The Importance of Thoughtful Seed Collection by Emily Ellingson

A five sided star shaped seed pod with round seeds inside
Hardy Hibiscus Seed Pods

Did you know that at least 1 in 5 plant species globally are at risk of extinction? Some reasons for this are loss of habitat, loss of pollinators and other plant partners, overharvesting, and the introduction of invasive pests, pathogens, and plants. In the face of these challenges, collecting the seeds of native plant species for saving and planting is key to maintaining the biodiversity on this beautiful and bountiful earth. There are certain strategies to employ when harvesting seeds that are beneficial to plant populations.

Diversity is good!

To encourage healthy, adaptable, and reproductively successful plants, capturing the range of genetic diversity is important! If plants are isolated in one population, they can become inbred and ultimately, less able to survive. Harvesting seed from more than one location can increase genetic diversity. Capturing a range of what a plant looks like is also important. In the horticulture industry, plants are chosen for different traits: tall, short, or double-flowered, to name a few. When collecting native plant seeds for restoration or conservation efforts (even those at home!), it is best to collect seeds from different looking plants. Collect from the tall, the short, the many-flowered, and the few. Just remember to not collect from more than 10% of the plants in any one location.

An oblong dried seedpod with seeds inside in tight rows, some of the seeds visible have fluffy white attachments
Milkweed Seed Pods

Locally adapted is also good!

It is usually best to harvest seeds close to where they will be grown. This helps with survival, since the plants could be locally adapted to the climate, soil type, and other environmental conditions. Imagine collecting seed from a plant in Georgia and planting it in Minnesota. Although the plant may survive, it may not be as robust or flower at a time when important pollinators are around.

We may find that some plant species will struggle to adapt to our rapidly changing climate, especially with the loss of natural migration avenues (plants migrate, too!) due to habitat fragmentation. Some plants, such as those that are rare, threatened, or endangered, have complicated guidelines related to collecting, storing, and germinating seeds. It is also often illegal to collect these plants without a permit - this is for the plant species’ protection. Ultimately, collecting, saving, and planting native seeds can be a conservation effort! When thoughtfully done, it can help contribute to the continued survival of plants.


This is an excerpt from The Muzineum's "An Intro to Saving Native Plant Seeds" available for download. This is part of The Growing Our Own Project, a year long initiative to get folks growing their own native plants!

Emily Ellingson is a MS in Applied Plant Science and Museum Studies and former Native Plant Curator at The Arboretum, State Botanical Garden of Kentucky.

Photos by Anna Campomanes

An overhead shot of a variety of seeds with a yellow filter over top