Taking Seeds From The Prairie

Lake Macbride State Park, Summer 2019

Is it wrong to collect seeds from a prairie restoration project for use in a home garden or another prairie restoration project?

I posed the question on social media. While the responses weren’t that many, they were a unanimous yes.

Not so fast!

“Stealing is stealing,” Cindy Crosby, author of The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction wrote.

A prairie manager I know was out for a stroll on his site when he came across a woman cutting buckets of blooms. Horrified, he said, “Lady, what are you doing?” She replied testily, “Well I tried to cut the flowers up by the visitors center for my party and they wouldn’t let me. So I came out here.”

Wildflowers will replenish themselves, right? Maybe and maybe not.

I asked our local state park ranger for his thoughts about harvesting seeds from prairie restoration areas. His response was speedy and made sense, “You are good to take seeds from the plants but just do not remove the plant itself and you will be ok.”

That’s good enough for me. I’ll be watching the patch of restored prairie for seed formation and try some of the varieties in our home garden.

Prairie used to cover more than 85 percent of Iowa land, according to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Today less than one tenth of a percent of original tallgrass prairie remains in the state. A prairie restoration project, like the ones at Iowa state parks, is a work of human hands and culture.

People like Cindy Crosby have a personal investment in work they have done to restore prairie. Even if such restorations are anything but natural, and a constant struggle to keep invasive plants like garlic mustard at bay, they add cultural value in the form of habitat for plant and animal species and the narratives spun around them. We should tread lightly in their work, take what we need, and leave the rest.

Additional Reading:

Tuesdays in the Tallgrass, a blog by Cindy Crosby.

Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean.

Restoring the Tallgrass Prairie: An Illustrated Manual for Iowa and the Upper Midwest by Shirley Shirley.

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2 Responses to Taking Seeds From The Prairie

  1. C.A. says:

    There is also another issue to consider.

    Some Iowa prairie reconstructionists take great care with where our seed comes from, genetically. We try hard to make sure, within ethical and legal boundaries, that our seed comes from Iowa prairie remnants or is descended directly from Iowa prairie remnants, so that it will carry on Iowa’s own special prairie genetic heritage. The Neal Smith Refuge and some other good public prairie plantings are very careful about this.

    On the other hand, many prairie plantings in Iowa are done by people who use seed from wherever they could or can get it, especially for farm plantings. I’ve heard of seed coming, genetically, from Montana, Kansas, Ontario, New Jersey, etc.

    Some people very unfortunately think they are doing public prairie plantings a favor by throwing their own prairie seed into them. But that is not true. The last thing the Neal Smith Refuge wants is for people to throw random-sourced seed onto Refuge land. I only give prairie seed to people who are very interested in using Iowa-genetic seed. (And buying prairie seed in Iowa is no guarantee at all of where that seed originated genetically. Some of us could tell stories…)

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    • C.A. says:

      Just to clarify, of course different kinds of prairie plantings have different goals. And in many cases, especially urban and suburban gardens and plantings that are intended to help pollinators and/or water quality, native prairie plants and not-quite-so-native prairie plants happily mix and are far, far better for the environment than mowed lawns or exotic gardens that do very little for wildlife. The main point, which I didn’t make well above, is that depending on the location and goals of the planting, the seed source is something to consider.

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