Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tips on Growing Native Woodland Plants and Ephemerals from Seed

Geranium maculatum is easy from seed
Do you want to add native plants to your garden but find they can be a little pricey?  Most native plant nurseries can charge an arm and a leg just for a small division of a plant and rightly so.  Native plants-especially woodlanders and ephemerals-can take a long time to reach a size they can sell.  This means that they have a lot of time and money invested in their plants.  One solution to the high cost of acquiring these plants is through seed propagation.  For less than the cost of 1 plant you can purchase a pack of seeds (usually around 20) and grow them yourself.  Now I have to warn you-sometimes this requires patience.  It isn't like growing a pack of Zinnias.  You might not get germination a week after sowing but if you treat the native plant seed as required you will have success with seeds and will be greatly rewarded. 

Through seed propagation I have slowly increased my collection of plants including native plants over the last few years.  I do this by either purchasing seed from a reliable source or from collecting my own seed.  I have had both successes and failures with this-but at least I didn't have a huge amount of money invested in the failures.  As I stated earlier-growing natives from seed is not for the impatient.  While some native plants are easy and quick to germinate from seed such as Agastache or Rudbeckia others such as Lilium and Clintonia can take a very long time.  The key to growing Ephemerals and woodlanders is FRESH SEED or seed that is stored correctly.  
Uvularia spp. should be kept "fresh" or sown immediately
Lilium superbum took 5 years to bloom from seed

Rudbeckia triloba is very easy to grow from seed

One confession I do need to make-once in a while I will purchase a mature plant just for the possibility of getting seeds from the plant especially if my attempts at germination have failed.  I have done this with Asarum canadense or Canada Ginger.  I had tried a few times to have success growing Canada Ginger from seed with no luck.  So  a few years ago I purchased a couple of pots of it from my local Master Gardener's sale just so I had it finally.  No worries though-they were cheap:-))  Now I can get seed from my own plants or let them slowly spread on their own. 

Asarum canadense flower 
Once my native plants reach seed producing size I collect and save the seeds or plant them immediately depending on the species.  I find that native woodlanders and ephemerals do best sown immediately or if you want to save them keep them "fresh".  By this I mean that you clean them and then store them in damp vermiculite in the refrigerator until you plan on sowing them.  Below are some pics of how to sow immediately (direct sow) for best germination rates:

1.  Locate a plant with seeds that have ripened (different plant seeds ripen at different times).
Maianthemum racemosum (False Solomon's Seal) with ripened seeds
Arisaema tripyhllum (Jack in the Pulpit) with ripened seeds
 2.  Pull seeds off of the plant (note: use gloves-some plants have seeds that can be toxic/irritating to the skin).
3.  Squish seeds in your hands (with gloves on) to loosen the seed coat.

4.  Sow seeds in suitable location where you would like them to grow.  Be sure to pull back any mulch.
5.  Cover up with mulch and wait:-))
6.  You should have germination the following Spring or Summer.
False Solomon's Seal from the previous Fall
Arisaema triphyllum (Jack in the Pulpit) seedlings sown last Fall
 If you have critters like squirrels you might want to protect the area until the plants are large enough to hold their own.  I have lost many a plant from squirrels digging or rabbits tasting and nothing is worse.

If you purchase seeds you can handle them the same way.  Just find a location, pull back the mulch, throw the seeds down and recover with the mulch.  If the seeds are viable you should have germination (in some instances it can take a couple years).  I have purchased Panax (Ginseng) seeds online and sowed them like this and had pretty decent germination.

Another way I have had success starting native plants is with wintersowing.  Wintersowing is a process of sowing your seeds in a container and letting nature take it's course.  It is very similar to Fall seeding except you use containers to give protection from animals and the elements.  I have been using this process since 2007 and have had wonderful success with it.  I will be doing a post on wintersowing in the future but if you want to know how to do it now here is a link to learn more:  You can also visit the Gardenweb Forum dedicated to wintersowing here:
Aralia nudicaulis seedlings that were wintersown
Variety of plants grown using the wintersown method

Now, if you don't have seeds but want to purchase them I suggest you purchase from a reputable source.  Most native woodlander and ephemeral seed is not treated correctly and when it is not your probability of germination drops dramatically.  I have ordered and received seed from plants such as Trillium and Uvullaria that was stored dry.  This seed had low if any germination at all.  If the source of your seed does not state whether it is packed fresh then ask them how it is treated.  Don't waste your money on seeds that aren't packed fresh-the dry/cold storage some seed sellers use is not enough to keep the seeds viable.  If you are looking for a reliable source I suggest  All of her seed is of excellent quality, gives planting instructions and is properly packaged according to requirements.  She also has an excellent variety of seeds that is totally drool-worthy. 
Stylophorum diphyllum that was wintersown

You might be asking yourself "How do I know how a certain plant species needs to be treated?"  I say find yourself an informative source to use.  My go-to book for this subject is The New England Wild Flower Society Guide To Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada.  It is a bit expensive but it has been an excellent source of information on almost all of the native plants I grow.  I purchased it off of a few years ago.   I also use an online source for information regarding all kinds of seed information.  The link is:  You can also use Google to find information on germinating individual species.  I find I get the correct information I need when using the Latin name of the plant when doing Google searches.

Another important thing to remember when trying to grow woodlanders and ephemerals is making sure they are sited correctly when planting them out.  You don't want to take the time to grow one of these plants from seed to only have it perish from being planted in the wrong conditions.  So make sure that when you do your research to find out how to grow the plant also get it's growing conditions.  You won't have much luck growing Panax in full sun and sand or a cactus in damp shade so remember "Right Plant, Right Place".
Mertensia virginica growing in shade in rich well-drained soil
 So for success just remember these tips for seed propagation of woodlanders and ephemerals:
1.  Buy from a reputable source.
2.  Do your research.
3.  Find a method that works for you and for the seed.
4.  Be patient!
5.  Right plant, right place

Seedlings from various plants I have direct sowed in the Fall

I hope I have given you the information you need to be successful at growing your own woodland plants from seed.  I know that if it wasn't for seed propagation I would not be able to afford to grow as many species of plants in my garden as I have now.  This information is also useful to expand the amount of existing plants you have without having to dig them up and divide them.  I find dividing my woodlanders a little bit too invasive for my taste and they can grow quite slowly so sometimes it is not an option.  If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below.   And as always-

Happy Planting!

No comments:

Post a Comment