It's Seed Season

The Mission Blue Nursery's seed inventory? - well, it's important! Seeds are the primary source of the majority of stock used for restoration plantings. Ildiko, our Nursery Manager, shares her process - it involves hours of hiking plus knowing where and when to search for choice seed stock. And what is a seed? Ildiko invokes her primal sense of plants and seeds - from a time when plant knowledge meant survival.

Ildiko Polony joined Mountain Watch in September 2015 as Nursery Manager for our Mission Blue Nursery. Ildiko brought renewed enthusiasm and creativity to successfully promoting the nursery and the use of California natives. Her efforts have literally paid off! See the Mountain Watch Welcomes New Stewards feature for more information on Ildiko.

Seeds. It’s amazing to ponder this little mono-syllabic word and not know where to begin. There is so much I could say about seeds. Their diversity is astounding, from a giant Buckeye nut to the barely visible speck of a single Bee Plant seed. Their presentation is equally varied. From the lofty, bright and spherical head of California dandelion, waiting for the wind to send their seed aloft, to the small upturned cups that give Fringe Cup its name. There’s the seed that begs to be eaten - Islais cherry, Thimbleberry, Osoberry, Beach Strawberry (yes we can eat these too!), and the seed that truly appreciates being cached by jays, squirrels, and others - like acorns. And yet, despite this non-uniformity, no matter how urbanized we are, it seems it only takes a short time for us modern humans to get a sense of what a seed is.

Seed processing at the office - oh boy!

Seed processing at the office - oh boy!

seed screening

seed screening

After a few hours of hiking the mountain with envelops, pens, my reference book "A Flora of the San Bruno Mountains" and a notepad, I’ll head back to the Mountain Watch office. I will have a stack of envelops labeled with species, date and location and sometimes the random note I scribbled - noting something I found unusual, or an instruction to myself for next year - “come back earlier!” The seed will be set to dry and then will come with me to the next volunteer work day where I’ll put the seed on the table in front of the big cushy couch for volunteers to sit with giant mixing bowls on their laps and various sieves at their feet, to clean this precious blueprint for future generations of plants. The first step in restoring future habitat.

Purple needle grass seeds -  Stipa pulchra

Purple needle grass seeds - Stipa pulchra

This is not an activity for the advanced botanist or seasoned naturalist. Newbies clean seed too. The first question we ask ourselves is, “what is the seed?” And somehow we seem to find the answer, even if it's a species that no one has seen the seed before. And no, there’s no wi-fi at the Nursery. We simply look for something heavier than the dried flower parts, something uniform, something numerous, something hard… I’m realizing as I write this that, yes, these seem to be common seed criteria, but its taken me 4 years of seed cleaning to articulate what exactly it is that I’m looking for when trying to “find the seed.” This is because it hasn’t needed to be articulated - you just kinda know.

Here’s where I get really excited. This knowing harkens back to a time in human history and evolution when we had to know - when knowing meant the difference between eating the wrong plant that poisoned you and eating the right plant that nourished you. It must be hardwired into our DNA to have the ability to identify plants and their parts, just as fight or flight is an innate instinct when faced with a threat. I love discovering this instinct for the natural world inside of myself. It shows that our humanity is more than the accumulation of facts, the application of these facts onto the world around us and the advancement of technology for our own benefit through this accumulation and application. Our humanity isn’t just that we are the “smartest.” Our humanity includes instincts as subtle as the sense for a seed.

Maturing seed pods of Mission Bells -  Fritillaria affinis

Maturing seed pods of Mission Bells - Fritillaria affinis

What is sensing a seed? It is a tactile experience. It is a small experience. It is working with minutia and with something that does not make noise, does not demand attention, doesn’t even really move, though it does change. Slowly. Seeds make you slow down. Watching a plant from emerging flower stalk, to bud, to blow-out bloom, to shuttering and wilting, to seed plump and softly forming within the flowers dying petals, to the browning of the seed and the falling of the petals, is a slow joy. One that subtly takes place over a few weeks or months, depending on the species – and you don’t quite know where its going, because each season is different, each location is different and each plant is different, but then at the same time, you do know. The flower will die and if its ovary was pollinated, a seed will form. You might be lucky enough to collect this seed, or an animal or insect might get to it before you do. Each potential ripening is also an opportunity for learning. 

Learning through observation. Learning through experience. So often we learn by being told. An expert stands in front of us and tells us what is so, or we read about it from some other authoritative source. While giving a Nursery tour to a group of 8-12 year olds from Mission Blue Camp, I was being that “expert” in front of rows of children sitting at my feet in the sun, surrounded by blooming clarkias, trying to explain to them the concept of “ecology.” They listened and seemed to be engaged. One little boy raised his hand, excited. I expected a question. “This flower is pink, but inside it has dark pink and white and a dark spot and a tall thing that sticks up and some other little smaller white things….” He was so excited about the intricacies of this small flower that he wanted to share his findings with the group.

It is this still observance that is the more powerful teacher. It is personal. It is ultimately what teaches us what is a seed, and taught us back when we had to know, what is poisonous and what isn’t. It is a skill that we don’t often get to employ, but that is so naturally put into use when given the chance. In this case the child was given the chance when he was told to sit and pay attention to the speaker. He happened to sit in front of a flower. I ache for this kind of sitting. In this world of linear “progress” where success means having more than you did last year, which often means working harder than you did the year before, where we are continuously bombarded by digital devices demanding our attention, whether it is the one we hold in our hands or the flashing billboard off the highway. We are so busy doing and achieving and fighting to keep up with the Joneses, or just struggling to survive, and this takes a psychological toll. We are lonely, overworked, and under-slept. 

The plants and their seed offer me a continual reminder to slow down. They remind me that my “achievements” only matter insofar as they make me happy, as they feed my deeper self. And how can I know this deeper self if I am constantly in a rush to the next best thing? The plants in their quiet offerings of never ending discoveries bring me closer to something deeper; to that innate thing; that part of our humanity that is a part of the natural world. And the proof, to me, that I am part of the natural world is in the simple fact that it took 4 years, until writing this very piece, for me to actually articulate how to recognize a seed, because you just kinda know. We know because on some deep level we speak the same language. Woman and Man, Plant and Animal.

You’re welcome to join me on seed collection hikes. Collection within County lands requires a permit, which as a Restoration Grower, Mission Blue Nursery has. Also, we have a backlog of seed to clean, come to our volunteer workdays 10-12:30 every Wednesday and help! We’ll also be potting up plants, sowing seed, tending the demonstration garden and other odd Nursery work. Contact for more information.