Handling Wild Seed

"A seed is latent, intelligent energy waiting for the right time and place to express itself. A seed knows exactly what it has to do and exactly how to do it." - Jamie Jobb

Germination rates of prairie species can vary greatly. For instance, some seeds, including Buttercup, Pasque Flower, Columbine, and Blue-eyed Grass, do best if planted fresh as soon as they're collected. But most seeds require some form of pre-treatment, imitating Nature in order to change from a dry, dormant embryo to a visible sprout. If, with landowner permission, you collect seed, follow these techniques to maximize your yields.


Start with proper winter storage in a cool, dry place in a clean, dry airtight container. A garage or unheated attic serves well. Remember to label! Species that can be planted directly after dry stratification include Thimbleweed, Canada Anemone, Smooth Blue Aster, Monarda, Evening Primrose, Culvers Root, Heath Aster, Silky Aster, Coreopsis, Sunflowers, and most prairie grasses, except Cord Grass and Needle Grass.


Four to eight weeks before germination is desired (either inside or outside), moist stratification is worth the effort since it will increase germination success. Place seeds with equal amounts of clean, moist (sandcastle consistency) sand into clean plastic bags. Close and label with species' name and date. Then place in the refrigerator (not freezer) to mimic Nature's cycle of freeze-thaw of the soil surface which breaks down chemical inhibitors of germination. Most forb seeds benefit from this process, including Nodding Wild Onion, Milkweed, New England Aster, Shooting Star, Coneflower (Pale Purple, Purple, Yellow), Penstemon, Phlox, Black-eyed Susan, Silphium (Cupplant, Compassplant, Prairie Dock), Goldenrod, Alexander, Rattlesnake Master, Gentian, Prairie Smoke, Liatris.


In addition, legumes and puccoons require additional techniques to break their hard coats. One is scarification, which involves making a small cut in the hard seed coat enabling the seed to absorb water. As it does, the embryo expands which ruptures the protective coat causing the seed to sprout. Scarify by rubbing seeds against a wire screen or sandpaper. Moist stratification should follow scarification, but for a shorter time, usually 10 to 14 days.


Inoculation is necessary for certain prairie legumes: Leadplant, Milk Vetch, Indigo, Canada Tick Clover, Roundheaded Bush Clover, Lupine, and Prairie Clover. After scarification and stratification, seeds of this group will germinate but need nitrogen-producing soil bacteria for successful growth. Your soil may contain these bacteria, but to be sure, purchase inoculum (from prairie seed suppliers) specific to the particular prairie legume species.


Native seed can be sown outdoors during winter months and even into very early spring. The combination of cold weather with ice and snow provides natural stratification conditions needed for germination which occurs during warmer spring weather. Protective seed mechanisms, such as thick coverings or germination-inhibiting chemicals, ensure that young plants won't sprout during fall rains and freeze in winter. Cold weather and repeated exposure to moisture softens seed coats and dissolves inhibiting chemicals when conditions are optimum.

To do winter planting, find an area in your yard that has bare, humus-rich soil and is free of snow. (If you have special types of seeds you'd have trouble replacing, reserve a portion to 'winter over' in the refrigerator and plant later in flats or use for reseeding, if needed.) Then seed according to the general seeding instructions on page 20. Since the ground will probably be frozen or wet, it might not be possible to set seeds by raking. Birds may relocate seeds to new unplanned areas (which may add to your pleasure) so some experts cover the planted site with hardware cloth to keep out wildlife. Seeding just before a snowfall will press seeds into the soil and provide a protective blanket.

Some seeds suitable for winter planting include: New England Aster, Golden Alexander, Blue-eyed Grass, Goldenrod, Blue Flag Iris, Joe-Pye Weed, Purple Coneflower, Shooting Star, Spiderwort, Violet, and Turtlehead. Native seeds vary in appearance, hardiness, growth patterns, and germination rates. Keep in mind biodiversity and try seeds in different spots until you find the best places.

Source EPA, May 29, 1997

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