Propagating Native Plants From Seed in the Mountain West
When I think of growing plants from seeds, I usually think of my vegetable garden. I directly sow many types of these seeds, such as beans, carrots, and pumpkin. I follow the planting instructions on the package (which may occasionally involve soaking seeds in water for a few hours) and an edible garden will appear shortly afterwards.
While this technique works for some other types of plants, propagating native plants from seeds is not always that simple.
These Scott’s Clematis seeds (Clematis scottii, Zones 4-7) were collected in the fall and must be cleaned before planting. Photo: Michelle Provaznik
Many of our local nurseries and garden centers sell native seeds, sometimes in wildflower packets or in single species packets. Be sure to check out the wildflower packages to make sure you are only getting Mountain West locals. sometimes these packages contain other varieties. Many of these packages allow you to plant the seeds directly in your garden according to the instructions.
You can also collect your own seed. To do this, first make sure that the seed is ripe (usually by this time the flowers will have died). Cut off the dried flowers or seed heads and store them in paper bags until you are ready to clean them. Be sure to clearly label each bag with the type of flower it contains. Keep these bags in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to clean the seeds or prepare them for planting.
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Native plants to the mountain west have adapted to our climates with their cold, snowy winters, and many have built-in seed dormant periods so they don’t sprout at the wrong time, which is easy in our variable climates. This is especially true for perennials and wood plants. Fortunately, there are some techniques that can be used at home to “wake up” our native plant seeds.
Scarification. This method is suitable for seeds with very hard layers that prevent moisture from entering. The seed must be physically sanded down, either with sandpaper or by pricking with a knife (this is better for larger seeds). Lupins (Lupinus spp. And cvs., Zones 3–9) and purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata, zones 4–8) are two common plants that require this method. Other scarification methods include soaking the seed in water overnight, or even soaking it in very warm water.
These seeds were placed in flats filled with growing medium and can be taken outside for stratification. Photo: Michelle Provaznik
Layering. This technique mimics the effects of our winters and requires both cold and moisture. There are several ways to do this. The first is to put some potting soil or sand in a plastic bag and add some water and medium until the mixture is damp. Add the seeds and mix again. Refrigerate for four to eight weeks (each variety is different, but this will work for most).
Another way to implement stratification is to sow seeds directly in containers (an apartment works well for multiple plants) and water. Put the containers outside on the north side of the house or fence to keep them shady and colder. Hopefully they will be covered in snow for most of the season. That way, nature can cool the seeds, and the plants should germinate when the weather warms up.
Coneflower (Echinacea spp. And cvs., Zones 3-9), willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium syn. Epilobium angusitfolium, zones 2-7), and Rocky Mountain bee plant (Cleome serrulata var. Angusta, annual) must all be stratified to successfully germinate.
Before sowing your seeds, prepare the pots you will need for planting. Photo: Michelle Provaznik
How and when to plant seeds depends on the variety, the place you plan to plant them, and the time of year you plan to plant them.
Direct sowing into the ground can be done in spring or autumn. Annuals are well planted in spring. You might want to sow longer-living perennials in the fall, as most of them require cold and moisture to germinate. No-till is most efficient for large planting areas.
Seeding in containers gives you more control over the number of plants and is effective on larger plants. It will also help you transport seedlings to plant in the garden.
Make sure that the timing to start your seed is based on when you plan to transplant the seedlings. Photo: Karen Beaty
There are some excellent resources available for extracting native Mountain West plants from seeds. Visit the website of your state’s native plant society or Western Native Seed.
To learn more about how nurseries grow native plants, check out How to Grow Native Plants in Nurseries: Basic Concepts from the USDA’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Read on here so some great Mountain West native plant candidates can get started with seeds:
For more information on growing a wide variety of plants from seeds, see our All About Starting Seeds collection.
– Michelle Provaznik is the general manager of Gardens at Spring Creek in Fort Collins, Colorado.
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