Perusing through all the species of native plants available for sale might cause you to question where native plants come from. Are these divided from a big parent plant in a nursery, or are they produced from stem cuttings or in a test tube?
The simple answer is no. Most are grown from seed, not cultivars of native plants, but straight species — the kind you see growing in the wild.
The seed may come from parent plants growing in a nursery, but the seed that grew those plants originally came from the wild. Many nursery plants produced in Missouri are grown directly from wild-collected seed. So, seed for native plant production comes from remnant native plant populations in the wild.
Finding native production
At Shaw Nature Reserve near Gray Summit, Mo., we have been collecting seed of native plants from roadside ditches and bluffs, along railroad tracks, creeks and old hayfields, since the 1930s when Edgar Anderson did our first glade restoration.
Sadly, many of these original ancient sites are gone — developed, sprayed or grown over with trees. However, other ancient sites are protected by various conservation groups, and it is through the hard work of these organizations that these original seed sources still exist.
Many native plant nurseries depend on these wild areas as sources of seed, which is collected with permission and through strict seed-collecting contracts. Never collect seed from the wild without first seeking permission from the landowner — on private or public land.
Gathering the seed
For decades, seed has been collected in wild areas existing on private property, through the generosity of individual landowners. Through the practice of seed collecting over the past 90 years, Shaw Nature Reserve has reconstructed degraded farmland and restored damaged natural areas. From this practice, we also developed the Whitmire Wildflower Garden.
The vast majority of plants in the garden were grown from local wild seed and collected by horticulture staff and volunteers, thanks to early guidance by Peter Raven, director emeritus of Missouri Botanical Garden.
In addition to continuing to collect seed from remnant native plant populations, we now have the capacity to collect seed at Shaw Nature Reserve. Through these efforts, we supply nurseries with much-needed seed to supply a thriving native plant industry.
Use caution when buying
The native plant industry in Missouri is collecting its own seeds in much the same way that Shaw Nature Reserve does. Be sure to ask your local nursery where its native plants come from. It makes a big difference.
Native plants grown from or originating from wild seed are diverse genetically. This means they can thrive in spite of local pathogens, damaged urban soils and new weather norms. It also means they are capable of supporting countless beneficial insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds. Plants from other locations (including many cultivars, but not all) usually don’t have this advantage.
Native plants grown from local seed are diversely beautiful. They come in a variety of tolerances, habits, shapes, sizes and colors, just like we do. And when planted together, they produce the greatest beauty and highest function, all with the added bonus of increased enjoyment and decreased maintenance. Happy gardening, ya’ll!
Woodbury is a horticulturalist and curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Mo., where he is an adviser to the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s Grow Native! program.