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On a Chalk Hillside October 2019

Propagating plants to fill my garden - seeds

As I mentioned in the past two articles I grew a lot of the maquis plants from seed, particularly the various oreganos and thymes.  I thought this month I would talk a bit about collecting seed from my garden plants.
I don’t know why it comes as a bit of a shock each year, but by late July I suddenly go into a bit of a panic about collecting seed for the Hardy Plant Society seed distribution scheme.  Each year I think I’ve run out of time and each year I have to remind myself of the date by which I need to send the seed to the designated collection person.  This year I stalked up and down the garden in despair in our late July mini heatwave thinking nothing was setting seed, and collecting chive seeds “as a back-up in case I don’t find anything more interesting to send”.  Now this is irrational on two counts:- 1) the HPS says that just because you have a lot of a particular plant and it is easy to grow in your conditions, doesn’t mean other people find it the same and they will be pleased to have the seed; 2) I discovered when I checked that I have til the end of October to send the seed.  Phew.  
I don’t just collect seed to send to the HPS, as the shelves in my utility will attest.  I collect a lot of seed, both bean seeds and other veg for resowing in our veg plot, as well as ornamentals seed.   I rarely set off from the house all kitted up for seed collection, as you have to happen upon a plant in the right state of readiness for seed to be collected, so I quite often end up with a pocket full of bigger seeds or seedheads which I have to remember are in there when I get back to the house.  If I don’t remember to take labelling equipment with me I usually clip a leaf or flower to put in the bag or pot with the seeds being collected to help me remember which seed is which when I get back to the house.  I expect you think that’s overkill, but if you collect several different pots of seed, or get distracted by another job before you label them back at the house the memory fails (or is that just me).  In order to send the seed to the HPS it needs to have its “proper” name attached, and I rarely remember what that is when I am down the garden.  E.g. as you can see I have a big pot of fluffy seeds in the utility waiting cleaning with their grey holly-shaped leaf in with them so I remember it’s the daisy bush from the shrubbery.

By the time I send this article to the HPS I will have looked up its latin name.  (Olearia macrodonta – New Zealand Holly.)    By “cleaning up” I don’t just mean taking the fluffy bits off the stalks, but separating the fluffy bits from the actual seeds which is extremely fiddly as the seed is designed to stay attached to its fluffy parachute as it floats away and comes to rest somewhere else to germinate.  (Like dandelions, or the valerian seed in the pot top left of the above photo).  However, the Hardy Plant Society want the seed NOT the parachute and other detritus, so I do my best.   Fortunately very hardworking and patient HPS volunteers go over my homework and reclean my seed before putting it into the little envelopes for distribution.   
Three plants that extort blood and pain to get their seeds are bears breeches, the cardoon and vipers bugloss.  The cardoon seed head, see below, looks like a hedgehog and feels as prickly:-

The seeds are at the base of all that “fluff” (which is like the sort of fine spines of cactus), and trying to break it apart to get to them is painful.  If you can get to it when it is “ripe” (and before the gold finches strip the seeds off in the winter) you can use gloves and pull the stars out you see a couple of – the seeds are hopefully attached to these.  You usually have to bin the gloves afterwards as you can’t see the spines stuck in them, but you can feel them!  
The bears breeches (Acanthus Mollis in this instance) have very fine seed pods on their very fine stems of flowers, but as we all know the plant is very scratchy and jaggedy to touch, and even when it begins to fade as here in mid-September, you put your hand out to it at your peril:-

I think the most galling thing for me is even after you’ve let these seed pods ripen on the plant and risked your hands trying to get to them not every seed pod seems to have any seeds in.  

Here is a viper’s bugloss plant in the veg garden being allowed to set seed:-

You would think it would be easy to extract those big black seeds wouldn’t you?  Oh no.  This plant is evolved to be spikey and unpleasant to touch to stop grazers eating it in the chalk grassland it lives on naturally.  Even if you cut the whole frond and let it die back to brown it doesn’t release the seed and you have to prize each one out of its casing separately – with some discomfort to your skin as it is too fiddly for me to use gloves to do it.  I assume the idea is that it is rough enough to catch onto hairy coats of animals and be spread that way, much like the seed of wood avens (Geum urbanum) which are very hooked, and catch on your clothing and stay, even through a washing machine cycle – see below with seedheads from Geranium x johnsonii ‘Johnson’s Blue’ at the end of July:-

Which brings me on to what part of the “seedhead” is actually seed.  Now, this is probably obvious to you but not necessarily to me.  To show you another geranium which I know sets viable seeds as it seeds itself round my garden – here are the seedheads of Geranium endressii:-

You can see from this why they are called crane’s bills – the shape of the seedhead resembles a crane’s bill.  I thought the sticky out black bit was the part that held the seed and that it splits open and flings the seed out.  However, I’ve never found any seed in there, even if I do get to it before it splits….?  Here’s a more standard seedhead configuration on a Silene vulgaris:-

As you can see the attractive seedhead has a papery outer case which if you peel away has a hard inner seedcase.  If you open the hard case:-

You can see the ripe seed within.  Obviously to ensure your seed is viable you need to collect it when it is ripe.  Easier said than done with wind dispersed seed – how many times have I been just too late to collect something – I had been keeping an eye on this purple vetch (Vicia Sativa) flowering from May:-

But came back from a week away in early June to find this:-

Its distinctive black seed pods all twisted open as they split and flung the seed away.  Bother.  Have to wait til next year!  I did better with some Verbascum olympicum seed because I actively went round the garden the day before the unseasonably windy and rainy weather over 9/10 August to collect anything that might be more or less ok before the 45-50 mile an hour winds we had for over 24 hours decimated the plants.  As you can see from the picture below I collected some Salvia officinalis flower spikes and some Phlomis russeliana (another painful plant to extract seeds from) as well:-

 The tiny seed of the verbascum (bottom left pot) was all from just one plant that was ripe.  It was the only one out of more than 20 plants round the garden that was at that optimum condition, most of the others were not yet ripe.  Although I can see some black seeds in the Phlomis, normally I would not collect the seedhead this green – when would you collect it?  Both of these plants I grew from seed to get my original garden stock, though now the Verbascum self-seeds itself around without my help.  The main Sage plant in the gravel garden had already shed all its seeds before I got to it, but these came from rooted cuttings I had in a more shady area by the house.   
So when is a seed ripe?  As you can see from the photos in the article above not all seeds are black when ripe, and some seedheads can be papery and ripe looking on the outside but not have ripe seeds inside them when you open them up.  So are these attractive seeds on my Acer palmatum var.dissectum ‘Seiryu’ ripe at this stage of early August? (I think not):-

Or are they ripe now in early September? 

 (I still think not as the actual seed at the base of the wing nearest the stalk is still green.  Patience!)

Next month, refreshing my garden plants by taking cuttings.

Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

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