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  • Writer's pictureTate Bushell

Local is better when it comes to native seeds

Tate Bushell, Director of Natural Lands 

Little bluestem (tall grass) and Virginia mountain mint (white flowers) growing at Little Long Pond natural lands. These plants were grown by Preserve staff from seed that is local to New England.

In the last newsletter I wrote about how we collect seeds (the what, where and when of seed hunting). In this article I will describe why we collect seeds and why we have strict standards around collecting. You may be asking, "Wouldn’t buying seed be a lot easier and less expensive?" Yes, but there is an ecological cost to buying seed.  

A quick recap on our plant philosophy: at the Little Long Pond natural lands, we plant native plants (plants that were naturally occurring in our area before European contact). Science shows repeatedly that native plants are a better fit for our overall ecosystem: they feed our wildlife, withstand our disturbances, and generally play nicely with their neighbors. Many of the native plants we use are not available in nurseries, so we need to grow them ourselves from seed.  

Agronomists, horticulturalists, and scientists have discovered through decades of research that a seed’s origin is important. What we know is that plants perform best if they are planted in conditions like what their parents experienced. This makes intuitive sense: the environment (weather, soil, hydrology, herbivores, co-evolved relationships, disturbance regime, latitude, you name it…) shapes a species’ DNA, so the DNA should create organisms that thrive in the environment in which they are shaped.  

For example, we use little bluestem (a native grass, Schizachyrium scoparium) regularly at Little Long Pond. Little bluestem has an enormous range – almost every state in the continental United States – and a little bluestem individual from Maine should theoretically outperform a little bluestem individual from Iowa. Can we buy Maine-originated little bluestem seed? No. We cannot even buy New England-originated little bluestem seed. Most of the seed commercially available for meadow plants comes from the Great Plains or the Midwest. So, we collect Maine-wild seed of little bluestem and many other species.  

Many researchers also speculate – but the research is slow to come – that local plants (plants derived from local seeds) are often friendlier to our native insects/pollinators than plants of foreign origin. In other words, a Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) from Maine would, say, provide more/better pollen and nectar resources to our native bees than a mountain mint originating from Alabama.  

What about climate change? Everything you just read is mostly true in a non-changing climate, but we know that we are experiencing – and will continue to experience – changing weather. So, does this mean that we should abandon the ‘local is best’ framework for plant and seed sourcing? Most practitioners and scientists think it is probably reasonable to loosen the grip on a strict interpretation of local (my backyard), to something a little more manageable like ‘the coast of Maine’, or ‘Downeast Maine’ when sourcing plant material. There is talk about bringing up mid-Atlantic plants to Maine to be ready for a climate that is more like the mid-Atlantic in 80 years, but I do not know too many organizations doing this type of assisted migration.  

I have, however, used a few plants with recorded Maine populations restricted to York County, in anticipation of the weather on MDI being a little more like southern Maine in the future. In most cases, I would still consider this native and local.  

You are invited to participate in one of our meadow restoration field walks in the summer to dive deeper into these issues and see our progress live in action.

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