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Native Seed Bank encourages Oklahoma amateur wildflower seed collectors

Brandon Gibson collects a rattlesnake master seedhead for the Tribal Alliance for Pollinators seed bank.
Kelly J Bostian
Brandon Gibson collects a rattlesnake master seedhead for the Tribal Alliance for Pollinators seed bank.

Oklahoma’s notorious deep freeze to big-thaw winter extremes are working magic for those who scattered perennial wildflowers earlier this season. Still, options remain for those who haven’t started this season.

Whether it’s for your yard, a meadow, or as part of a prairie restoration project, some steps are necessary nearly every month of the year, and the Tribal Alliance for Pollinators program encourages people to collect seeds, buy seeds, and start their own patches of perennials at home.

Brandon Gibson, curator of the alliance’s growing communal native seed bank, gathers seeds in the field nearly any month of the year. But mid-winter brings time for processing the dozens of species of seeds collected and carefully controlled in-house cold stratification and record keeping on those seeds, some of which have never been manually propagated, at least not for the record.

No back-of-the-seed packet instructions for him.

While the TAP seed bank is for tribes only; it shares what it learns about wildflower propagation with as many people as possible, according to program director Jane Breckinridge.

Collect your own

“We go out and find our seeds in the real world,” Gibson said. Through the alliance and other programs, he offers training for tribal members to do the same and encourages people to team up and explore.

“Go out together and collect seeds. That’s the best way to learn, better than just listening to me blab on for 45 minutes at a program. It creates a memorable experience.”

He collects pods and other seed materials in small brown paper bags and stores them in a dry location. “Mold is our biggest fear,” he said.

The program maintains an online library with seed lists, how-to videos, and other information at tribalallianceforpollinators.com.

The nonprofit, along with the statewide Okies for Monarchs initiative, also collaborates with Time to Restore, a program of the National Phenology Network. The program tracks climatic changes that are changing regional plant growth and blooming times. The data helps growers manage their landscapes for the arrival of migrating pollinators and other wildlife.

The network’s YouTube channel includes a Time to Restore seed collection and processing technical training session featuring Gibson, Breckinridge, and botanist Collin Spriggs. It covers every detail of the seed bank’s wildflower identification, harvest timing, seed collection, and processing steps adapted for amateurs or experts.

Okies for Monarchs lists statewide sources for locally grown native plants and seeds at okiesformonarchs.org.

Brandon Gibson collects grass and wildflower seeds.
Kelly J Bostian
KJB Outdoors
Brandon Gibson collects grass and wildflower seeds.

Stratification education

Most perennial wildflowers drop their seeds in a natural state of dormancy. Some might last for years in the soil until ideal stratification and germination conditions arrive. Stratification is the wintertime freeze-thaw process that breaks seed dormancy. Fluctuating temperatures and precipitation also make soils expand and contract. Seeds fall into tiny pores and fissures, gain soil contact, and germinate with springtime warmth.

People can mimic the process by storing seeds in a moist medium, like sand or vermiculite, in a refrigerator, then simply germinating seeds in potting soil outdoors or in a greenhouse.

Gibson said that stratification varies by plant species. February is about as late as any should start for the summer. Seeds that need only 30 days could be ready to germinate in March or early April. Some seeds require 60 days or more.

Listening to Gibson’s tales of experimentation, it becomes clear that wildflowers have their seasons, but not all need to start growing on a strict schedule, like vegetables for the annual harvest. Some, like compass flowers, take years to mature.

Trial and error is OK

Gibson said seed collectors should be mindful of property rights and ethically leave plenty of local seed sources behind. He added that finding seeds from various areas also helps with genetic diversity in your fields.

“Never take more than 20 percent of the local seeds. You need to leave plenty behind and leave some for wildlife. The goldfinches love the coneflowers, and I always let them have their fill before I collect,” Gibson said, then laughed. “Sometimes, though, it’s like, ‘OK, you’ve had enough now.”

Seed harvest time is critical, he said. Green seeds aren’t viable, but if you wait too long, they might disperse, or birds and insects will eat them.

“Usually, the right time is just when the plant basically starts to look dead,” he said.

However, he said not to give up hope if things don’t look perfect.

“The first time I found cardinal flowers, back in 2020, they were blooming near a culvert in Osage County,” he said. “I took a photo, set a GPS point, and planned to come back in about a month and a half, but it ended up being almost three months. All I could find was just a bunch of dried sticks and leaves scattered everywhere.”

Still, he collected a few sticks and labeled and dated a bag. Later, when they processed seeds in December, he even told a co-worker he doubted that bag had any seeds.

To his surprise, it yielded between 800 and 1,000 tiny seeds, each much smaller than a grain of sand. “It was just a little patch in the palm of your hand,” he said. “We grew 700 cardinal flower plant plugs from that first bunch.”

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