of sustainability. As a collector, I have to be selective and collect responsibly. This means only gathering seeds that are ripe and therefore likely to germinate, and taking no more than a third of the seeds present so that I’m leaving behind a viable population. By collecting at different times of the season and in varied locations, I can help ensure genetic diversity since plants with different traits will mature at different times. 

I’ve found that seed collecting is an opportunity to become more aware of the world around us and notice how a landscape changes over time. 

The Field’s backyard

For centuries, people have saved seeds from the vegetables and fruits that they eat. Many have done similar things with the seeds of flowers that beautify their homes. We’ve also tried it here at the Field Museum.

Our Rice Native Gardens are now complete and thriving with species native to the prairies and savannas of the Chicagoland area. Native plants support butterflies and other local pollinators, feed birds that live here and migrate through, and increase other ecological services nature provides. We harvest some of that seed from the Rice Gardens and distribute it to visitors, partners, and participants in our programs to take to their homes and expand habitat there.

On a large landscape scale, we also work together with Forest Preserves of Cook County to train and lead volunteers in seed collection in the Calumet Region. Over one growing season, we might host 10 or more volunteer days where people can collect seeds, learn how to identify plants native to this region, and disconnect from the disturbances of the modern world while helping to heal our corner of the planet.

Dos and don’ts of seed collection

  • Do contact the landowners or stewards to ask if anyone leads seed collection days in the region or district.
  • Don’t collect wild seed in preserves and parks without permission. These areas might be under protection or have the resources (including seeds) already designated for certain purposes. In many areas, including Forest Preserves of Cook County, you might be fined for collecting without approval.
  • Don’t move seeds from one location to another without the landowner’s agreement. Many forest preserves have strict guidelines about which locations can share seed and what seed goes where.
  • Don’t collect more than a third of the seed present, and only take that much if you see the given plant in abundance.
  • Do reference our guide to common seeds in the prairie region.
  • When purchasing plant seeds for your personal use, make sure you use a nursery that collects and produces the seed ethically.
  • Do plant seeds from prairie plant species in winter. The local native seed needs to be stratified (conditioned by the freeze and thaw cycles) in order to germinate.

Email calumet@fieldmuseum.org for more information.