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The challenge with seeds is to collect or produce seeds of known origin and species, that will have high germination rates and produce plants true to type. Seeds must always be handled carefully, kept cool, stored dry and labeled properly.
Seed growing is a special section of the horticulture trade. Most seed growers are especially fussy people, with very tidy farms and buildings. Diseases can be carried over on or in seeds, and weed seeds mixed in the lot can downgrade the whole batch. For collectors and growers of smaller volumes, there may be some laxity in the rules, we must, however, strive to keep up the quality especially and look to the future for growth in this area.
For most species it will be easier to control if you cultivate the plants and harvest the seeds from your own nice neat, handy rows of plants. Some plants are so common that this may not be the best way for them. American Elms, for instance are grown in large numbers all over the city of Edmonton and it should be easy enough to find a good source for a volume of this seed without having to grow your own trees. This question may need to be researched more fully to determine the economics of cultivation vs wild collecting for all the various plants that we are interested in.
In general a healthy, vigorous plant will produce the most, best seed. Too much nitrogen fertilizer will delay development and reduce seed set, as will inclement weather at pollination time.
You can lose a large proportion of your seed to the weather if it is blown or washed away just before you are ready to pick it. Timing is important. It’s always better to let the seed mature as long as possible on the plant before harvesting, but you can sometimes pick it early and let it finish off in a warm, sunny place. Usually you are collecting the whole seed head, panicle, branchlet or other larger structure and you will clean out the seed later, once everything is fully dried and you have time for processing. Often you are in a rush to collect as much seed as possible on the spot, when it is ready, and you don’t have time to clean it as you go.
Be sure to label everything you collect and include the date and place of collection as well as the species. If you harvest into paper bags you reduce the risk of the seed going moldy in the bag. Most seed will still have a high water content when you pick it so you need to dry it for a further few weeks before you start processing it. There is a large variety of tools and equipment for harvesting seed, depending on what type of plant you are working with. There also clippers and scoops on long sticks for collecting from tall trees. Since this is a relatively new industry there are lots of home-made devices so feel free to develop your own preferred tools.
Once the seed is dried, you will need to remove the seed capsules, twigs, bracts, etc, to give you nice clean uniform seed. The seed cleaners can be expensive and most collectors would not want to purchase these. There are several small scale options, however.
Start by breaking up the seed capsules, pods, etc, to release the seed. Don’t worry if you mix in the chaff with the seed. Then you have to screen out the particles that are larger or smaller than the seed. The easiest screens to find are window screens, colanders and tea strainers with varying sizes of mesh. Arrange them so that the largest holes are at the top of the stack and the smallest holes at the bottom, then just pass your seed and chaff mixture through the stack. The seed should get caught at one level and the remainder should either be at the top or fall out through the bottom.
Usually the chaff is lighter than the seed so you can winnow it. Lay out the mixture in a flat pan, fling it gently into the air and catch it again in the pan. The lighter chaff will blow away and the heavy seed will fall straight back down into your pan. This works well on moderately windy days. If you do this over the garden plot, any seed that does escape may find a home and start to grow next year anyway. The seed cleaning machines use a screens, blowers and shakers to separate the seed from the chaff. It’s the same method, just mechanized.
There’s an other type of machine for cleaning pulpy seeds like Saskatoons or Silver Berry. It works like a centrifugal washing machine where you mix the seeds with lots of water and you agitate them until the pulp comes off, then when you spin the whole mess, the pulp is washed through the screens on the side of the tub and the larger seed gets caught inside. When you’re done you have lots of clean seed inside the machine and all the pulp is gone. You can copy this method at home with a blender, lots of changes of water and a small screen. You will need to dry the seeds again before putting them away.
Seeds should be stored cool and dry. Species that normally survive our cold winters are best stored in the freezer until use. Less hardy types should be stored in the fridge at least. Cold storage rooms can be useful of the temperature stays fairly uniform. The garage is not a good storage place because the temperature varies quite a lot over the winter.
The seeds should also be sealed into plastic bags or jars with lids so that the moisture in the seed does not escape and so that they do not pick up extra moisture from their surroundings. Properly stored seed can still be viable many years after they are picked. Be sure to label everything clearly so you can find what you want later on. Try putting a label on the outside of the bag and another one inside with the seed just in case.
Many flowers produce seed prolifically. Some that are rare plants, or maybe only produce a few seeds at a time would be worth relatively more. All seeds are valuable, however, and it is worth collecting even common marigold seeds for our own purposes. The seed houses offer named varieties that will produce exactly the flowers described in the catalogues. The at home other end of the scale are known as “open pollinated”, that is, they are not produced from strictly controlled crosses between known parent plants, and the result can be unexpected, or maybe just common, like pink cosmos.
Some plants are not self-fertile, and will not produce an identical plant from the seed. Sunflowers, for instance, need to be cross pollinated with another sunflower of the same variety and for fancy varieties, it is difficult to maintain the best colours without hand pollinating and then covering the heads. Larkspur and Lupines will cross pollinate and the second generation will revert back to a simple colour, blue for larkspur, and pink for lupines.
Try poppies, irises and Nigella. Poppy seed of the right type can be used for cooking too. Seed from almost any flower will be worth collecting. Rare plants, or hard to find varieties are in relatively higher demand. Seeds from the ornamental grasses are sometimes expensive and rare and so it would definitely be worth collecting seed.
Don’t let the seed get frozen in the fall. You must leave it on the plant long enough to be fully mature, but you also have to watch out for frost, especially when the seed is immature, and has a higher water content. This applies especially to non-hardy plants like garden annuals. You won’t have this problem with native plants or plants that normally self sow like Dill or Bachelor Buttons.
Use any good gardening book to identify flowers, trees, herbs, etc. The University of Alberta has a very good series of books, The Prairie Gardening Series which includes the following titles: Insect Pests of the Prairies, Perennials for the Prairies, Rose Gardening on the Prairies, Woody Ornamentals for the Prairies, Annuals for the Prairies, and a Home Gardening Course. These are available at many garden centres and book stores or you can order directly from the University of Alberta, phone 492-9273, or write to University Bookstore, University Extension Centre, 8303 – 112 ST, Edmonton, AB. T6G 2T4.
In general the seeds are mature and ready to collect with the pods or seed cases are, firm, usually brown or light tan coloured and sometimes you can hear the mature, hard seed shaking around inside. Open up some seed cases and have a look. The seed itself should be firm and not green or soft.
ANNUAL AND PERENNIAL FLOWERS FOR SEED PRODUCTION
Chinese Lantern Physalis alkekengi
Clematis Clematis spp.
Columbine Columbine spp.
Dutch Lace Ammobium
|Gaillardia aristata and others|
Globe Thistle Echinops ritro
Gold Button Pentzia, Cotula
Iris Iris spp.
Love in a Mist
GRAINS AND GRASSES
It is the unusual varieties that are more interesting. Try the old varieties of Black Awned Durum like Pellissier, Wakooma or Italian or Polish Wheat. Also watch for any rare or unusual cultivars of crop plants. Check your local agricultural demonstration and research field plots for new varieties and look for ancestral types with unusual forms or colours.
There is an interesting old wheat, (Triticum turgidum), that has black awns and black seed coats, glumes. Sometimes the glumes are completely black and sometimes they’re mottled. Either variety is very unusual looking and will sell well.
GRAINS AND GRASSES FOR SEED PRODUCTION
- Bunny Tails
- Lagarus ovatus
- Fountain Grass
- Ornamental Grasses
- Quaking Grass
- Briza maxima
round leaved type
- Triticum aestivum
- Black Awned Wheats
- Black Awn/Black Glume Wheat Triticum turgidum
- Ancestral Wheats
- New Wheats
There are many varieties of herbs that produce seed easily. Some species like oregano, thyme and marjoram have very tiny seed so handle these carefully. Others, like catnip, chives, hyssop and anise hyssop will give you large volumes of shiny black seeds if left long enough to mature. Plants in the mustard family (Cruciferae) often produce large seed in a reasonable volume. Try Arugula, Yellow and Brown Mustard, and Pepper Cress.
HERBS FOR SEED PRODUCTION
For the true native plant enthusiasts if you grow yarrow from seed stock that you bought from Richters (Ontario), or in a wild flower seed mix (probably US), then it can’t be considered a native Alberta plant. In a recent case, in Saskatchewan, the customer turned down a non-native species at $60/pound in favor of a documented native sourced seed at $600/pound.
Most native flowers, grasses and woody plants are of interest. The Alberta Native Plant Council has developed guidelines for collecting seeds from the wild. See the attached article. In general you must not collect more than more than 10 % of the seed in any one stand. Never dig up a plant, unless it is due to be made into a roadway soon anyway. Be kind to the environment. It is in your own interest to leave enough plants and seeds standing so that you can come back to the same spot next year and collect again. For these reasons, cultivating native plants is an environmentally friendly way to secure a good supply.
For native plants especially, it is very important to record where and when the seed was collected and to correctly identify the species. If you are not sure of the species, collect a piece of stem with leaves and the whole flower head, so that you can identify it later.
The following list is recommended but not exclusive, there are hundreds of native plants worth cultivating.
NATIVE PLANTS FOR SEED PRODUCTION
To identify native plants and flowers, there are many good field manuals, and texts available. We use “Budd’s Flora of the Canadian Prairie Provinces” Agriculture Canada. 1987. Available from University of Alberta Bookstore (About $85.), or by mail from Canadian Government Publishing Centre, Supply and Services Canada, Hull, Quebec, K1A 0S9. Sometimes you can find a used copy at book stores around the university. Check with former Agriculture and Forestry students.
TREES & SHRUBS FOR SEED PRODUCTION
Seeds are a very precious resource. They are well worth the trouble of harvesting them. Everyone should be saving seed in some way or another.