Native Seed Exchange

by Joshua Clark, Natural Resource Manager, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, IL

On December 13th the Northern Illinois Native Seed Network held its 5th annual native seed exchange and potluck. In the 5 years since its inception the group has grown to include conservation focused groups from across the northern Illinois region. The members of the network cover a wide range of organization type; non-profit, land trusts, county forest preserves, conservation districts, park districts, and educational organizations. Our organizations vary in structure, size, funding, and land holdings but we all have similar goals and visions. This network allows us to share essential resources; seed and knowledge.

The Network was the brainchild of Ed Cope. This is how he described the origins:

“I had previously worked for Winnebago County, and after moving over to NLI (Natural Land Institute) I was surprised to see just how different our seed resources were even within the same county.  Species that Winnebago picked poundage of NLI could barely find, and vice versa.  So I started asking the other neighboring entities – Boone, Byron, and Rockford Park District – what kind of rare stuff they had, and if they’d be willing to trade.  It was immediately obvious that there was a good opportunity here, and the idea of expanding it into a larger network followed pretty quickly.”

Ed moved west last year for grad school and left the leadership of the group to Aaron “Ace”Minson from Boone County Conservation District and Josh Clark from DeKalb County Forest Preserve. The group goals remain the same; share locally rare and uncommon seed, work together to restore historically common species that have declined, share seed resources that may be common for some  in the group but not others, and share knowledge and information about seed collection, processing, storage and mixing.

One of our major initiatives has been the growing and sharing of focal species. This past year our focal species was Hypoxis hirsuta (Yellow Star Grass).  Hypoxis hirsuta used to be common throughout the tallgrass region in prairies ranging from dry to moist, but now it is fairly uncommon. We felt that Hypoxis hirsuta was an ideal selection because multiple agencies had a little bit to offer, leading to a pretty substantial seed resource or at least more than one agency could have collected on their own. We are hopeful that going forward we can identify similar, regionally rare species, which we can assemble into a significant shareable seed resource and enhance their prevalence in the region.

The Hypoxis seed that was collected in 2019 was distributed to four organizations. Each organization is using different methods to propagate or create populations. We will base our future growing methods for Hypoxis on our successes this year. We hope to eventually have enough seed or plants that each organization in the network will be able to try and establish populations on the lands they manage.

Hypoxis hirsuta (yellow star grass.  Family Amaryllidaceae)

The idea is fairly simple. Share what one has in excess with the other who has none of or very little for the benefit of the whole. Increasing plant diversity by sharing seed resources benefits the organization, pollinators, bugs, birds, the public and the ecosystem as a whole. We have come a long way from scouring cemetery prairie remnants for rare seed to the point where we are able to share these rare genetics across our region and attempt to save, restore, and recreate a little of what has been lost to progress and time.

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed… Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” – Henery David Thoreau

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10 Responses to Native Seed Exchange

  1. Iza says:

    This is so great to see! Congratulations!

    I wonder if you mix and exchange seeds with each other even if you have a stable population to diversify the genetics and potentially prep for climate change!
    I am also looking fwd to seeing what germinates and helps to establish yellow star grass!

    • Josh Clark says:

      While we have not focused specifically on sharing mixes some members did bring habitat specific mixes to the exchange. As the group moves forward we may be able to bring our resources together to make mixes that are designed to fit certain situations. Species that would be resilient to the ways our climate changes in the future would be one we would definitely consider.
      I think that sharing common species to diversify genetics would be something we will eventually accomplish by collecting seed off of each others properties. A few of us are already doing this and we hope to do more in the future.

  2. James McGee says:

    Is that a photo of a remnant? Either way, it is great looking.

    Citizen’s for Conservation in Barrington, IL is doing something similar. They rescued plants from development sites and collected seeds from railroad tracks, both of which are grown on their properties. For many years, they have been donating large amounts of seed from their properties to area Forest Preserves for prairie reconstruction. The next Grassland Restoration Network Conference will be at Citizen’s for Conservation. I am sure all the great work done by Citizen’s for Conservation will be covered in detail at the next conference.

    • Josh Clarj says:

      The photo is of a reconstruction at Afton Forest Preserve in DeKalb County. Planted in the early 2000’s.

      Luke Dahlberg was at our seed exchange so we are working with CFC!

    • Josh Clark says:

      We have representatives from Lake County (Kelly) and CFC (Luke) who are members of network. We are excited to have them and they are great assets.

      Excited for the conference this fall!

      • James McGee says:

        I wish the county where I live, Cook County, would allow seeds to be collected and shared. They often won’t even give permission to collect seeds and move them to another location in the same preserve.

        Citizen’s for Conservation gives the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) multiple barrels full of seed every year. However, the FPCC won’t even let volunteers give CFC the seed of the few species that CFC does not already possess for propagation. Only groups that have been doing seed collection and sowing in a given preserve for over 20 years seem to be allowed to continue the practice.

    • Josh Clark says:

      The photo is a prairie reconstruction at Afton Forest Preserve in DeKalb County. Afton was a worn out farm and is now a great recreation. Wetlands and prairies mostly. Some wooded areas. The Preserve is also a birding hot spot.

  3. meaninglab says:

    This sounds so encouraging! Are there ways one can contribute financially to the seed bank efforts?

    • Josh Clark says:

      We are not set up as a charitable organization and don’t really have the need for financial assistance (yet)…
      Thank you for the offer. Your positive words help us greatly!

      • Steve Diller says:

        It might be worth pondering. Ideally, of course, these plants would be in everyone’s yards, as well as in our restored prairies, to ensure a critical mass is in place for a broader restoration of their presence across the Midwest’s ecosystems. And the seed bank you’re developing is arguably the best way to ensure that can happen. If you can scale up faster, that day of substantive restoration can be years closer. I’m guessing some well-placed investment could help make that happen. 🙂

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