How to Save Seed from Your Favorite Native Plants

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Milkweed Seed Pod

Green milkweed pods are not ready for seed harvest. Wait until the pods start to turn brown and split open.

What’s going to seed in your garden? As the dog days of summer wane, I’m seeing plenty of seed harvesting opportunities. Saving seed to propagate your own plants is a rewarding way to expand your native plant garden and share your favorites with friends at a Wild Ones seed swap.

As you stroll through your garden, admiring the blooms, make a habit of also noticing what’s setting seed. If you find yourself reaching for the pruners to lop off an “ugly” seed head, stop! Let the seed mature, harvest some and leave the rest for the birds and other seed-eating creatures. In my garden, all the grasses are ripening now, as are the penstemons, paintbrush, and purple prairie clover. With some plants, if you miss seed maturation by a few days, you’ll find the seed has already dispersed.

Seed is ripe when it is hard, and brown or black. If you open a seed head or pod and find a small green seed that is soft and squishy, wait a week and check again. It’s important for the seed to be completely dry at harvest or mold can grow during storage.

Purple Prairie Clover

Purple prairie clover is already shedding its seed.

The easiest way to harvest seed is to simply snip the flower stalks with seed heads, bundle them loosely and stuff them head first into a paper bag. Tie the bag around the stalks (don’t forget to strip the leaves off first) and hang the bag upside down in a dark, cool room. As the pods and seed heads dry, the seeds will burst out and fall into the bag. A gentle shake can speed the process.

You can read additional seed gathering and cleaning tips from the California Native Plant Society.

Once you have your seed separated from the chaff, it’s time for seed inspection. You may want a magnifying glass for small seed. Discard seed with insect larvae and seed that appears smaller and less plump, as it is probably not viable. Store the seed in paper envelopes labeled with the species name and year harvested. Ideally, you should store your envelopes in the refrigerator but I usually just find a cold dark corner of the basement where they happily snooze until I’m tired of winter and ready to dig in the dirt.

—Linda M. Hellow, Front Range Wild Ones Secretary

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