Seed Collector Diaries: the Lowlands

I’ve been part of five seed collecting work days so far this fall. I haven’t written about all of them and I don’t intend to and the related posts will just be the highlights of my experience. The most recent volunteer day took me to a part of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy that I do not often get to go to. I had a chance to get my feet wet in a strange world. I mean that literally because on Wednesday I collected seeds in the wetter part of the prairie.

That was easier said than done. The ground was not wet all over, but was an undulating surface alternating between wet and dry. It was difficult to gain a footing on this uneven ground. When I stopped near a plant one foot would be in ankle-deep water and the other would be several inches higher and dry.

Even before we moved that low I was getting wet from the first plant I collected. Three of us were assigned to collect the seed pods of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a plant from a family that lives up to its name. It didn’t take long for my hands to be covered in its white sap.

Milkweed sap
Milkweed pods

The sap came off during the course of the day and didn’t seem to have any effect on my skin. It’s not a tough sacrifice to pay to make butterflies happy.

In the wetter areas I gathered seeds from spotted Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), two plants used medicinally in the past. The species in Eutrochium are named after Jopi (Anglicized as Joe Pye), a healer who used the plants to treat various ailments. While we don’t use these as medicine anymore, it was fascinating to realize the plants I paid notice to also attracted the attention of people who lived many years before me.

The fluffy seeds of Joe Pye weed
Wet prairie

Greene Prairie, 9/9/17

In June I first visited the Greene Prairie in the UW Arboretum. I wanted to go back in the following months to see how the vegetation changed throughout the summer, but the frequent rain and buggy summer intervened and I didn’t get outside as much as I wanted to. The weather has been cooler and drier lately, and the mosquitoes have died down for the most part, so on Saturday I finally went back.

The Greene Prairie is a bit of a walk from the parking lot, but the walk is through forest and savanna so I don’t mind.

I didn’t know what the focus of the walk would be beforehand, and I was hoping for more fauna, but I saw more flowers than critters. Other than a turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and a few blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata), I cannot recall any birds. With an abundance of flowers, they took my focus for the day. Not every flower was done blooming, and the ones that had already bloomed were displaying their seeds. Post-bloom does not imply absence of activity.

Liatris spp.
Unidentified flower
Bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii)
Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
Rattlesnake master up close
The large-leafed plants in the foreground are prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

Bottle gentians were one of the first blooming plants I noticed. I had not seen any in bloom so far this year (I saw plenty of cream gentians, or Gentiana alba, in the previous few weeks). Already gone to seed was the prairie dock. Rattlesnake master was in the process of changing its white flowers to brown seed heads. Many grasses looked like they were preparing to drop seeds soon too. Sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) was particularily far along in this process and the seed coverings looked somewhat like wheat. The cycle of life is continuing with this next generation that has yet to take root.

Seed Collector Diaries: Leadplant

Ah, the transition from summer to fall. Maple leaves around town are starting to change color, pumpkin spice lattes are back on the menu, and volunteers are out in prairies collecting seeds.

Wait, what was that last one?

In the past few weeks the outdoor volunteer opportunities have consisted heavily of seed collecting. That’s fine by me. I like any sort of work in the prairie but collecting seeds is my favorite. I consider it an opportunity to advance my plant ID skills- with hundreds of species in the area there’s always more to learn! Three of the five species whose seeds I’ve collected this year were new to me. Today I worked with one that is a long-time favorite of mine but I hadn’t collected before, leadplant or Amorpha canescens.


This legume is usually just above knee height but a few today were a bit taller, though not quite waist high. Unlike many prairie plants, leadplant does not abandon its stem in the winter. Plants in their second year or older have woody stems. The stems are destroyed by fire, but like many plants in fire-dependent ecosystems they will just grow a new one in the spring. I could tell there have not been fires at today’s particular prairie for a few years because some plants had exceptionally thick stems and were rather bushlike.

The purple flowers are replaced by dull-colored seed pods this time of year, a silvery-gray with just a hint of the royal color. They were easy to collect with plant clippers by cutting the stalks just above the highest leaves.

I was working with five other volunteers but as the morning wore on we spread farther apart. I stumbled upon the mother of all leadplant patches just over a short knoll from everyone else. Here the plant was growing in large circular groups. It certainly kept me busy.

One of the denser clusters in a patch

Working in the prairies gives me more of a chance to explore them, as the pace I take is slower. As frequently happens, I encountered numerous spiders and insects I could not name. Fortunately I only had to scoop one out of collection bag. Many of the spiders were large orb-weavers with bold black and yellow markings and I believe there were a few different kinds as they varied in size and pattern. Grasshoppers, beetles, and smaller spiders were on various plants I walked by and even some I collected. Like I said, it’s a good way to see what’s really going on.

Our work paid off. In total the crew collected two large bags of seeds that will be spread at parks throughout Dane County. Other teams collected seeds from other species. Most of our prairies are restored land and they depend on human power to collect and disperse seeds to get higher plant biodiversity at individual sites. It feels wonderful to be part of that process.