Editor Carolyn Ulrich has written for Chicagoland Gardening since its inception. She is a former weekly garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and has received several awards for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association. culrich@sbsmags.com

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Egomania in the Universe
by Carolyn Ulrich       #Propagation   #Seeds

What happens to the vibrant dangling bells of fuchsia (Fuchsia hybrida) after they stop blooming? They turn into very interesting seed pods. 

In June I start checking the seedpods of celandine poppy, bloodroot and wild geranium. Already the showoff part of their lives has passed and they are moving on to the next phase – making merry in the plant kingdom. In other words, developing seeds.

All nature wants to reproduce itself. (Talk about egomania.) And when it comes to propagation, my three native woodland spring-bloomers can run amok, tossing their seed hither and yon, no doubt getting a little help from birds and the wind along the way.

Consider the celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), for example. I started with one plant, a division given to me maybe 15 years ago by my neighbor across the street. Five years ago, on a whim, I decided to count the plants then occupying a shady corner of my backyard. I came up with 60.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) are nearly as prolific, and I never know exactly where they’ll pop up from year to year. As long as I have space for them to show their faces, they’re welcome.

Seed Smarts

Seeds come in all shapes and sizes, each with its own unique strategies for dispersal. Some develop “wings” (think maple tree samara, or “helicopters”) that spiral down on the wind, while others hitch a ride by being super light (think dandelion fluff). Some have hooks so they can latch onto animal fur (Illinois tick trefoil). Others offer tasty treats to ensure they get eaten, then later deposited, by birds (apples and cherries). And the biggest seed of all, the coconut, is dispersed to new locations by floating on ocean currents.

The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) forms seed pods in September. After ripening for a few weeks, they finally burst open around the end of October. Photo by Ron Capek.

Seeds are housed in a great variety of casings. Common milkweeds produce large protective pods and large seeds. But pinecones are also seed-housing vehicles. Within a second-year cone of a white pine, there are reputedly so many seeds that one cone could populate an entire meadow within a couple of years. And some pines – Jack pine and pitch pine specifically – depend on fire to pop open their cones and release the seeds. A forest fire has the added benefit of clearing debris from the forest floor and making the site suitable for seed germination and growth.

Yew trees don’t produce cones but enclose their seeds within red berries that are eaten and spread by birds. Last fall, while walking in a neighborhood church garden, I realized with a start that I was looking at a 1-inch tall yew seedling. Three years earlier, I had a similar experience in my own backyard when I discovered a 1-inch tall conifer growing amid a flat carpet of Arabis procurrensground cover. Was it a spruce or a juniper? Now that it has survived three winters (including the polar vortex) and has “soared” to an impressive 7 inches, I realize that it’s a juniper.

I have two other seed-grown trees in my yard. One is an American elm (Ulmus americana) growing between my house and that of the neighbors. By the time I first noticed it, the tree was already several feet tall so I just let it keep going. Now it is 3 stories tall, literally as big as the house. Keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t succumb to Dutch elm disease! Back by my garage there’s a burr oak I transplanted from a spot in full shade where a squirrel had planted it. Still not an ideal location, but if I have a chance of growing a burr oak, I’m going to jump at it. So the oak will stay where it is, grumbling a bit as it inches slowly upward towards more light.

Seed Collecting

Passively taking advantage of what nature bestows is one thing, but the region is full of people who actively venture forth to collect, exchange and sow seeds. The annual Garden Show sponsored by the Porter County Master Gardeners in Valparaiso, Ind. started as a simple seed exchange. It has since expanded into a multi-faceted destination for winter-weary gardeners but still includes the seed exchange.

One of the Valparaiso stalwarts is Master Gardener Beverly Thevenin who began collecting and trading seeds when she moved into a new home 10 years ago and wondered “How can I fill this yard?” By trading online she acquired seeds for flowering plants such as four o’clocks, nasturtiums, tithonia, sweet William, poppies, hyacinth bean and blackberry lily. She also grows lesser-known annuals such as snow daisy (Tanacetum niveum) and Balfour impatiens (Impatiens balfourii), a Himalayas native sometimes called poor-man’s orchid that grows in the shade and is beloved by hummingbirds. Although her garden is now filled, she keeps collecting seed, mainly to donate to the Valparaiso show.

Another avid northwest Indiana seed collector is Master Gardener Laura Tucker whose interest runs to native plants, particularly milkweeds, the only plants on which monarch butterflies can lay their eggs. She also collects seeds from Joe Pye weed, New England aster, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower and anise hyssop. Once seeds have been collected, they need to be cleaned, a task that can be tedious when dealing with the fluff of New England aster and milkweed, but Tucker generally finds seed cleaning relaxing. She’s even part of a local seed-cleaning group.

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is an unusual early-blooming prairie plant whose seeds are hard to see and even harder to clean, but definitely worth the effort.

Seed collecting in the prairies and woodlands gets under way as early as June for spring-blooming plants and continues until November, explains Bob Porter, natural areas manager for the Chicago Park District’s North Park Village Nature Center. What happens to the seeds that are collected? At the Nature Center they plant them on site in areas that need more natives. Other groups that collect seed at local prairies and savannas exchange with each other or make donations to schools, garden clubs and community groups that are developing their own gardens and native plantings.

In my garden I always gather seeds of Penstemon digitalis, a handsome white-flowering Illinois native, and larkspur, a purple-flowering native of the Mediterranean. Both are easy to collect. The penstemon seeds are readily visible as green, then brown, balls that turn black when they’re ripe. Larkspur seeds form in 1-inch pods that turn from green to brown as they ripen. Each pod contains several seeds, and when they’re black, I toss them in places where I want them to grow the following year. As for the aforementioned celandine poppy, wild geranium and bloodroot, they clearly need no help from me. They’ve been doing quite well on their own.



A version of this story appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXI Issue V. Milkweed photo by Ron Capek. All other photos by Jeff Rugg.



Posted: 10/12/15   RSS | Print


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