The Big Prairie at Cooper Mountain Nature Park offers sweeping views over the Tualatin River Valley. But on a sun-scorched summer morning, Adrienne Basey, botanist and science assistant at Metro’s Native Plant Center, is focusing on the earth at her feet.
She walks through tall grass searching for Sanicula bipinnatifida, better known as purple sanicle, a native plant in the carrot family. It’s gone to seed so she can’t look for its flower.
“It’s fun when your eye picks up the pattern and you see things that were invisible a moment ago,” she says. Soon, she bends to a twiggy plant almost indistinguishable from the brown stalks around it.
“Yes!” she says. She’s there at the right time. The seed is ripe and ready to collect.
To volunteer at the Native Plant Center or to collect seeds, visit oregonmetro.gov/volunteer
This fall, 3,500 pounds of native seeds will be sown at Metro properties. In the winter, 948,000 plants, live stakes and bulbs will go into the ground. Getting ready for this massive planting operation takes years of planning, careful science and some 11th hour compromises. But it’s important work.
Collecting wild seed by hand is the first step in restoring oak woodlands, upland prairies, wetlands and other threatened ecosystems that are being preserved at Metro sites throughout the region.
At Cooper Mountain, Basey counts the individual sanicle plants, notes how much of the burr-like seed has already dispersed – it clings to the fur of passing animals – and consults her chart to see what percentage of the seed from this wild population she can collect. Only then does she gather some seed.
Next, she heads to the pond to meet Julie Hawkins, a volunteer in Metro’s Seed Scout program. Hawkins has been trained to identify wildflowers by their seedheads and carries a GPS tracker and paper bags filled with seeds of native larkspur, iris and geranium. She has volunteered to collect seeds for six years, usually at Graham Oaks Nature Park in Wilsonville near her home.
“I have some bags to check,” she tells Basey. On her last visit, Hawkins tied small mesh bags over the seed capsules of Tolmie’s cat’s ears. Since then, the pods have burst open and flung their dark brown seeds – but only as far as the mesh.
At the end of the morning, Basey takes the gathered seeds to Metro’s Native Plant Center in Tualatin, where they will be dried, cleaned, then planted and grown out to make more seeds.
“I get really excited about seeds,” says Marsha Holt-Kingsley, the coordinator of the center. “Finding unique species, then making more – to do that conservation work feels good.”
She focuses on collecting seeds that are not commercially available. Some seeds come from unique habitats where rare and specialized plants flourish, such as the spring gold or Cascade penstemon that grow on the basalt bluffs at Metro’s Willamette Narrows south of West Linn. Others, like the seeds in the mesh bags, come from plants such as the cat’s ears that are rare in the metro area because development has severely reduced their habitat.
About 300 pounds of the seeds planted this fall will come from Metro’s plant center. The rest comes from commercial growers.
Commercial nurseries also grow the native plants and woody cuttings that help reclaim territory from invasive species, lure pollinators, stabilize stream banks, create habitat and add to the food web.
Holt-Kingsley receives requests for plants and seeds from Metro’s land managers and then contracts with commercial growers to fill the orders. Sometimes, the requests must come in two or three years ahead of when the plants and seeds need to go into the ground at Metro properties, so that the nurseries have enough time to grow the plants to the required size.
George Kral, co-owner of Scholls Valley Native Nursery in Forest Grove, supplies Metro with dozens of types of plants. For example, he is growing 45,000 thimbleberry plants for Metro that will measure one to two feet when planted in the winter.
“Thimbleberry is a mainstay for us,” says Kral, as he stands near a thimbleberry hedgerow at his nursery. It’s grown from seed he collected from genetically diverse wild plants. The hedgerow attracts pollinators, including cedar waxwing birds on this day, and produces gallons of seeds each year. Nearby, nursery staff mash the scarlet berries against screens to extract the seeds. They will be cleaned, dried, tested for viability, weighed and sown in outdoor beds. In the next 14 the right size and be toughened up to withstand being taken from the ground by a mechanical lifter.
From there, the plants will go to a large shed to be sorted, counted, bundled and bagged for delivery to Metro’s industrial cooler, where plants are temporarily stored. After sorting, they will finally go out for planting in the wild.
That’s how it works in an ideal world anyway.
Kral takes Holt-Kingsley to see this summer’s crop of young thimbleberry. Half-laughing, they list some of the things that could go wrong before the plants in these neat beds make it into the earth at Metro sites this winter. The plants might:
- Grow too slow and not make size.
- Grow too big and make storage and replanting difficult and expensive.
- Be washed away by rain.
- Be fried by the sun.
- Be eaten by bugs or deer.
- Be stuck in frozen ground that’s impenetrable to the mechanical lifter.
“In everything we do, weather is an overarching factor,” Holt-Kingsley says.
As planting season nears, the long process of gathering seeds, ordering plants and waiting for them to grow will culminate in millions of seeds and plants going into the ground at Metro parks and natural areas throughout the region.
Putting it together is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, Holt-Kingsley says. “It’s very satisfying when all the pieces finally fall into place.”