by Mimi Hedl
The rain and sudden cold snap probably took the few lingering monarchs by surprise. The asters, the traditional nectac plants for fall migration, didn’t last as long as usual because of a late summer drought, so tithonia, in garden rich soil, took over the role of nectar provider. At times, fifteen to twenty monarchs slurped from one enormous tithonia. Orange on orange. What a sight. I would not plant a garden without this life-saver, in fact, at Strawdog, a dozen plants grow over the ½ acre gardens.
Last year I saved enough tithonia seed to last for many years, though I may not resist picking one or two seed pods, breaking open the prickly receptacles, and looking at the quality of the seed. For new seed savers, noticing what the seed looks like, feels like, becomes important in knowing when to pick the seed, and if the seed has become viable, i.e. fertilized and grown to full plumpness.
In dry conditions, the seed pod may grow, but you will find either no seed inside the shriveled pod, or undeveloped seed. Take a bowl out to your chosen plant, break or cut off a seed pod in the bowl, then go sit down and look at what you find inside the pod. If you don’t remember what the seed looked like when you planted it, go check out the seed packet and compare the seeds. An important rule: never plant all of any one seed. Think of yourself as a preserver of genetic material. One never knows when a seed company will discontinue offering a seed and even seed saving organizations may fail you too.
Remember that many birds eat seeds. They begin to eat the seed out of the pods before the seed ripens, so sometimes, if you don’t have many flowers, you need to net the seed pods. I love to watch the finches and sparrows pull seeds out. Have you ever noticed all the abuse poppy seed pods endure? The birds rip open those salt and pepper shakers and leave an interesting artifact, fun to put in a bouquet for a friend to decipher. It took me years to catch a bird in the act and know just what happened to that poor poppy capsule.
The house fills up with bags and bowls of seed, some partially cleaned, others waiting for the seed cleaner’s attention. I have two wooden bowls I use to winnow seed. Now I have American bell flower seed to clean. I’ll take the seed and bowls to a shady area I’d like the bell flower to grow in, when the wind seems neither too strong nor too weak. Dust-like seed of this bell flower, will blow away with a strong wind. But separating the seed from the chaff does take a bit of a breeze. I hold the bowl with the seed higher than the other bowl, and slowly pour the seed into the other bowl. You can watch the chaff blowing away and know it takes some of the seed too, so it seems wonderful to know the seed will go where you want it to.
This process will repeat itself in countless locations on the homestead. From the earliest years when I began to learn how to save seed, I always felt like an Indian maiden, out with the wind and the sun, preparing my family for the winter. My romantic streak stays with me, and now I’ve become the crone who does that work, even though I still see myself as the maiden.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching the guys up at Missouri Wildflower Nursery clean seed. They have barns filled with flower heads they feed into machines so loud you cannot stand by them and pick their brains, the guys’ brains. In fact, they stay so busy I feel grateful if one of my questions gets answered when they have to shut down the machine because it jammed. They have, over the thirty years, imparted tidbits as precious as jewels to me. How to clean individual seeds can perplex. A little experience goes a long way to enlightening neophytes. Ditto with how to propagate seed. Sometimes they use a blender to scarify seed!
For small quantities of seed, seed that will go in a packet, after I feel sure the seed has dried sufficiently, the packet will go in a plastic bag and into the freezer for a few days. This will kill any eggs laid on the seed while it dried. For larger quantities, I put the seeds in glass jars and leave them on the table on the summer kitchen. Soon enough, cold freezing weather will do the work for me. And I will leave the seed out there until spring. Perfect storage. I’ll cover the jars with a blanket to keep out the sun.
As I sit here, I pick beggar’s lice off my socks, my pants, my sweatshirt. It comes from a native legume, Desmodium canadense, also called showy trefoil (each leaflet composed of three leaves). I plow through the meadows and prairie grasses on a daily basis and always, regardless, forget I’ll pick up a slew of these seeds. Sometimes I’ll pick them off, throw them in a hot cast iron skillet, and nibble on them with a beer. They do taste good, but oh my, what a mess in the laundry!
Thankfully my wringer washer doesn’t object and when I drain the machine a good quantity of seed goes out with the water.
When someone says a name of a flower, a tree, a vegetable, my mind goes to the seed, what the seed looks like. If I don’t know the seed, I feel curious. For years I hung seed pods on nine lines near the book shelves of the library. Each line measured 10-feet long. Every new seed pod I fell in love with, would end up on the line. A Persian carpet sits under these lines, and I used to do my stretches there, and look up at the seed pods. A beautiful sight.
Last summer I decided to take them down. They had collected so much dust and I couldn’t possibly clean them. So I began, somewhat mournfully, taking down each seed pod, putting the pods in a tub, and hauling them down to the compost. When I mentioned my task to one of the textile artists down at the gallery, she foamed at the mouth. She’d love to have them. I still had five lines of seed pods left. So she came out with her boyfriend, loaded up ALL the rest of the seed pods, and hauled them back to Texas.
I still catch myself bringing in seed pods, but they stay for short periods here and there in the house, like a bouquet, and then I let them go. My mind has a full inventory of all the seed pods I’ve known, and I can go there for comfort, to see the receptacles of life.