Texas Drought Impact on Wildflower Seed Production Cuts Both Ways, PLUS Five Tips for Collecting Wildflower Seeds

First frosts lighting on Central Texas this week and reports of Monarchs and other butterflies on the wane kindle dreams of next year’s butterfly gardens and meadows. To get a jump on next year’s butterfly hostplant and nectar haven, start by collecting seeds from the wild now.  November is the perfect time to gather seeds.

Cowpen Daisy patch October 2011

Cowpen Daisy "patch" at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River, October 2011

Last year we wrote about collecting seeds from the prolific Cowpen Daisy, one of my favorite wildflowers.  Those seeds, Verbesina encelioidesm, are more scarce this year thanks to the historic Texas drought–just look at the recent picture above taken at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River compared to the one below snapped last fall. Both reflect the same stretch of dirt road.  What a difference a year of historic drought makes.

Cowpen Daisy patch Fall 2010

Cowpen Daisy patch at Lucky Boy Ranch on the Llano River, Fall of 2010

When it comes to seed production in the face of drought, not all plants respond the same way. “It’s a strange thing,” says  George Cates, “seed cleaner extraordinaire” at Native American Seed, a company based in Junction, Texas, that focuses exclusively on native American seeds.   “Certain species are very well adapted to drought conditions and actually produce MORE seed during drought,” he says.

Cates suggests that the seeds of more drought adaptive plants often seem less desirable to consumers–the poisonous purple nightshade, ornery white prickly poppy and the invasive King Ranch bluestem.

Monarch butterfly on Gayfeather at American Native Seed in Junction, TX

Monarch butterfly on Gayfeather at American Native Seed in Junction, TX --photo by American Native Seed

Less adaptive plants die back during the drought exposing soil to the seeds of plants that are warm season dominant, creating an opportunity for more adaptive plants’ seeds to exploit the opportunity. (One of the primary reasons wildflower seeds fail to germinate is a lack of contact with soil.) “As the ground stays crispy and cooked, other things can take advantage,” says Cates.

Plants seem to exhibit native intelligence, says Cates.  “Somehow the plants know that now is a good time to make more seeds,” he explains, adding that American Native Seed’s gayfeather crop produced more abundant seeds this year than last–even though less rain fell and the native seed farm was forced by water restrictions to discontinue irrigation early in the summer.

Cates says that seeds produced in a drought likely will demonstrate longer periods of dormancy and may take longer to germinate as they await optimal conditions.

Here’s five tips from Cates on collecting wildflower seeds:

1. Try to assess whether the seed is viable.  A microscope is ideal for this, but if you don’t carry one on your nature hikes, Cates recommends selecting samples from various parts of the plant and squeezing a few seeds between your fingers.  Look for the hard germ core as well as softer, latent matter that surrounds and protects the seed.

2. Cut the stalk of the plant if possible and hang upside down for plant nutrients to bleed into the seeds until fully dry.

3.  Don’t feel you have to clean all the fluff and chaff off the seeds.  “There’s nutrients in that latent material,” says Cates.  Just keep the material dry.

4. Store seeds in paper bag until completely dry.  If you opt for plastic bags and store damp seed material, seeds will rot.   Dry seeds=important.

5. Don’t take every last stalk of seed.  Plan ahead and leave some for next year.

Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.

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Milkweed Seeds Ripe for Harvest, Gather them Now for Future Monarch Butterfly Host Plants

The Antelope Horns milkweed we saw on our Texas roadsides in April are boasting robust seedpods now, ripe for the plucking.  Asclepias asperula was one of the few wildflowers to dot our highways and wildscapes this spring, a welcome contrarian to the dreary drought and voracious winds that defined the second quarter of 2011.   Fortunately, native species like these defy harsh conditions that leave other plants wilting.

We encourage butterfly gardeners to collect these seeds now to be cultivated into Monarch  and Queen butterfly host plants.  Surplus seeds can be sent to the Bring Back the Monarchs program, a milkweed restoration project organized by Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

Tropical milkweed seedpods and fluff

Tropical milkweed seedpods and fluff

Monarch Watch, our favorite source for Monarch butterfly info, offers the following tips for collecting milkweed seeds:

  • Mature pods are those that are within a day or two of opening. If you squeeze the pods and they don’t open easily, they usually do not contain mature brown seeds. Seeds well into the process of browning and hardening will germinate when planted the next season.
  • Pale or white seeds should be not collected.
  • Freshly collected pods should be dried in an open area with good air circulation.
  • Once the pods are thoroughly dry, the seeds can be separated from the coma, or silk-like ballooning material (sometimes called “fluff”), by hand.
  • Separation of seeds can also be accomplished by stripping the seeds and coma from the pods into a paper bag.
  • Shake the contents of the bag vigorously to separate the seeds from the coma and then cut a small hole in a corner of the bottom of the bag and shake out the seeds.
  • Store dried seeds in a cool, dry place protected from mice and insects – a plastic bag (reclosable) or other container in the refrigerator works well.

Those of us who plant Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in our gardens, can also gather seeds from this nonnative bloomer.  Althought technically an interloper, Tropical Milkweed is fine in a garden setting, and provides reliable host and nectaring for Monarchs and others.  Check out our milkweed guide for Texas  for more information.

One of many fun facts about milkweed is that the silky fluff, or seed threads  attached to each seed, are more buoyant than cork.  The silk “parachutes” catch the wind and efficiently facilitate milkweed propagation.  During World War II, the silk was used instead of down in aviation lifejackets.  Those who make quilts have even explored using the silky fiber as batting and more than one of us have wondered how much milkweed silk it would take to stuff a pillow.