Foraging for Medicinal Seeds

Saving wild medicinal seeds ensures their future.
the Cycle of Seed Stewardship
The cycle of seed stewardship
Art by Ktshepherdpermaculture.com

Saving, Scattering & Storing Herb Seeds

In one of my favorite books, Braiding Sweetgrass, author Robin Wall Kimmerer shares the indigenous creation story of “Skywoman Falling.” As she begins to fall from Skyworld, through an illuminated hole, heading into an unknown dark sea, Skywoman grabs a bundle of branches, fruits, and seeds from the Tree of Life. With the help of animals, she lands safely and begins to build Turtle Island (Earth) where she plants her treasured bundle of seeds. 

As Kimmerer writes, “Sunlight streamed through the hole from the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere.” Skywoman, the ancestral gardener, “created a garden for the well-being of all.”1

People who grow and use plants generally understand that the relationship between humans and plants is a sacred one. The plants offer us many gifts and in return, we honor their presence with respect, appreciation, and gratitude.

The greatest gift we can give to plants is to ensure their continued presence in our lives and on our planet. One way to do that is by collecting and sowing their seeds.

Long before there were seed companies and seed catalogs, humans collected, sowed, and stored seeds at the end of each growing season. When humans took up farming 12,000 years ago, the seeds of wild plants were genetically modified and bred to become our food crops, often increasing their palatability by making them less bitter. The world of medicinal plants has remained mostly untouched by humans’ breeding improvements, making seed collection of herbs and medicinal plants an easy task for growers to perform.

Though you can purchase most, if not all of the herb seeds you want, there are important reasons to consider collecting seed from plants in your region:

  • Bioregional plants have adapted to local environmental conditions and are more likely to germinate and grow successfully in your garden and yard.
  • By cultivating your own plants, you can be assured of the health of the land and thus the health of your plants.
  • Habitat loss through activities like logging, urban sprawl, and increasingly, the effects of climate change are the biggest threats to native plants. Herbalists should be the stewards of native medicinal plants and growing a garden of wild medicinal plants is one of the best ways to protect our native ecosystems.
  • Collecting and growing your own seed is one of the most sustainable and resiliant actions you can do. Being able to step outside and harvest your medicine from your garden or pots on your patio does not require transportation or fuel, nor money to purchase seeds.
  • There is a special kind of satisfaction and wonder involved when you have grown a plant from seed you have collected. We all need a little more wonder in our lives!

What’s a Seed? A Short Botany Lesson

Seed stewardship requires some basic botanical knowledge. A seed is the product of plant sex: after fertilization through pollination, an embryonic plant develops and creates its own food supply (called endosperm) and is enclosed in a protective cover called a seed coat. The endosperm provides enough food after the seed has germinated until it can start producing its own. The tough seed coat is designed to protect the seed and its food supply from fungus, rot, and insects. I once heard a garden writer describe seeds as the perfect house guest: they bring their own food and a durable sleeping bag to the garden party!

Calendula seeds
Calendula seeds
Image by Klaus Beyer from Pixabay 

A seed is a living entity that stays in a resting state until the conditions for germination (heat, light, water) are just right. A seed contains everything it needs to become a seedling, and each seed – like humans – carries a distinctive set of genes. As I have witnessed the life cycle of seeds from germination through collection, I have developed a sense of awe and gratitude for their complex and yet simple purpose.

Seed development is an indicator that the plant is in the process of completing its life’s work (annuals) or its seasonal work (perennials). Due to the variety of plants and their seed development schedules, seeds can be collected from early summer through late autumn. If you have grown cilantro or basil, you know that flowering, pollination, and seed development can occur rapidly under the right conditions.

Not All Plants Propagate by Seed

Another important factor to consider: how do individual species best propagate? Some plants grow easily from seed while others are best propagated by creating clones through vegetative cuttings. Many of the traditional culinary herbs that are woody perennials like thyme, rosemary, oregano, and marjoram are easier to propagate by cuttings or layering.

Some plants like mints, goldenrod, and bee balm spread via underground stolons or rhizomes. Other plants like milkweed have multiple reproductive strategies. They produce large seed pods that crack open with many seeds designed to be carried by the wind and also spread via underground rhizomes.  

Milkweed seeds are attached to filaments that are distributed by the wind.
Milkweed seeds are attached to filaments that are distributed by the wind.

Plan Your Future Seed Collecting

As home herbalists, we often collect the flowers of plants to use in our remedies and recipes. Bear in mind that flowers are designed to become seeds. When we continually harvest flowers, the plant will likely not reproduce the following season due to a lack of seed production. 

Years ago, this fact escaped me and I quickly learned how to collect seed. In my first growing season on my homestead, I was excited to see an abundance of the non-native St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). I eagerly picked most of the flowers so that I could make that beautiful red healing oil. The following year, not one of those “weedy” plants returned. 

St. John's Wort seeds
St. John’s Wort seeds

My attempts to order St. John’s wort seed were thwarted by a state law that prohibits shipping to my state because it’s considered a noxious weed, a plant that can negatively affect livestock. I headed to nearby roadsides that hosted the dying St. John’s wort, collected the ripened seed heads, and then scattered them outside my back door.

Self-sowing and Culinary Seeds

If you are already growing culinary and medicinal herbs, the act of seed saving just became much easier. Many herbs are self-sowers; plants that release their seeds when the conditions are right and return the following spring. Some of these seeds (calendula, dill) drop just below the parent plant while others (dandelion, borage) are assisted by the wind to move away from the parent plant. Not all culinary herbs, like basil and cilantro, will germinate after self-sowing, and I suspect it can be harsh winter conditions that affect their ability to germinate.

Dandelion seeds leaving the parent plant via wind
Dandelion seeds leaving the parent plant via wind
Image by Norbert Pietsch from Pixabay 

These are some of the self-sowers you may already have in your garden:

  • Calendula 
  • Chamomile 
  • Fennel 
  • Dill 
  • Comfrey  
  • Borage 
  • Motherwort 
  • Catnip 
  • Lemon balm
  • Mallow 
  • Violets
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Poppy

Though the plants listed above handle the seed saving and scattering on their own, you may want to collect a small amount of the seed and store it until spring. This will allow you to start a new patch of plants and will also provide some protection against changing environmental conditions. Always collect more than you think you will use in case of a crop failure or to share with others.

Many gardeners in some regions are experiencing heavier amounts of rain in spring and are reporting that some of their self-sowing seeds are not reproducing. Excessive amounts of water will rot seeds and prevent them from germinating.  

Healing Weed Seeds

Pollinators, herbalists, and foragers understand the true value of what our culture has unfairly categorized as undesirable weeds. Given their propensity for successful reproduction, it’s obvious that these plants have a healthy seed production and dispersal strategy. These plants often grow on disturbed soil and along roadsides where toxins may be present and that’s a great reason to consider collecting some of their seed and introducing them to a toxic-free growing environment – your garden. 

Be careful of overdoing it: these plants can become invasive under the right conditions. Be vigilant about containing these plants to your property if you have neighbors who spend time and energy eradicating the same plants from their yards. 

  • Yarrow
  • St. John’s wort
  • Mullein
  • Dock
  • Plantain
  • Clover
  • Dandelion
A mullein "forest" happens when plants are left to go to seed and then the soil is disturbed
A mullein “forest” happens when plants are left to go to seed and then the soil is disturbed. PHOTO: SK

Native Medicinal Plants

If you live in a region that hosts native medicinal plants, you may want to consider collecting seed and cultivating one or more of the plants that the United Plant Savers (UPS) has identified on its Species At-Risk and To-Watch lists.  Native medicinal plants generally grow best in their native conditions. I highly recommend the book Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs (edited by Rosemary Gladstar and Pamela Hirsh) if interested in helping preserve native North American medicinal plants. It offers thorough plant profiles on the UPS species-at-risk including tips on propagation and cultivation. 

Planting the future book cover

If you decide to collect seeds from at-risk native medicinals, you must practice ethical and thoughtful seed-saving strategies.

How To Sustainably & Effectively Collect Seeds

1) Before collecting, first consider the growing space and conditions you have. What plants will successfully grow in that space? Make a list of culinary and medicinal plants that would work with your space and that grow well in your region. 

2) Research the preferred propagation method for the plants you are considering and select the ones that can be successfully grown by seed.

3) Collect seeds from the healthiest plants. If collecting from the wild, you may want to tie a piece of yarn or cloth around the plants you plan to pick from; this ensures you can return to the right plant to check the status of the seed development.

4) If collecting from wild plants, avoid taking all of the seeds from one plant in one location. Instead, identify multiple plants in different locations and select a bit of seed from each area. This ensures genetic diversity among your seeds and allows the plants you are collecting from to reproduce in their “home” location.

5) Seeds have as much diversity in appearance as plants do: some are large and exposed; others are hidden in indehiscent (i.e., does not split open) and dehiscent (i.e., splits open at maturity) dry fruits that help to protect and ripen the developing seeds.

6) Seed savers face competition from seed-eating wildlife; many birds and small mammals fill up on the protein-laden seeds to prepare for winter. Seed savers will also face challenges from the weather: autumn rains and storms can quickly create a mess, which is fine for dropped seeds but not conducive to moisture-free collection and storage. Diligent attention to both the seeds and the weather will ensure you get the seeds you want.

7) Try to collect during the driest part of the day, after the morning dew has dried. Moisture can increase the chances of seed deterioration (which I find ironic since it is also a primary factor in germination). I use paper bags of all sizes (avoid using plastic bags when collecting) to initially store seeds, seedheads, and pods. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to label your bags with the name of the plant, date, and collection site. This is especially important if planning to collect a variety of seeds. Allowing the seeds to rest in the opened bags for a few days will help to dissipate any remaining moisture in the seed and give any microscopic critters the opportunity to escape. 

8) How do you know when a seed is ready for collection? One indicator is a dulling color and a drying texture of the dry fruit (pod, capsule, etc.) and sometimes of the entire plant. Another indicator is that the plant has started its own seed dispersal (e.g., pods begin to split open).  Seed color is another indicator: most seeds will turn a dull brown, beige, black, or gray. On the umbels of plants like dill and cilantro, mature seeds will release easily when rubbed or pulled. Lastly, mature seeds harden, which means the protective seed coat is in place.

10) Some seeds need to be cleaned: the goal is to remove as much of the non-seed material as possible. Small pieces of leaves, stems, and seed pods are called chaff and will be the bulk of what you remove but can also include dead bugs, weed seeds, and soil. Do not skip this step; microorganisms can live on chaff and introduce disease to your seeds during storage. Using a light-colored plate, shake or rub the seeds gently, letting the lighter chaff fall to the dish. Place seeds in a separate dish. You may need to repeat this procedure several times.

How to Sow and Store Wild Seeds

If it’s late fall, you may have the option of scattering/sowing your seeds now rather than storing them. This depends on the species and its ability to survive or winter conditions. Our healing weeds may do fine scattered in the fall and some of the native medicinal plants may even require exposure to their regional conditions. Collect enough seed to both scatter and store and experiment with autumn sowing.

To sow the weedy ones, simply find a patch of exposed soil, scratch it a bit, sprinkle the seeds, and lightly tamp down with your hand or foot. Lightly sprinkle some water if no rain is expected. You may want to place a stick or plant tag to remember what you planted

Storing seeds correctly is the key to their viability over the following growing seasons. The goal of seed storage is to slow the living seed’s natural processes and to reduce exposure to environmental conditions. Heat and humidity pose the biggest threats to seeds. Small glass containers like commercial spice jars are perfect. Again, be sure to label with plant name, title, and location and store in the back closet or cabinet away from heat. Check your stored seeds after a few days to ensure that there is no condensation or mold.

Seed saving introduces a new way to look at plants. What looks like dead, brown plants to most everyone else is actually the connection from the past to the future. In those dead, brown plants lies the promise of a new plant, of a beautiful flower or leaf that offers us healing and illustrates the magical processes of a plant’s life. 

Calendula can both bloom and set seed throughout the growing season.
Calendula can both bloom and set seed throughout the growing season. PHOTO: SK

References

1. Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

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