Written and researched by Caitlin Ayling, MLF Nursery Liaison
In early February, I had the privilege to speak at the Landscape Ontario’s annual Nursery Grower’s Short Course, on the topic of Ontario Seed. Although this may seem like a broad subject, I was specifically speaking to the challenges and opportunities surrounding the procurement of native tree seed as it relates to nursery production. In doing so, I also discussed the broader impact this can have on our biodiversity and ecological systems moving forward in relation to climate change.
There are many reasons why our nursery growers have difficulty in sourcing native seed, the most consistent being the issue of supply shortages. This can be caused by things like loss of habitat and biodiversity due to development or invasive pest/plant species and severe climate events.
Another factor contributing to this supply issue is the loss of the Ontario Seed Bank as a reliable source for regionally appropriate collected seed. This closure increased the need for growers to explore other avenues in sourcing their seed, whether it be collecting themselves, engaging the services of a certified seed collector or purchasing seed from outside of Ontario.
Although these may seem like viable options in order to meet the demand, there are challenges in each scenario. In addition to the time and labour it requires to monitor and collect the seed, there is a need for specialized equipment for processing and storage in order to ensure good quality and viability. These additional operations can be very expensive and may not be in line with their desired volume of seed.
Alternatively, outsourcing that time and labour to a certified seed collector sounds ideal, but unfortunately, we are facing a huge decline of those with this particular knowledge and skill set.
So, why not just order seeds online from places outside of Ontario? Sounds like a reasonable option. However, in order to give that plant the best chance at survival, that seed should originate from a similar environment, or region as the final location of that planting. This where the term locally sourced seed, or source identified seed comes in. Knowing the original source, location, seed zone or environment in which that seed derived, allows for the best planting choices to be made down the line.
Why does native seed really matter?
Using source identified seed to drive planting decisions basically comes down to how the genetics of the plant can impact the survival, potential growth and reproduction of the species, as the local populations have adapted over thousands of years to become in tune with their climates. Factors like minimum winter temperatures, length of growing season and other environmental conditions can all impact the potential success or survival. So essentially, plants originating from dissimilar areas often result in low survival caused by things like heat stress, winterkill, reduced growth rate or increased pest/disease problems.
There may also be a larger impact on the role they play in supporting and enhancing biodiversity as these native species have co-evolved with the wildlife that relies on them. They have adapted and built strong symbiotic relationships that have synchronized need with provision.
To illustrate this point, think of how they have perfected the timing of flowering to coincide with local pollinators, meaning if genetically different plants, which may flower earlier, are used in these environments, they will be out of line with their essential visitors. This can create a domino effect within the ecosystem, impacting pollinator health, seed production and the other animals who rely on that food source.
What can you do at the consumer level?
With every supply issue, there is the flip side of demand. This is where you, the consumer can help to move the needle.
Begin asking those questions about where those native plants come from. Are they grown from seed? Does the grower or garden centre manager know the origin of those plants? For example; are those native maple trees grown from liners brought in from Oregon or were they propagated from seed collected within your growing region?
If we can continue to create conversations around this concept, and increase awareness of why this is so important for the future of our ecosystems, we can work to drive more demand to ensure this becomes more common practice. But we need your help!
What else can you do?
I’m glad you asked. Have you ever heard of the Certified Seed Collector’s Course? Did you know there was such a thing?
Speaking from the experience of having just completed this program, it is an incredible opportunity to contribute to this cause in a meaningful and impactful way. The course is not meant only for growers or plant propagators, and there are no educational or experiential requirements in order to take part. Outdoor enthusiasts, landowners, farmers and anyone who finds peace and connection in nature can absolutely learn how to do this important work. If you are interested in learning about the course and finding out more information I suggest you check out the Forest Gene Conservation Association website.
In the meantime, do you want to collect some maple seeds?
You have no doubt seen the seeds from maple trees, swirling and flying through the air as they drop from the trees. They go by many common names such as, ‘Helicopters, maple ‘copters, whirlybirds, twisters or whirligigs, but the technical term for this winged seed is called samara. This refers to the specialized fruit that is designed to travel long distances from its parent tree.
Regardless of what you call them, they can typically be found in abundance, assuming the tree is in good health, there were no severe weather events and pollination was successful. In a successful seed production year, it can be quite easy to collect these little helicopters for sowing your own little maple tree seedlings.
So you may be wondering when the best time would be to collect these little ‘copters. And the answer depends on the species. Sugar maple seed matures in the fall, usually from late September to early October, whereas Silver and red maple seeds mature in the spring.
When the seed is mature, the samaras are a yellowish-brown colour and generally one of the two cavities will be completely filled with a bright green embryo (the early stage of plant development). These mature seeds may persist on the tree for several weeks so the best methods for collecting are to either hand pick from the ground using rakes or to use a tarp under the trees to collect after shaking branches or natural seed fall. For more information about collecting, forecasting and storage, check out this article posted on our website.