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BLM New Mexico: Banking on Seeds

Bureau: Bureau of Land Management
By: Sheila Williams, Botanist, BLM New Mexico
March 9, 2012 - oneINTERIOR

Interns Emily Borodkin Lindsay Ward gathering seeds. 
Interns Emily Borodkin (left) and Lindsay Ward gather seeds from a Prince’s Plume in northern New Mexico, as part of BLM's national Seeds of Success program. Photo by BLM.
Showy Milkweed
BLM's Seeds for Success program strives to sustainably collect seeds from native-plant species, such as Showy Milkweed, an important pollinator species. Photo by BLM.
View of landscape in BLM's Farmington, N.M., field office.
The BLM-Farmington District Office in New Mexico manages 1.8 million acres of public land. Learn more here. Photo by BLM.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Farmington District Office in New Mexico is participating in Seeds of Success, a national BLM program that collects, conserves and develops native seeds. The native plant materials will be used for restoration and emergency fire rehabilitation. Sheila Williams, a botanist in the BLM Farmington office, is in charge of the Seeds of Success program in northern New Mexico. Partners in the program include botanical gardens, plant materials centers; arboreta (tree growers); universities; and native-plant societies throughout the United States. The Seeds of Success program is a partnership of federal and nonfederal institutions, all with shared interests in collecting, conserving, and developing native seed.

The Seeds of Success program strives to sustainably collect seeds from native-plant species, obtaining 20,000 seeds from each species. To accomplish this, teams undergo training and follow the program’s protocol, collecting only 20 percent of the seeds per population . Rare plants, Williams noted, are not among the target species for the Seeds of Success program and are part of a separate seed-collection program with an appropriate protocol.

As part of the Seeds of Success program, Williams and the two intern botanists she acquires through the Chicago Botanical Gardens, collect at least three specimens of each of the target plants in northern New Mexico. After pressing and preserving the plants, they send one specimen of each plant to the Smithsonian Museum Herbarium (“native plant library”) and the University of New Mexico Museum and keep the third at the BLM Farmington District Office. Williams said that she and her interns have collected seeds with gallon buckets by hand picking and hand-clipping seed heads and may use other innovations, such as spreading tarps under plants and whacking the plants with tennis rackets. She said future investments could include backpack vacuum cleaners to vacuum seeds from plants.

To ensure teams collect enough seeds, the program requires that 10,000 of the 20,000 seeds from each native species go to a long-term storage seed bank – after first having been sent to a seed-cleaning facility. Geneticists believe that conserving genetic diversity in botanic gardens and seed banks is a sensible and practical precaution for an uncertain future.

Once the storage requirement is met, the program allows teams to use the remaining 10,000 seeds to develop and increase plant-materials. In the case of the BLM-Farmington office, Williams noted, the seeds may come back directly to the office for restoration projects, or the office may use the seeds for both purposes.

Williams said collecting so many seeds from so many plants is not as easy as just shaking the seed of a plant in a paper bag. She noted that teams have to get down to the level of low-lying forbs to collect seeds and may have to use ladders or other equipment to collect other seeds, such as those coming from cottonwood trees.

In addition to posing physical challenges, Williams noted that collecting seeds poses timing challenges. Indian rice grass seeds can disappear soon after they come out, and the seeds of needle and thread grass can be gone from the plant within a day or two, she said. Williams also noted that weather and other conditions can affect when teams can collect seeds.

“Timing is everything,” Williams said. “You have to track the plants from flowering to seed maturity. “You have to identify everything correctly.” “You have to determine when the plants are flowering and when they are ready and ripe. Otherwise the seeds will not be viable and useful in the future.”


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Last Updated: 20-Mar-2012