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Red Alder (Alnus rubra)

During the storm I dreamt of Red Alder.  I dreamt that the spirit of the tree was leading me away from danger.  Then I woke and saw ruts of the big machines and I cried for the forest.  Soon after the Red Alder came up through the sun-baked soil of the clear-cut. – Ellen O’Shea – Radical Botany

Red Alder Grove along stream

Some plants are trailblazers.  They show up when great change has happened.  They grow in the ruts of human civilization, the mud, the flood tracks and the places where sun and wind prohibit other plants to grow. Red Alder just such a trailblazer. A true pioneer plant.  It shows up to heal, grows fast, stays a short time, then allows the tall conifers, the redcedar and majestic Bigleaf maple and other trees to take over.  It is a friend and healer of the forest. It is a tree that perseveres in the direst of circumstances. Even after massive clear-cutting and wild fire destruction where the forest seems changed forever, the Red Alder will push up out of the graves of other trees and change the soils.  It is an alchemist.  It will attract the bacterium needed to change the acid of riddled sun-parched soils into  the conditions needed to bring back an entire eco-system.  After the Red Alder emerges, the tiny herbs, the ferns and sedges follow.  Soon after that the wildflowers, elderberry shrubs, Indian plum and wild honeysuckle will follow. And then the conifers and larger deciduous trees follow and a whole forest eco-system emerges.

The Red Alder soothes the hardest of earth and entices the fungi, bacteria and nutrients back into the forest floor. The bacterium on its roots fix the nitrogen needed to feed the forest community. A grove of Red Alder will only live about 100 years, just enough time to coax the forest community to come home one more time.  As a healer of humans its bark is used to sooth the acid stomach and gallbladder, clean the lymph glands and bowels, entice the poisons from the skin and open up the lungs.  A poultice of the bark will bring forth the inner poison.

Red Alder wood chips are often used to cultivate eatable and medicinal mushrooms such as the Shiitake.

THE NAME

Clallam  – s’ko’noiltc

Quinault – malp

Swinomish – su-k’uba’ts

Alder is the common name of a genus of flowering plants (Alnus) belonging to the birch family Betulaceae. The English name was derived from the bright rusty red color that develops in bruised or scraped bark. The outside bark is mottled, ashy-gray and smooth, often draped with moss. But just inside is the glorious red used for dye and medicine.

HABITAT

Red alder (Alnus rubra) are the largest species of alder on the west coast of North America.  The tree can grow to 40 feet or more, needs full sun, is a nitrogen fixer, tolerates poor, wet soil and is found in valleys in the Cascadian bio-region as well as the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Red alder is a fast- growing but short-lived (old at fifty, with a maximum age of about a hundred years).

For years, as the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest were devastated by massive clear cutting of the region, Red Alder was thought to be invasive and was destroyed.   For the first 100 years of European settler decimation, the Red Alder was thought to be scrub, a noxious weed and unnecessary for forest health.  Then in the 1970’s and 80’s as second and third growth Douglas fir tree farms failed to thrive, research showed that an essential part of the forest eco-system was missing.  Red Alder, an amazing nitrogen fixer had been systematically removed from the forests using massive amounts of chemicals and extraction methods of forest management.

With the lack of nitrogen in the forest soils, other native species began to be stunted and attract disease. But as foresters began to study forest re-growth, they noticed that Red Alder was one of the first trees to return to a clear-cut.  They also noticed that as the Red Alder stands thrived, so did the small plants, shrubs, and then other tree species thrive. The Red Alder is a forest healer; it brings life back to much damaged soils.  For soils that have been heavily sprayed with toxic chemicals, the introduction of Red Alder is less successful.

RED ALDER AND NITROGEN FIXING BACTERIUM

An important nitrogen-fixing bacterium in our Cascadian bioregion is Frankia ahni.  Red Alder (Alnus rubra) and other types of alders are the host for this important bacterium. Alder is particularly noted for its important symbiotic relationship with Frankia ahni, an actinomycete, filamentous, nitrogen-fixing bacterium. This bacterium is found in root nodules, which may be as large as a human fist, with many small lobes and light brown in appearance.

I found a great online source for explaining the nitrogen fixing process. “A Nitrogen Fixation: The Story of the Frankia Symbiosis by Peter Del Tredici a Harvard researcher can be found at this link: http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1995-55-4-a-nitrogen-fixation-the-story-of-the-frankia-symbiosis.pdf

Here is a quote from that document:

“Before atmospheric nitrogen can be used by plants, it must be “fixed,” that is, split and combined with other chemical elements. This process requires a large input of energy and can occur either biologically, within the cells of various bacteria, or chemically, in fertilizer factories or during lightning storms.

Among all living organisms, only bacteria have evolved the complex biochemical mechanisms required for nitrogen fixation. All “higher” plants and animals that are said to fix nitrogen are really only the symbiotic partners of the bacteria that do the actual work.”

Red alder is often found growing near coast Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii subsp. Menziesii), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), grand fir (Abies grandis), western redcedar (Thuja plicata), and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) forests. When found along streambanks it is commonly associated with willows (Salix spp.), red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) and bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum).

Red Alder leaf

THE LEAVES

Alternate, deciduous (fall off the limb in the autumn), broadly elliptic, and sharp-pointed at the base and tip. The leaf top is dull green and smooth, and the underside is golden-colored and hairy. The leaf margin is revolute, the very edge being curled under, a diagnostic character which distinguishes it from all other alders. The leaf turns yellow in autumn before it falls from the tree.

 

The male and female catkin

THE FLOWER

The flowers are catkins with elongate male catkins on the same plant as shorter female catkins, often before leaves appear; they are mainly wind-pollinated, but also visited by bees to a small extent. These trees differ from the birches (Betula, the other genus in the family) in that the female catkins are woody and do not disintegrate at maturity, opening to release the seeds in a similar manner to many conifer cones. The catkins form in the fall, and then overwinter, ready to open or flower in spring. The female catkin is cone-like, droops slightly, usually in clusters of threes.

The male catkin is slender, cylindrical, hanging in clusters of 3 to 5 from short leafless branches.

THE FRUIT

Red Alder cones or fruit

The fruit is clusters of brownish cones which are quite small (up to 2 cm long). They remain on the trees over the winter and contain oval winged nutlets. About 2000 seeds are normally produced by the cones which are normally spread by the wind but also by the water and birds. The seeds have a viability of about 45%. Seeds are normally dispersed between the months of October and March.

THE BARK

The bark is thin, grey, and smooth often with white patches of lichens.  The bark will turn bright red to rusty red when cut.

As a weaver I often sought the bark of the Red alder as a source of dye.  I peeled back the bark and exposed it to air and it would turn a brilliant red.  As the bark dried the color of the bark changed from red to a slightly golden brown.  I fixed the color using apple cider vinegar.

MEDICINE

Red Alder is a bitter and an astringent (Meyer p.3).  Bark twigs and buds were used. An ointment of the bark was used to cure eruptive skin diseases (Stuhr  p. 21). Catkins are edible and high in protein, but are very bitter in taste and utilized usually on for survival food. The wood is used to smoke cooked food.

The Bark of the Red alder contains anti-inflammatory salicin that metabolizes into salicyclic acid in the body.

Cut of the Red Alder – new (red) and old (golden)

Salicin is related to Aspirin. Red Alder bark is used for relief from poison oak, insect bites, and skin irritations.  The Red Alder bark is used in infusions to treat lymphatic disorders and tuberculosis.

The bark was boiled and drunk for colds, stomach trouble, and scrofula sores. The rotten bark and woody parts were rubbed on the body to ease “aching”. (Gunther p. 27)

The wood was used to make canoes, boxes and paddles and multiple other utility implements.  Like the Western Red Cedar, this tree was widely used by the first people of the Cascadian bio-region. The wood was important because it could be used while still green, seasoned and not split in the sunlight.  The wood of the Red Alder has long been used to smoke salmon.  The bark was used to line baskets for storing wild berries, roots and other foods and herbs.

POLLINATOR AND BUTTERFLY HABITAT

Alder leaves and sometimes catkins are used as food by numerous butterflies and moths. The late winter and spring catkins are beneficial to more than one species of bee,  and depending on nearby habitat may attract other insect pollinators, such as butterflies, hoverflies, and pollinating beetles. If the Red Alder is close by water, the pollinators can be plentiful.

Red Alder is a better butterfly host plant than the Asian butterfly bush, which only provides some nectar, not structure to attach chrysalis, nor leaves for caterpillars after hatching.

If you would like to learn more about native plants and the pollinators they attract, order the wonderful book  put out by the Xerces Society called “Attracting Native Pollinators”.  The book is coauthored by four Xerces Society staff members Eric Mader, Matthew Shepherd, Mace Vaughan, and Scott Black in collaboration with Gretchen LeBuhn, a San Francisco State University botanist and director of the Great Sunflower Project.  More on the book go here – http://www.xerces.org/announcing-the-publication-of-attracting-native-pollinators/

VIDEO  AND ONLINE RESOURCES

Article about Red Alder healing capacity by Kiva Rose, herbalist- http://bearmedicineherbals.com/alder-tree-of-transformation-healing.html

How to identify a Red Alder – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBdmL5A0_3c

Interactive Distribution Map of Alnus rubra – http://www.plantmaps.com/nrm/alnus-rubra-red-alder-native-range-map.php

REFERENCES

  • Del Tredici, Peter (1995) Nitrogen Fixation: The Story of the Frankia Symbiosis, Harvard University, Arnoldia Arboretum – viewed on the web on November 9, 2012 – http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1995-55-4-a-nitrogen-fixation-the-story-of-the-frankia-symbiosis.pdf
  • Gunther, Erna. (1945) (Revised 1973) Ethnobotany of Western Washington. Knowledge and use of Indigenous plants by Native Americans, University of Washington Press.
  • Meyer, Joseph E. (1918) (Revised 1970) The Herbalist, Meyer Books Publishing
  • Pojar & McKinnon, (1994) Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Stur, Ernst T. (1933) Manual of Pacific Coast Drug plants, Ernst Theodore Stuhr Papers, Oregon State University Archives, Corvallis, Oregon.
  • Tilford, Gregory L., Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West, ISBN 0-87842-359-1
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As they presented the herb to me they told me to drop it on the earth and when it hit the earth it took root and flowered. You could see a ray of light coming up from the flower, reaching the heavens, and all the creatures of the universe saw the light. – Black Elk (in DeMaille, The Sixth Grandfather)

Apical Meristem Cell tissue - the God force

Ok, being the total plant nerd that I am; I get very excited about teaching about parts of the plant.  I mean it blows my mind that all you have to do is cut a branch, place it in water, and watch it grow roots.  How does that happen?  What would happen if humans could do the same and just grow new parts?  (clue: stem cells)

And, a second amazing fact about stems and branches is that you can graft a branch of one plant on to another plant  and promote new and interesting growth and fruit.  Pure magic! (More on grafting later).

What is happening here?  It all goes back to the most magical part of a plant-the “meristem cell”.  You know, the God-particle magical cell that stores all the DNA of the plant and allows parts of the plant to regenerate, accept cells from other plants, and grow itself from an injured part.

Let me explain in more detail. (Now don’t get bored with all this plant physiology facts, in the end it all is just amazing and your knowledge of living with, growing and ingesting plants will grow exponentially!)

Meristem tissue in most plants consists of undifferentiated meristematic cells. With the apical meristem cells the tissue either heading downward and becoming roots or heading upwards and becoming stem, branch, leaves and flower are considered to be indeterminate or undifferentiated, in that they do not possess any defined end fate. The meristem cells “remember” that they are going to grow into a tree, a shrub, a wildflower etc, but allow a variety of changes to happen to the tissue.  Where ever these cells appear in the plant, there can be new growth, including growing new parts. These types of cells seem to store the DNA of any part of the plant. The apical meristem, or growing tip, is a completely undifferentiated meristematic tissue found in the buds and growing tips of roots in plants. Its main function is to begin growth of new cells in young seedlings at the tips of roots and shoots (forming buds, among other things). Meristem cells cause the plant growth to take place in a very organized yet adaptive process. Now, meristem cells can become differentiated after they divide enough times and reach a node or internode.   As the plant grows upward driven by apical meristem cells the tissue begins to organize itself into stem, branch, leaves and flower.  These cells divide rapidly and are found in zones of the plant where much growth can take place. That is why you can graft one part of a plant to another part of the plant if it is in the right zone or node and if the two plants share the same type of DNA. Plants must be closely related for grafting to be successful.

For tissues to knit successfully, the cambium layers (full of fast dividing meristem cells) and rootstock must be brought into firm contact. The cambium – a continuous narrow band of thin-walled, regenerative cells just below the bark or rind – grows to form a bridge or union between the two parts in days. The same cells are found at the joint of a branch which allows it to grow new roots at the cut.  Now, not all plants can grow roots from a branch.  You need to study each plant for its particular characteristics.

SEED TO STEM – THE JOURNEY BEGINS

The stem begin its journey with the seed opening up and a dicot or monocot leaf revealing itself.

A monocot (a flowering plant that produces an embryo seed with single cotyledons) will produce only one leaf.  A dicot will produce two embryonic seed leaves or cotyledon.  The cotyledon is a seed leaf – the first to appear as the seed sprouts. It appears at the same time that root tissue appears.

Next a shoot appears (new stem) and sends out growth. The apical meristem cell structure is leading the way. We assume that the stem is heading upward toward light but  a contradiction to this rule would be stems that spread downward or sideways like potatoes, tulip bulbs and other tubers. A strawberry plant will create a “stolon” or sideways stem to propagate new growth. A vine has a long trailing stem that grows along the ground or along anything it can attach to.

 The three major internal parts of a stem are the xylem, phloem, and cambium. The xylem and phloem are the major components of a plant’s vascular system. A cambium is a lateral meristem that produces secondary tissues by cell division. The cambium area is located just under the epithelial (outer most area of the stem) and is very active in cell growth.  It is this area that is tapped into when attempting grafting.

Stem tissue is actually organized into pipe-like vascular bundles held together by pith and cortex tissues. These tissues are used for pipelines of fluid transport, connecting leaves, stems and roots. They also serve as a supportive structure for the stem.  The stem is also made up of other substances that allow it to remain flexible so that it will not break easily. Depending on what kind of plant is growing, a great tree or a wildflower, the stem may become a thick trunk with layers of vascular cambium, cork and hard bark or a more herbaceous plant.  The trunk of a tree is its main stem.  And, yes plants can have more than one stem.  The stem that branches is called a branch.

Stems may be long, with great distances between leaves and buds (branches of trees, runners on strawberries), or compressed, with short distances between buds or leaves (fruit spurs, crowns of strawberry plants, dandelions). All stems must have buds or leaves present to be classified as stem tissue.

An area of the stem where leaves are located is called a node. Nodes are areas of great cellular activity and growth, where auxiliary buds develop into leaves or flowers. The area between nodes is called the internode. Nodes are protected when pruning back a plant. Destruction of the nodes can result in long non-fruiting branches.

MODIFIED STEMS

Although typical stems are above-ground trunks and branches, there are modified stems which can be found above and below the ground. The above-ground modified  stems include crowns, stolons, and spurs and the below-ground stems are bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers.

STEM FUNCTION

  • Stems serve as conduits (pipelines) for carrying water and minerals from the roots upward to the leaves utilizing the xylem tissue and for carrying food from the leaves (where food is manufactured through the process of photosynthesis) down to the roots utilizing the phloem tissue.
  • Stems provide support for the leaves and reproductive structures (flowers, fruit, and seeds) of the plant.
  • Stems are also used for food storage (as in potatoes and onions) and in plants with herbaceous (green-colored) stems they help manufacture food just as the leaves do.

NATIVE PLANT PROPAGATION BY CUTTINGS.

Taking cuttings from native plants to propagate them is especially helpful in preserving what is left of many species. There is no digging or destroying plants. Forest communities are not damaged.

The process of removing a plant part then having that part grow into a genetically exact replica of the original plant is called cutting propagation. It is a plant cloning technique. The plant part that is removed is called a cutting.  Plants can be propagated from root cuttings, leaf cuttings, stem cuttings, etc.

  • The mother plant or “stock” plant should be at a stage of growth most likely to have stem cuttings root. Old, mature plants are often more difficult to root than young, vigorously growing plants. Using new growth on a mature plant may not root.  Always try to use young plants.
  • Always place cuttings in water as soon as it is cut. You can wrap the cut end of a cutting in wet paper towels and place in plastic bags if you do not have a tub of water.  If the cutting wilts it may not fully recover and may not develop roots.
  • Always take cuttings when the temperature is above freezing. Research has demonstrated that cuttings collected when temperatures were above freezing and stored in plastic bags or moist burlap in a refrigerator rooted in higher percentages than fresh, unstored cuttings taken when shoots were frozen.
  •  For all types of stem cuttings, the cuttings should be removed with a clean, sharp (don’t crush stems) knife or pruners and placed into a container that will keep the cutting from losing more moisture.

Some amazing Cascadian bioregion native plants that root from branches are: Pacific Willow (Salix lucida), Hooker’s Willow (Salix hookeriana), Pacific Ninebarks (Physocarpus capitatus), and Snowbush (Ceanothus velutinus).  All are great attractors of important pollinators and Snowbush will fix nitrogen in the soil.

The first peoples of Cascadia built summer fishing and hunting huts along marshes and streams by placing freshly cut Willow in circles.  The Willow would root and grow into a shelter and  hunting blind. Today, some wonderful garden trellis have been erected using live Willow.

VOCABULARY

  • Angiosperms – A plant that has flowers and produces seeds enclosed within a carpel. The angiosperms are a large group and include herbaceous plants, shrubs, grasses, and most trees.
  • Budan undeveloped or embryonic shoot and normally occurs in the axil of a leaf or at the tip of the stem. Recognizing buds is important under two circumstances when trying to identify plants. 1) When you need to distinguish a bud from a “stipule”, and 2) When you need to determine whether a leaf is “simple” or “compound”.
  • Cotyledon – A seed leaf. A leaf of the embryo of a seed plant, which upon germination either remains in the seed or emerges, enlarges, and becomes green.
  • Crowns – is a region of compressed stem tissue from which new shoots are produced, generally found near the surface of the soil. Crowns (strawberries, dandelions, African violets) are compressed stems having leaves and flowers on short internodes.
  • Dicot –comprising seed plants (angiosperms) that have two cotyledons in their seed. Examples of dicots flowering plants are (more 300 families) sunflowers, peas, geranium, rose, magnolias, maples, oaks and willows.
  • Internodethe part of a plant stem between two of the nodes from which leaves emerge.
  • Monocot – comprising seed plants that produce a seed embryo with a single cotyledon and parallel-veined leaves: includes grasses and lilies and palms and orchids; divided into four subclasses or super orders: Alismatidae; Arecidae; Commelinidae; and Liliidae. flowering plant; the stem grows by deposits on its inside
  • Nodethe part of a plant stem from which one or more leaves emerge, often forming a slight swelling or knob. Something special happens at a node that tells the plant tissue to start forming leaves and flowers.
  • Pith – The soft, spongelike, central cylinder of the stems of most flowering plants, composed mainly of parenchyma (in higher plants, any soft tissue consisting of thin-walled, relatively undifferentiated living cells)
  •   Spur – is a   compressed fruiting branch. Spurs are short, stubby, side stems that arise   from the main stem and are common on such fruit trees as pears, apples, and   cherries, where they may bear fruit. If severe pruning is done close to   fruit-bearing spurs, the spurs can revert to a long, nonfruiting stem.
  •   Stipule One   of the usually small, paired appendages at the base of a leafstalk in certain   plants, such as roses and beans.
  •   Stolon – is a horizontal stem that is fleshy or semi-woody and   lies along the top of the ground. A runner is a type of stolon. It is a specialized stem that grows on the soil surface and forms a new plant at one   or more of its nodes. Strawberry runners are examples of stolons. Remember, all stems have nodes and buds or leaves. The leaves on strawberry runners are small but are located at the nodes which are easy to see. The spider plant also has stolons.

REFERENCES

  • Capon, Brian (1990) (Revised 3rd edition, 2005) Botany for Gardeners, Timber Press, Portland, London
  • Gunther, Erna. (1945) (Revised 1973) Ethnobotany of Western Washington. Knowledge and use of Indigenous plants by Native Americans, University of Washington Press.
  • Pojar & McKinnon, (1994) Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska, Lone Pine Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia
  • Toogood, Alan (1999) Plant Propagation, American Horticultural Society, DK Publishing, Inc. New York, NY

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When I was a child growing up on the edge of a white (Quercus garryanna) oak forest in Oregon I loved to collect the wild seeds of native plants. I was attracted to their great beauty, unusual design, and uniqueness. I was fascinated by their shapes, sizes, colors and even smells. They were my special treasures.  I kept a collection of wild seeds in a tin box under my bed away from the prying eyes of my many siblings.  I would often take the box out and pour over my many wild seed “treasures”.

I spent hours collecting, observing, and drawing pictures of the seeds. I had special names for the seeds: “whirligigs” (the samara or winged seed pod of the Acer or Maple tree family),” wishes” (the multi-seed pod of the dandelion),” hooksters” (the hooked seed of the Cleavers), and “boings” (the seed pod of the wild pea or Vetch).

I asked my father, who was a very amazing gardener, why my seeds looked so much different than the seeds we planted in our garden.  He told me that the seeds planted in the garden had been changed by man over many years.  They were hybrids of once wild plants.  He told me that the seed I collected was wild seed. Seed that only nature had touched.

I scanned the Book of Knowledge book set that was in our family’s library looking for information about wild plants and seeds.  I had many questions.  I wanted to know why some seed had tails and seemed to fly through the air; some oozed fluids and were sheathed in pockets of paper-like plant material. Still others were very hard to touch because they were sheathed in very hard outer shells.  I found seed that dropped to the ground and burrowed itself into the earth. Other seed attached itself to animals or my pant leg and later dropped far away from the mother plant. Some seeds used streams and rivers to move through the forest and still others catapulted themselves through the air.

The shapes of the seeds fascinated me. They were not only small, oval or round like the garden seeds, they took many shapes and sizes.  Some seeds were encased in berries; others were encased in cones or grew in long clusters. Some were round, some were square and a large number were geometrically shaped like small geodesic domes.  Every seed was unique and held a mystery within it. Every seed had adapted so it could survive a more or less competitive environment. I learned that plants disperse their seeds because they do not want new plants nearby competing for water, light and nutrients.  The fruits or pods that contain the seeds have adapted to different dispersal methods.  For instance, the acorn of the White Oak has a fruit that looks like a seed, but the outside of the acorn has a tough wall to protect the seed within. When the acorn falls to the ground it rolls away from the parent plant.  The acorn is very attractive to animals.  The squirrel will carry the acorn away and bury it. How convenient that the squirrel “plants” the acorn in the ground.

Some seeds develop coats of paper thin material – capsules and pods. As the pod membrane dries it creates tension and finally the pod will pop open- throwing the seed in all directions (Sweet Vetch and other pea family plants). The paper-like pod is also easily dispersed in the wind.  Some seeds have hooks – much like Velcro that allows the seeds to attach themselves to animals and people to be carried away.

In fact the inventor of Velcro Swiss engineer, Georges de Mestra was said to have studied the mechanism of a common burr to come up with the idea for his amazing invention.

One year I took half my collection and planted the seeds in a small bed of loose soil.  Very little of it germinated. Only some wild grasses came up. None of the wildflowers grew. I was so disappointed.

As always my dad patiently answered my many questions. He told me that wild things are special and unique and cannot easily be captured. He said most die in captivity and cautioned me not to catch the wild frogs or salamanders or try and hatch the pheasant eggs I found in the orchard. My father told me that wild plants also needed special care and in order to germinate the seeds I would have to learn everything I could about the plant first.  He said some seeds have special needs like a long cold spell, or fire or being eaten by a bird.  My father told me that unless we protect the wild plants we may lose our food plants, our forests, our water and our air. He said that all our food and flower plants were hybrids of wild plants. He said that hybrids become harder to grow over time and have to be grown again from wild stock at some time. If the wild stock disappears, so will our easy to grow food sources.  My father had great respect for wild plants. He taught me how to forage for berries and other food.  And he told me the names of the native and wild plants.  It was my father who told me that in the past First Peoples everywhere used wild native plants for everything in their lives.

Because of the general lack of training in biological/botanical training in the schools at that time I decided to learn everything I could on my own through books.  I spent hours in the library reading about plants and learning their mysteries.

I spent a good portion of my life trying to learn about native plants and how to propagate them through direct observation.  Some native plants must be grown from seed and have very peculiar growing habits. In nature only a small fraction of the seeds of plants succeed in germinating and growing to maturity because of the many hazards encountered. Each plant has a peculiar way of making sure it’s seeds will be distributed to safe environments. My own observations from gardening and also working with native plants have taught me that wild seeds flourish in their wild habitat and contribute to a plant community that is exquisite and dynamic. One has only to visit an old growth forest and experience the diversity of life, the mycelium and the healthy web of life to know that wild plants know something we do not yet understand. This is why so many fragile native plants do not do well in people’s yards. To successfully propagate native plants one must understand and create a replica of the environment that the plant came from.

As we move native plants back into our yards, cities and towns we will need to make sure there is enough diversity of plants and we need to keep protecting the wild areas where the plants flourish.

In his essay on the need for diversity in plant and seed life, D.A Albert proposes that creating small areas of plant repositories (plant zoo) can create fragmentation leading to the destruction of whole plant species.

“Habitat destruction and fragmentation by development interrupts normal plant dispersal and gene exchange. In extreme cases, isolation creates highly inbred populations which can have a number of deleterious effects. Highly inbred populations may not have the genetic variability “on the warehouse shelves” to adapt to change. Inbreeding poses additional problems for self-incompatible species. These species can become so inbred that cross pollination between “different” individuals is no longer possible, rendering the population unable to produce viable seed.” (Albert)

THE SPARK OF LIFE

One of the greatest biological mysteries for me when studying seed is how is it that life is generated from a seed?  At what point in its growth do seed grow or die. Where does that spark of life come from?  I was told in my biology classes that that the spark of life starts in the DNA and biochemical material of a plant.  But I also know that scientists do not know where the spark of life comes from. Scientists only have theories and hypothesis to work with and cannot fully prove where the spark begins.

In just the right conditions, the seed will germinate.  Growth occurring as a result sees new life in no obvious way resembling the origin from which it springs. Biochemical reactions cannot explain where the spark comes from. It is truly a great mystery. We are just now beginning to understand that toxins and radiation can destroy that spark or mutate it into a plant that has no chance of survival. We must learn to protect the “spark” of life.

EACH PLANT HAS ITS OWN ENVIRONMENTAL NEEDS

You cannot generalize about any wild plant-or seed for that matter. Each has its own environmental needs. Study, observation and trial and error are the tools of a good naturalist.

For instance many wild plants do not produce seed until fall and few can be expected to germinate within a few days like garden seeds. Some seeds may not germinate for years and many need cold to prepare them for germination.

Seeds from many wild flowers have embryos that are immature when they are shed from the parent plant. An after-ripening period is necessary to overcome the dormancy of such seeds before germination can take place. (Taylor and Hamblin)

Wild seeds may need a cold moist repository for periods from one month to a year according to species (cold stratification). Some seeds have very hard outer coats that require almost two years of stratification. Plants that need this cold stratification include Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesil).

Some seeds must pass through the gut of animal in order to germinate.  Placing the seeds in a container of hot water can mimic this process.  Here are some directions for this process presented by Washington State University extension service.

“HOT WATER (mimics passage through a stomach or heat from a fire): Boil 3-6 cups of water for every cup of seeds. Don’t use an aluminum pan or softened water, as either might introduce chemicals toxic to seeds. Turn off the heat when it reaches boiling, and let the water cool for a minute or two. Pour the seeds into the water and let them sit at room temperature for 24 hours. Seeds may still need to overwinter or be cold-stratified before they will sprout. Try this technique with Hairy Manzanita (Arctostaphylos Columbian), Kinnikinnick or Common Bearberry, (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), or Snow Brush (Ceanothus velutinus).”

For more tips on how to germinate native plant seeds check out this website put together by the Washington State University extension service.

http://gardening.wsu.edu/text/nvgrowng.htm

THE STRUCTURE OF SEEDS

Fully developed seeds usually consist of an embryo – a tiny plant with a shoot (plumule) and a root (radicle) together with seed leaves (cotyledons) – that is surrounded by a mass of food (endosperm).

Angiosperms

Flowering plants (angiosperms) are divided into two groups.

Monocotyledons have one seed leaf usually parallel veins on leaves, indistinguishable petals and sepals in multiples of three and non woody stems.

The dicotyledons, also known as dicots, have two seed leaves, net-like veins on the leaves, often small green sepals, petals usually in multiples of four or five and thicker stems that may have woody tissue, formed by the (cambium).

Gymnosperms

The seeds of gymnosperms are “naked” or only partly enclosed by tissues of the parent plant. An example would be a conifer cone.  Conifer cone seeds are wind pollinated and seeds form on the scales of the female cones.

Spores are not seeds. Plants such as mosses, liver worts, ferns, club mosses and horse tails reproduce by spores. A spore may look like a seed but is asexual and develops male and female sex organs independently from the plant that bore it.

REFERENCES

*Albert, D.A., 1995. Regional Landscape Ecosystems of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin: A Working Map and Classification. USDA Forest Service, North Central Forest Experiment Station. General Technical Report NC-178.Viewed on the web on December 1, 2011 http://www.wildtypeplants.com/gentalk.html

Phillips, Harry R., Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers, An easy-to-use guide for all gardeners, The University of North Carolina Press. Available from NJ Audubon stores and many other retailers.

Taylor, Kathryn S. and Hamblin, Stephen, (1963) Handbook of Wild Flower Cultivation: a guide to wild flower cultivation in the home garden, p.14 The Macmillan Company, NY

VOCABULARY

hybrid n. Genetics . The offspring of genetically dissimilar parents or stock, especially the offspring produced by breeding plants or animals of.

rad·i·cle/ˈradikəl/ – The part of a plant embryo that develops into the primary root.  A root like subdivision of a nerve or vein.

A samara is a type of fruit in which a flattened wing of fibrous, papery tissue develops from the ovary wall. A samara is a simple dry fruit and indehiscent (not opening along a seam). It is a winged achene. The shape of a samara enables the wind to carry the seed farther away than regular seeds from the parent tree as in the maples (genus Acer) and ashes (genus Fraxinus).

Scarify– Scarification means scratching or cracking the hard outer coat of a seed to help it germinate. Some seeds  have outer shells that are extremely hard and don’t allow water through. This is one way a seed stays dormant in the fall and winter, until growing conditions improve.

WEB RESOURCES

Here is a link to a wonderful website put together by Washington State University extension service on propagating native plants from seed. http://gardening.wsu.edu/text/nvgrowng.htm

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