Bringing Back Biodiversity One Seed at a Time

By 9 o’clock in the morning, the August sun was already baking the distant corner of Camp Grayling where the Huron Pines Restoration Team was intently exploring an arid grassland on foot.

Huron Pines Restoration Technician Abby Macek thumbs through photos to identify different species of goldenrod during a seed-collection effort at Camp Grayling in August.

The crew had come to collect seed from native grasses and wildflowers adapted to grow on this sand prairie where water is so scarce that each footstep falls with a crunch. Those seeds, teased from mature stalks with nimble fingers and stashed in paper lunch sacks labeled according to species, are the foundation on which Huron Pines is building its newest tool for landscape stewardship and restoration.

The goal of this budding project is to find remnants of what were once sprawling landscapes in Northern Michigan more than a century ago, gather seed from the native plants growing in those places, then propagate them for future efforts to rebuild and restore Michigan’s natural plant communities. Among the seeds being collected that day were poverty grass and several species of goldenrod.

“This is an opportunity to bring back something which has nearly been lost and learn more about these natural communities we’re trying to restore and protect,” said Conservation Stewardship Director Steve Woods. “Our goal is to make sure all the plants of Northern Michigan’s pine barren and sand prairie ecosystems are represented and that could be upwards of a hundred species. When you compare that to areas we want to restore, that’s 10 to 20 times as many varieties as what’s there now.”

The project brings many challenges, including a general lack of available information about when these plants mature and the narrow window of time when their seed is ready. This has led the crew to revisit sites throughout the season and see how certain species are maturing to time their collections just right.

Once gathered, seeds need to be dried, cleaned and stored. Cleaning seed involves removing fuzz and other plant material from the actual seed — separating the wheat from the chaff so to speak. This is being done both by hand and with the aid of antique machinery that the Restoration Team have acquired along the way.

Abby Macek, Rachel Leggett and Kelly Draeger (l-r) of the Heartland Restoration Team pose in the converted attic space — nicknamed the “seed dungeon” — they are using to dry, clean and store native wildflower and grass seeds to restore diversity to Northern Michigan’s plant communities.

Technicians Kelly Draeger and Abby Macek have been deeply involved in the process from the outset.

“It’s fascinating checking flowers to see when they’re mature, testing which collection methods work best and which tools to use for cleaning,” Draeger said. “We’re doing this on a small scale but it’s allowing us to develop a process that works.”

This effort started with a focus on upland ecosystems because of an interest and need from Huron Pines’ partners at Camp Grayling. The same process can also be applied to limestone glades, sedge meadows and other increasingly rare wetland habitats in need of restoration within our service area along the Lake Huron shoreline.

“This is an opportunity to bring back something which has nearly been lost and to learn more about these natural communities we’re trying to restore and protect.”

Steve Woods, Conservation Stewardship Director

Seed collection and propagation is one of many tools at our disposal in restoring Northern Michigan’s landscapes and can also help make the methods we currently use more effective. Our invasive species treatment efforts can be followed up with plantings of native grasses and wildflowers. This will enable us to restore an area more quickly and with more plant diversity, boosting its resilience to change.

A close-up of some fully processed and jarred grass seeds.

“The greater the number of species present at any given place, the greater the odds some of those species will survive in a changing climate and more extreme weather,” Woods said. “Species that are more widespread across the landscape are also more likely to persist through change.”

Another potential tool under consideration at Huron Pines is the use of prescribed burns to control invasive species and help restore fire-dependent landscapes like sand prairies and jack pine barrens. The same perennial wildflowers and grasses our team are collecting have adapted to thrive in a landscape that occasionally burns; invasive plants have not. Likewise, the wildlife in those environments rely on those native species to live.

“Reconnecting the threads in the web of life is what really supports our wildlife,” Woods said. “We really have effective conservation when we’re able to use all the different tools necessary to restore and maintain the ecosystem.”

Huron Pines is committing to the seed collection and propagation effort with support from Camp Grayling, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service.

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