Tag Archives: seeds

a little seed viability experiment

I often talk about all the weeds that come up in the garden. But fortunately there are lots of good guys coming up nicely.

One little experiment the past two autumns and winters has been seeing how well well old seed would germinate. Many gardeners end up with a drawer full of old seed packets, and I’m definitely one of them. The little envelopes can often say something like “Packed for the 2012 season” on them, but in reality you can often get good germination from seed that’s one or more years beyond the “buy by” date. Depending on the species, if you keep the unused seed dark, dry and fairly cool, you can let you have excellent results for several years to come. For this highly unscientific test I tried out seeds of several California natives:

  • Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
  • Chia (Salvia columbariae)
  • Scarlet bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius)
  • Showy penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis)
  • Parry’s phacelia (Phacelia parryi)
  • Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla)
  • Beach evening primrose (Camissonia cheiranthifolia)

There was also a year-old, unopened packet of globe gilia (Gilia capitata) that I thought I’d lost but much later found underneath the passenger’s seat of the car. It had spent all of spring and summer and fall inside a closed-up vehicle–abysmal seed storage conditions, nothing like what you find being used in seedbanks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where temperatures are maintained around zero Fahrenheit and humidity also down near to just a few percent.

To increase chances that I’d have at least some plants I sowed the seed thicker than I might have with fresh seed. Some of it was sown directly on the surface of the garden soil. Some of it was mixed with topsoil. I tried to keep the areas somewhat moist, but I failed so that everything dried out completely more than once. Like I said, this test was highly unscientific.

So…drumroll please…

Camissonia cheiranthifolia seedlingCamissonia came up strongly.

At least two plants of the Chinese houses germinated and made it to flowering.

Unfortunately I think that the Parry’s Phacelia for the last two years have been no-shows. and I’d say the same for the two penstemons. Also the same for the baby blue eyes. It’s always possible that I mistook some of these for lookalike weeds and pulled them, though–trust me–I haven’t been particularly meticulous in the weeding department!

Chia also came up pretty well, though not nearly as lushly as the Camissonia .

Gilia capitata seedlingsAnd remember the abused packet of globe gilia seeds? The ones that spent three seasons locked inside a car? I was expecting a big fat zero germination rate, but these came up the strongest of all. Look at all that green!

Since this test was so randomly conducted you can’t really write off that Nemophila, Phacelia and Penstemon seed is short-lived. It really could have been my rough conditions for germinating seeds that kept them from coming up. But the Camissonia, chia, Collinsia and–most spectacularly–Gilia not only will come up when they’re a little stale, but are also a little more immune to less-than-ideal germination conditions–like out in nature.

New seed packetsArmed with this information I picked up some marked-down seed at this fall’s native plant sale, some of last year’s stock that had been marked down to half. Call me cheap. Call me curious. But if I’m successful this spring could be pretty flowery in the garden. Wish me luck!

And what kind of success have you had with old lots of seeds?

from seed, the labor-intensive version

While my last post was dedicated to an easy seed propagation project, this one details a couple that were a little more labor-intensive. Still not hard, just a little bit more work to pull off.

Sarracenia Night Sky, a hybrid of S. leucophylla and S. rubra gulfensis.

I’ve posted about my pitcher plants a few times before–Sarracenia species from the American South and some hybrids–and this is the first year I’ve tried sowing my own seed. All eight species (or nine, or ten or eleven, depending on the expert you listen to) are inter-fertile, and hybrids between all of them are possible and have been made at one time or another. The hybrids, too, are generally fertile, and you can go crazy with the genetic possibilities.

Sarracenia Dainas Delight, a complex hybrid of S. xWillissii and S. leucophylla.

For creative sorts you can arrange garden plants in interesting ways, but with this genus you could also design the very plants that you grow. If you live in the heart of pitcher plant country, this might be a problem. Bees could carry pollen from your hybrid plants to nearby native species and create some new unnatural hybrids. But the genus never crossed to this side of the Mississippi River so Californians can play Doctor Frankenstein all they want without worrying about messing with the native population beyond our castle walls.

A ripe Sarracenia flava seed pod, picked mid-November.
Mature seed pod of Sarracenia flava.

So…I began in the spring making some hybrids, and the pods began to ripen in August, with the last pods just finishing up ripening right about now.

Closeup of the previous Sarracenia flava seedpod. This one contained almost 500 seeds. You can see them practically jumping out of the pod.

The seeds require a cool, damp period in order to germinate. I emptied the pods and put the seed in a plastic bag with a few strands of moist chopped sphagnum moss, one bag for each cross. And into the fridge they went for four weeks.

After this period of cold stratification I sowed the seed on the surface of chopped sphagnum moss which I’d layered on the top of post filled 50/50 with a sand/peat mixture.

Next, I put the pots into a clear plastic box, poured in half an inch of standing rainwater, closed the lid, and put them near a window that faces south-southeast. If everything goes well–and it looks like it did–the seedlings begin to emerge in two to four weeks. Warmish weather is best, though you don’t have to be too fanatical. This batch experienced the recent 90- to 100-degree days as well as many cooler days in the 60s. As long as the seed think it’s spring, they’ll begin to germinate.

That’s pretty much it. Some people place the seedlings under constant bright lights and 70-plus degree temperatures for up to three years to speed them up to maturity. I’m hoping that bright daylight in a warmish interior spot will give them enough of a boost that I don’t have to resort to the equivalent of putting the plants on steroids.

Yearling sarracenia seedlings of the cross S. (Melanorhoda, Triffid Park x rosea luteola).

And here you see the reason why people might try to accelerate growth. These are year-old seedlings from a cross by Brooks Garcia that I sowed a year ago, thinking I’d practice on someone else’s cross before attempting my own. I grew these in my unheated greenhouse which has fairly low, less-than-ideal lighting conditions. They did get some bottom heat during the coldest months of the year.

Drosophyllum lusitanicum, a couple months old.

The other carnivorous plants I’m propagating this fall are of this Mediterranean-region species, Drosophyllum lusitanicum. While virtually all carnivorous plants are creatures of swamps and bogs, this one is unique in that it comes from fairly dry areas with be limited summer rainfall. Unlike the preceding sarracenia bog plants, this species could actually thrive in California’s wet-winter, dry-summer climate without too much additional life support.

Its common name is “Dewy Pine” because the leaves have little tentacles tipped with sticky bug-catching fluid that looks like dew. But Barry Rice mentions a much cooler moniker: Its Portuguese name translates into “Slobbering Pine.”

This plant and the preceding Sarracenia do catch insects. It’s a contradiction I’m trying to come to terms with. I plant a lot of California native plants, which provide nectar and other food for all sorts of winged and crawling creatures. And then I have these little monsters that actively trap and consume them. Call me a man of contradictions. In the end I hope I’m doing lots more good than bad.

I only know of one seller who ships Drosophyllum so you pretty much have to grow your own from seed if you want one. (I got my seed from the seed bank of the International Carnivorous Plant Society.) The little black seeds have a hard coat that slows down germination. If you have some 220-grit sandpaper around that’s not a problem. Just lightly–and I mean lightly–rub the seed between two sheets of the sandpaper until a patch of the black seed coat is worn away to reveal the white layer underneath. Then pop them on top of the same mixture you’d use for germinating Sarracenia and keep the mix moist with good-quality water. Germination for me was about two to six weeks, no cold stratification necessary.

There you have it. With both of these kinds of plants it was a little more work than my last post growing bladderods from seed. But really, it isn’t that hard if you’re patient.

from seed, the easy version

Fall: Prime time to sow many seeds in California’s mediterranean climate. Self-sown generations of clarkia, poppies, baby blue eyes, buckwheats and lupines are showing up all around the garden.

But this year has pulled me in lots of directions and I haven’t put a lot of effort into sowing seeds. Also, part of this lack of motivation is an attempt to accept the reality that the garden is pretty full as it stands, and I try resist the delusion that a plant growing from a tiny seed won’t take up as much space as a nearly mature one from the nursery. Consequently the only active seed-sowing I’ve taken part in has been limited to two very different kinds of plants: the California-native bladderpod and some carnivorous plants.

The bladderpod was mainly an experiment. The pods that give Isomeris arborea its common name are full of seeds the size of dried peas. How easy would they be from seed?

Very easy, as it turns out. I opened up a couple pods and buried the seeds about a quarter to half inch in these pots just two weeks ago. Here they are, showing almost 100% germination and phenomenal seedling vigor.

The more upright of my two young bladderpod plants

Now that I see they’re really easy from seed I can check out the other thing thing I was curious about. I have two bladderpods in the garden. One is slow-growing but is assuming a nice upright posture. The other is an exuberant floppy mess of green-gray leaves and yellow flowers. Both forms have their use in the garden, but I was really hoping for more upright growth patterns when I put them in the garden.

My seedlings come from the more upright plant, so we’ll see whether they follow mom’s growth habits when placed in various locations around the yard. Is the difference in growth habit nature or nurture? Might I have a consistently strain of upright-growing bladderpods on my hands?

In the native plant community growing specific strains or cultivars is often looked down upon as reducing natural variation and dumbing down the gene pool. But in the garden it’s useful to know what kind of plant you’re getting. A gardener might be disappointed to end up with a low mound instead of an open upright shrub. The customer might never buy another native plant again and instead fill their yard with hydrangeas. They’d spend thousands of gallons watering their hydrangeas, there’d be no more water for people and plants, and civilization as we know it would collapse.

Anyway, so far this has been really easy. Next post I’ll look at my more high energy-input efforts to grow some carnivorous plants from seed.

birthday seed-card

A card showed up at my desk, a few days early for my official birthday. Some people can restrain themselves from opening cards until the appointed day, but I’m not one of them!

Birthday Card 2009

The card was one of those that has wildflower seeds incorporated into the paper’s fibers–Maybe you’ve seen them? The basic idea is that you can enjoy the card, and then plant the pieces of paper and end up with flowering plants as the seeds germinate and grow. I really like the idea.

Tree-Free Greetings of Swanzey, New Hampshire made the card, and the back of the card lists the species of seeds: sweet william, pinks, rocket larkspur, candytuft, baby blue eyes, corn poppy, forget-me-not, wallflower, columbine, zinnia, lemon mint, five spot, catchfly, English daisy, sweet alyssum, spurred snapdragon and black eyed Susan. At least two of them I recognize as being California wildflowers, baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) and five spot (Nemophila maculata).

After my real birthday, I’ll plan on cutting up the paper containing the seeds, putting a small piece in each of several little pots, covering the paper with a fine layer of seed mix, watering them in, and seeing what comes up. I’ve always wondered what effect paper-making–a wet process–has on the viability of the seeds that are incorporated into the pulp. By now you probably know how much I like little experiments and adventures like this. This should be fun–I’ll keep you all posted!

baccharis season

Baccharis in seed medium view

This has been one of the most spectacular years I can remember for coyote bush brush, Baccharis pilularis.

Hillside with baccharis pilularis with seed

With many plants still dormant from a long season with no rain, the perky green baccharis with their over the top heads of white seeds stand out. They look especially amazing with the sun behind them, lighting up the masses of seed.

Baccharis seedhead

Here’s a closeup of a stem swarming with seeds…

Fuzzy baccharis seedhead

…looking closer…

Baccharis seed detail

…and closer still. You can see here that the seeds are attached to the white parachutes that give the plants their white color this time of year in the wilds. These photos were taken in Tecolote Canyon, a few blocks from my house, this past Friday, one day before our first measurable rainfall in 164 days knocked many of these seeds off the plants.

Coyote bush brush is sometimes used in native gardens, occasionally in this upright form, but more often in its prostrate Central California coastal form. The selections ‘Pigeon Point’ and ‘Twin Peaks’ are fairly popular. But if you grow the these selections you’ll find that only male plants are used horticulturally, meaning you’ll miss out on this display of seed heads that can begin in late summer and last until the winds and rains disperse them.

Male baccharis

For contrast, this is a boy coyote bush brush, sturdy and green with no supplemental water here near the coast. The buckwheats and sage and sagebrush have all retreated to their dormant gray late summer coloration all around him.

Male baccharis closup

And a closeup of his dried flowers. Nothing nearly so spectacular as his sisters this time of year. But he’s got one advantage in that he’s not filling the air with parachutes of seed blowing everywhere like his messy sisters.

Male or female, coyote bush brush plays host to more interesting beneficial local bugs than you’ll see on almost any other plant. I’ll be starting some of these from seed this year in hopes of getting one of these spectacularly messy female plants. Down-wind four houses from me is the canyon, so seed dispersal shouldn’t be a problem.

For further reading: In Praise of Baccharis pilularis, at Town Mouse and Country Mouse.

“satisfactory germination”


Last spring’s trip to the Santa Ysabel Preserve introduced me to chaparral whitethorn in full bloom. This plant, Ceanothus leucodermis, has a reputation for being a touchy garden subject. But seeing its pale blue flowers set off against a plant with glowing white bark made me want to see if I might be able to grow it where I live, two thousand feet lower in elevation and much nearer the coast.

I was intrigued when the Theodore Payne seed listing offered it. One seed packet might give me several plants to try for not too much expense. Maybe one of the plants would end up in the spot in the garden that would make it happy.

Dara Emery book cover

The first challenge you face when a packet of seeds arrive is to get them to germinate. I was afraid that a plant that’s hard to grow might also be difficult to germinate, so I went to Dara Emory’s handy resource, Seed Propagation of California Native Plants for assistance. There she recommends two special treatments for the seed: boiling water treatment, followed by 1-3 months of stratification. But there was a sentence that made the process sound easier than that: “Hot water only may give satisfactory germination.”

The tinkerer in me took that as an opportunity to conduct another little garden experiment. I divided the seeds into three lots. Most went right back into the packet they came it–It was way too many seeds for me to contemplate dealing with, even if the germination rate was spotty.

I poured a small quantity of rapidly boiling water on the other two seed batches. Dousing with boiling water ordinarily would kill many living things. The first time you do it with seeds, it’s an act that you carry out trusting those who went before you, even as the act itself seems counterintuitive and reckless.

The ceanothus seeds made strange crackling noises when the hot water hit. They have incredibly hard seed coverings, so the crackling was the sound of the seed coats being breached. I let the water cool, and then placed most of the experimental subjects in moist peat moss, and wrapped them up in a ziploc bag for some hibernation in the veggie crisper drawer of the fridge. I saved out nine seeds which escaped the refrigerator treatment. Those went straight into seedling mix in pots that I kept watered on the floor of my unheated greenhouse, which is pretty close to being placed in a a bright spot outdoors.

That was August 1, and within 3 weeks I was beginning to see sprouting seeds. Considering that I could probably make space for three or so plants, this definitely constituted “satisfactory germination.”

I guess I was so happy with the seeds that didn’t receive cold treatment that I forgot about the seeds in the fridge. When I finally checked on them a month ago practically every seed had sprouted and was showing long green seed leaves reaching for a sun that didn’t exist in the refrigerator.

Ceanothus leucodermis seedlings

Now with all these seedlings I’m feeling like I’m running a botanical puppy mill. What will I do with all these plants? Of course, I doubt all of them will survive. (What culture was it where children were only named after they had reached their first birthday?) But there will be a few more plants than I’ll need.

Well, I suppose I could donate the spares to next year’s native plant society’s sale–but that’s not until October of 2010. And I could see if any of the members might be interested in swapping for some of their own spare plants hat I’d be interested in…

seeds for the fall planting season

The current house project reached a milestone, with us getting reaching the waterproof house wrap stage, ready for the siding. What this really means is that it’s no longer a race against the start of the fall rains to get this far. I can slow down a bit and get back to some things in the garden.

The cool, shortening work days signal that the fall planting season is approaching. As in the past I have new plants I’d like to try growing from seed. Consulting the really handy Seed Propagation of Native California Plants by Dara E. Emery, I see that the author recommends planting annuals by the end of October, and sowing lupines by October 15. So it’s really time to get myself in gear.


I’ve already received my order from Theodore Payne Foundation, mostly annuals, most of them plants that I looked at during the winter and spring blooming season and decided to try. I saw this plant combination at the Tree of Life Nursery on my last visit. I liked how the plants looked together, and added two of the three plants to my order: the gorgeous deep purple Parry’s phacelia, Phacelia parryi, and the perky yellow desert marigold, Baileya multiradiata. Another plant I scoped out on my spring treks was the stinging lupine, Lupinus hirsutissimus, and the Payne Foundation catalog had it. The pink, purple and yellow flowers of the three species should play well together. It won’t be anything too subtle, but what do you want out of springtime flowers?

Another interesting catalog, one that I’m looking at is Ginny Hunt’s Seedhunt. She’s got over forty sages from around the world, a dozen unusual restios from South Africa, and a nice representation of California natives. The latter include an attractive cream variant on the normally orange rancher’s fiddleneck, Amsinckia vernicosa var. furcata ‘Griswold Hills,’ along with some of the neat tarweeds, hemizonia, seven different clarkias, the less common Salvia carduacea, as well as the stinging lupine and Parry’s phacelia that I’ve already got.

Where many catalogs offer species and hybrid populations where the population’s traits have been fixed through several generations of selfing and sibling crosses, Seedhunt’s listing includes seed mixes of what appear to be open-pollinated agastaches and dahlias. If you have a sense of adventure mixes like this are a brave way to go. Because the exact pollen parents aren’t known, the plants that you get will show a certain amount of variation. The downside is that the plant size, exact flower color and maybe their size and shape your plants might not fit neatly with their neighbors in a manicured border. The fun part about this is that you’ll get a plant that’s not exactly like someone else’s. If you like adventure, this might be just the thing.

Seeds from Payne Foundation

So this next week I hope to get at least some these seeds in pots or in the ground. It’ll be a great break from all the house projects. And Saturday the San Diego chapter of the California Native Plant Society is having their big plant sale of the year at Balboa Park. I’m not sure I’ll have time to plant a couple dozen new plants, but I’ll plan on checking things out and seeing what calls my name. There’s always time to look at plants.

mostly words

My winter pile of plant and seed catalogs contains one that doesn’t fit the usual model. Instead of page after page of gorgeous soft-core pornographic photos and drawings of plants in brawny full leaf and buxom full bloom, the J.L. Hudson Seedsman catalog takes the form of a tight 95 pages of black-on-white text and only twenty-five small line drawings for illustrations.


This is a catalog all about words. It could well change your expectations of what a seed catalog should be. It’s listed as an “ethnobotanical catalog of seeds,” and you can sit down with it and read it like a novel. Most of the seeds descriptions come with a sentence or two of cultural trivia about the plant, mostly about how one of the world’s societies uses that plant. I’ve been finding that this is the catalog that I’ve been spending the most time with this year.


In addition to the interesting catalog copy, you start to notice that the text itself is gorgeous in the way it sits on the page. I was trying to place the special quality it has when I finally noticed on the last page an interesting statement: “This publication was typeset entirely without the use of computers.”

No computers? In 2009? So retro it’s avant-garde, like albums released on vinyl. But worry not. They also have an online presence.

This is definitely a catalog with attitude. It’s also a catalog with a purpose, a purpose that’s well documented in a statement on their website, a purpose that’s in line with their self-description as a “public access seed bank.” You can also start to understand the purpose when you look at the titles of the brief selection of books offered in the back of the catalog.

One of the works, Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, has a writeup that includes the statement, “We have all heard the breathless tales of the dangers of ‘invasive alien species,’ but what does science say about them? …In all cases… introduced species have increased biological diversity.”

Another title, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, gets a long writeup that includes the impassioned lines, “Most U.S. environmentalists are completely opposed to the aims of fascism, but reactionary forces have begun to bend ecological themes towards these very ends. Only through knowledge may we prevent this perversion of environmentalism.”

Once you understand where the catalog is coming from, you’ll start to understand the almost willful attitude that would drive them to offer seed of black mustard, one of the plants that has taken over much of the local ecosystem and has few friends among the plant people I know. And one of the recent online catalog supplements had seed for Arundo donax, a plant that has taken over some important local riparian habitats. Why don’t you just dump plutonium in your garden? Hmmmm…Does that make me an ecofascist?

You don’t have to agree with everything you see in the catalog, and you don’t have to buy anything out of it. But this is one publication that’s a must read if you’d like to get yourself thinking instead of all hot and bothered over the usual pretty pictures!