Native plants are on a roll. Nurseries and university extension services are noticing a growing interest in sustainable gardening. In fact, native plants are at the top of a 2020 trend list identified by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

At Matthaei-Nichols we’ve been living and breathing native plants for years. Our natural areas are living laboratories for removing invasive plants and replanting with natives. The Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei offer an up-close view of regional plants and their habitats.

Native plant seeds

Native seeds are measured by volume and weight.

Labeling native seeds

Seeds are carefully labeled for where and when they were collected. Here, Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) was collected on October 19, 2019 at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

A lesser-known corner of the native plant universe is seed collection and processing. Each year, we plant native seeds and then harvest a new bounty of seeds from our properties. In order to process all the product, volunteers lend a hand. Typically in January, you’ll find a devoted group of folks working inside our greenhouses as they burn off milkweed fluff, push coneflower chaff through sieves, and fill and label countless bags of seeds for use later on.

Preparing native seeds

A sieve is used to separate the chaff from many different kinds of native seeds.

Native seed volunteers also have a little fun during workdays. Here, volunteer Maureen Frey and Matthaei-Nichols Natural Areas Stewardship Technician Emily Lilla practice their wizardly fire-starter skills.

The seeds are used to repopulate areas where prescribed burns have taken place. They’re also propagated for the annual wildflower and native plant sale at Matthaei Botanical Gardens each August.

Most of the seeds are collected in the fall, according to Matthaei-Nichols Natural Areas Manager Steve Parrish, who conducts the native seed workdays. Fall is a good time for this, Steve explains, because the plants for the most part have gone to seed and are ready to collect. “We also need to get some of the seed ready for propagation. That can take anywhere from 60-90 days or more,” he says.

Dorothy Yenni and Laurie Woolsey

Dorothy Yenni (left) and Laurie Wooley take a break during a recent native-seed processing workday at Matthaei.

Prepping native seeds

Native seeds waiting to be separated from the other bits of plant material that surround the seed—a painstaking task.

Two long-time volunteers, Dorothy Yenni and Laurie Wooley, share a passion for all things native plants. Both retired from intensively people-centric careers, Dorothy as a nurse and Laurie in human resources.

Says Laurie, “when I retired I wanted to choose a volunteer activity that put me more in touch with nature. (She also volunteers at Leslie Science Center and the Washtenaw Bird Center.) Volunteering at Matthaei and other nature-centered places “is about literally getting my hands dirty. I like this volunteer activity because it’s very much hands-on.”

Dorothy says she loves the evolution here at Matthaei-Nichols that’s seen the emphasis shift to native plants and ecosystems. “I prefer native plants,” Dorothy explains. “And I’m hopeful, when I hear visitors saying good things about our efforts to promote native plants, that we’re changing people’s views on what a garden is. This experience has transformed me into a total native plant person.”

Steve Parrish with volunteers

Matthaei-Nichols Natural Areas Manager Steve Parrish (center) helps volunteer Maureen Frey with a labeling issue.


A field guide to plants

Botanical field guides often come in handy when preparing, labeleing, and packaging native seeds.

Volunteers like Dorothy and Laurie are part of our community engagement efforts, Steve notes. It’s also a learning opportunity for the volunteers themselves and for others who join our volunteer program. “Some of the volunteers have been doing this for a long time so they’re able to train students and other volunteers,” says Steve.

Collecting, storing, and propagating native seeds involves a fairly rigorous system of sorting and labeling to ensure that seeds from the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei, for example, end up identified correctly. Such attention to detail means that leading the volunteer native seed workdays has been good for him, too, Steve says. “I can be a leader and a teacher in something I’m learning on the go in the field, and it certainly helps with my organizational skills.”

For more information about Matthaei-Nichols volunteer programs or how you can help, visit the volunteer page of our website.

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