zacharys

If anyone is looking for a winter gardening project...

ZachS. z5 Platteville, Colorado
8 months ago
last modified: 8 months ago

Or a new form of torture.

I have a bunch of Abronia frangrans (snowball sand verbena) seed that I am trying to "clean." Sand verbenas (which are actually in the four o' clock family, Nyctaginaceae) produce their seeds in what is called an achene, a "dry, one seeded fruit that does not open to release the seed." Yes, each minuscule seed comes individually wrapped in its own lilliputian envelope that does not open!

Whats really great, aside from the fact they are reportedly so impossible to germinate and grow that at least one university conservatory has completely given up, is that according to the literature on growing Abronia sp. the seed MUST be removed from this wrapper if you have any hope of getting these guys to germinate at all. That's right, you have to take each one of these tiny fruits and try to rip open the wrapper with just the very tippy-tips of your fingers and remove the seed. One. By. One.

But wait, theres more! Not only do you have to complete this excruciating task, but you also get to play the most tedious version of Russian roulette on planet earth. Only about 4-5 out of every ten achenes even have a seed! Woah-ho-ho! After picking through what feels like thousands of of the frustrating little fruits, I so far have about a 1/8th of a teaspoon worth of seeds.

And did I mention how difficult they are to germinate? In order to get more than 15% of these diabolical prima donnas to awaken, most resort to chemical warfare. Soaking the unwrapped seeds in hydrocholric or sulfuric acid prior to sowing them.

You may be wondering "why the hell would ANYONE do this?" Well, after coaxing this little shrinking violet from her agonizingly deep slumber, and hopefully getting her to spread her roots and leaves in your garden, this is you're reward:



(not my photo, the pictures I have don't do this fabulous plant justice)

And if the species name fragrans didn't tip you off, the smell is oh so sweet.

It bears noting that these beauties are most at home in extremely sandy soils in the southwestern deserts and arid high plains and supposedly evolved to withstand being eaten by small mammals and passed through their digestive systems before they sprout. Both their habitat and, ummm, "life history" helps explain their prolonged, resilient dormancy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum I am also cleaning a bunch of Curcurbita foetidissima (buffalo gourd) seed. This is a wild cousin cousin of the pumpkins and squash but is shockingly bitter and again, as the species name attests (foetidissima="fetid"), makes your fingers smell like a bag of old gym socks after picking through the pulp (which is like a cross between spaghetti squash and boot leather). Plus, it's a hardy perennial! While cleaning these seeds might be a bit stinky and sticky, it's not nearly as maddening as the verbena seeds and it apparently doesn't even need cold stratification to break dormancy.





(These are my pictures and is actually the plant I collected the fruits from)

Comments (14)

  • dbarron
    8 months ago

    Lol, I salute your gardening soul. Yes, some plants seem designed to off-put gardeners.

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  • ZachS. z5 Platteville, Colorado
    Original Author
    8 months ago

    Come on, Greg this doesn't sound like a rip-roaring good time? (Makes planting onion seeds seem like a day at the park).


    Dbarron, I don't have a lot of high hopes for the sand verbena. I don't know where to buy hydrochloric or sulfuric acid (and I'm sure that a Google search for the stuff will land me on a federal watch list somewhere) so I don't know what to do about the acid scarification (apparently traditional scarification doesn't work). If it germinates I'll be thrilled. If it survives and flourishes, I'll be even thrilled-er. My soil is very sandy, being as we live on the river bottom, but is a little different than the fine grained, powder dry stuff I typically find these guys growing in. Time will tell!

  • dbarron
    8 months ago

    A scientific supply house..and I don't think it's a federally watched ingredient :) Or if you know someone who works with these things, ask for a very small amount?

  • Skybird - z5, Denver, Colorado
    8 months ago
    last modified: 8 months ago

    Hi Zach,

    You can get sulfuric acid at walmart! It’s called Liquid Lightening! It’s drain cleaner!!! I’d give you a little bit of mine—but—I have a new jug and I want to keep it sealed until I possibly need it some day! I think Ace might have the same thing, but called Liquid Fire or something close to that. At WM you find the stuff in the hardware department, not in the grocery department with the “normal”—useless!—drain cleaners!

    Having said that! There are a couple other things I’d be inclined to try first! If you want to try to scarify them---take a magnifying glass and a teensy tiny little knife, then clamp the seed in a teensy tiny little clamp and ….. Alright! That might not work!!! What I seriously recommend—don’t know if it would work!—is to get a couple sheets of fine emery cloth and securely tape three sides of two 6” x 6” or about 8” x 8” pieces together so there’s nowhere any seeds can “fall out,” and then put “some” seeds in “the bag,” obviously keeping the open end far enough UP so they can’t fall out, and, assuming there’s enough “play” in the emery cloth, rub the “two sides” back and forth against each other with the seeds between them. I guess you could also just put some seeds in a pan and “rub” the emery cloth back and forth over them, but it seems to me they’d just “roll around” and wouldn’t be “damaged!” I’ve never actually tried to scarify anything! Just don’t have the patience to sit with a knife trying to “nick” individual seeds!

    But this is something I HAVE done! A few years back I decided I wanted to grow some sweet grass, Hierochloe odorata—which is also very difficult to germinate! You can buy “starter plants,” but they’re very expensive for a little tiny plant, and I love to start seeds so I decided to try it that way. From everything I read about how hard they are to germinate and how low the germination rate is, I bought two packs of seed—just to be sure! I didn’t do anything at all to the (tiny!) seeds before sowing them. I put several seeds in each of four 2” pots and saturated the soil. I put them in the fridge for a couple weeks and then got them back out to room temp for several weeks—no results! I stuck them in the freezer for a few weeks and got them back out again for a while—no love! For the next year+ I just kept alternating them “from place to place,” with no rhyme or reason to where I stuck them next! Sometimes I “forgot” them in the back of the fridge or freezer for a month or two! When I first put them in the fridge I had two pots in each of two sandwich baggies, so when they were in the fridge or freezer I zipped the top shut, and when they were at room temp I opened the top in varying degrees, depending on how wet they were and how warm it was. More than one time I considered “giving up,” but they didn’t take up much room, and except for “checking” on them every now and then I didn’t need to do anything but move them from place to place every now and then, so I kept doing it!

    A little more than a year later, when I was “moving” them one time I saw a tiny little “spear” of green—no more than a eighth of an inch long! First I though I was imagining it, but when I looked closely there really was something there—but I still didn’t believe it was sweet grass! I kind of thought it might be some form of fungus or something—after all the time moving the pots from here to there and back again! I kept that pot at room temp, and after a couple weeks I was starting to believe that one of the seeds might have actually germinated! It had! And from that one 1/8” seedling I wound up with a pot full of it—it’s rhizomatous! It’s a hardy plant, but it’s also considered to be invasive “where it naturally grows,” so I’m afraid to plant it in the ground and have kept it in a pot—so far—about three years now. When I have the pot outside in summer it doesn’t grow at all and a couple times I thought it was dying! When I have the pot inside over winter it starts to grow pretty well—but my ultimate goal was to eventually get enough long grass to be able to make at least a couple of my own homemade sweetgrass braids, and it doesn’t get long enough to do that inside. Eventually I might try sticking some in the ground outside to see what happens—but haven’t decided to do that yet! (It’s a bog plant, Zach, so maybe some day if I get a big enough start I’ll bring a piece up to you and you can plant it out on the farm there somewhere!!!)

    My theory with starting the seeds was that “in nature” they start all by themselves, so somehow, sometime, they ought to start for me—and they did--eventually! So I’d go with the same theory with your Abronia seed! From what you’ve said, I think with your seeds I might try putting some in HOT water and soaking them for a day or two—or four or five! Then I’d stick them in the freezer (probably folded in damp paper towel) for a week or two—my theory being the possibility that the freezing of the wet seeds would expand them enough to break the “indestructible” covering on them! Then put them in soil and play temperature musical chairs with them for a year or two! I have absolutely no idea if it would work or not, but—what do you have to lose?!? With your seeds, too, they germinate out “in nature” all by themselves, so SOMETHING is causing at least some of them to germinate! By changing the temps back and forth over time, to my way of thinking!, odds are you’ll hit the “right combination of temps" at some point! You might want to try winter sowing a few of them and let Mother Nature do her work for you to see if you get anything. If you try that I’d sow a few seeds in a couple different small pots, soak them, seal them in a baggie (maybe after letting them air dry for a couple days), and then stick them outside somewhere where they’re out of direct sun at all times. Possibly in one of your buildings up there! When it starts to consistently warm up, open the baggies enough for them to have some air circulation and keep an eye on them that they don’t dry out all the way. Again, what do you have to lose! [Heck! If you have enough seed you could even take a few of them and hit them lightly with a hammer, hoping to break the covering without “damaging” the germ! Depends on how many seeds you have!]

    I love fragrant flowers—there are so few of them, and that one is really pretty!

    I don’t quite get why you’re planning to grow the second one! Doesn’t sound edible, and the bottom pic, if it didn’t have the yellow flowers, almost looks like some variation of that unmentionable plant—bindweed!

    I LOVE growing things from seeds! To take something SO tiny and wind up with a big, beautiful Green Growin’ Thing is a mystical thing to me!

    Skybird

  • ZachS. z5 Platteville, Colorado
    Original Author
    8 months ago
    last modified: 8 months ago

    Awesome Skybird! I will definitely try the "liquid lightning" treatment. I will also be "winter sowing the seeds, well, actually my plan for the Abronia seeds is to artificially stratify the seed in the fridge for about two months, then give them the acid bath then "winter" sow them in March or April hoping the catch the last 6-8 weeks of our freeze/thaw cycle. I might try the more "traditional" scarification (sandpaper/emery board) on some of them, but all the resources I've found on this species has said that it does not seem to improve germination. If I don't get any sprouts of these guys this year, I am fully prepared to wait it out. I've had Palmer's penstemon seeds that I gave up on pop up the following spring in the bucket I dumped the cups out in the year prior. You are right though, SOMETHING triggers these plants to grow, since they do it all the time without any help from us. But, a few species of sand verbena are endangered (this one isn't) which could be a side effect of poor reproductive rates. Others, especially species and populations from the low deserts in California and Arizona, might grow and flower only once or twice a decade during "super blooms." It would seem even mother nature has a trying time with this particular genus.

    I love your story about the sweetgrass. If you ever feel like you want more, but don't want to wait, you can buy started plants from Prairie Moon, but I think the fact your persistence and patience paid off and you successfully grew what is widely regarded as a "difficult" seed is far and away more satisfying. I think that is part of the attraction for the sand verbena for me.

    Grasses are typically divided into two groups, the C3 "cool season" grasses and the C4 "warm season" grasses. From your description of it "looking dead" in the summer, I suspected yours was the former and it turns out, it is! Sweetgrass will actively grow in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall and go dormant in the heat of summer. I wonder if you tried putting it outside earlier in the year (like March) or even leaving it outside over the winter (it should be plenty hardy enough) if you would see more growth on it. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) it starts active growth at soil temperatures of about 40 degrees. If you DO decide to put it in the ground, I also wonder if it would be kept in check by the fact your garden might not be as wet as it typically grows. The Maximilian sunflower that I got from you a few years ago has not spread in the "potters clay" (as you call it ;) that I have it in at my mom's house. It has formed a nice clump and spread MAYBE a foot out from that and I think I planted it in 2015(?). Sweetgrass would be a great plant to have out here, unfortunately I don't know how well it would hold up to the jackboot of rampaging cattails. I haven't found a single plant, even the ones often touted as "strongly rhizomatous" "not good for small landscapes" "could be invasive in a garden setting" that don't get out competed by cattails. Even the prairie cordgrass, which has some of the deepest, strongest and overall toughest rhizomes I ever ever encountered has been reduced to just a few small spots in their wake.

    Why I'm growing the buffalo gourd, I think it's a cool and unique plant. We're all used to seeing pumpkins or butternuts in the vegetable garden, but to see one growing out in the middle of the dry prairie sprawling in all directions with its huge, blue-gray leaves and big yellow flowers is not something people would expect to find. It's also beloved by our native squash bees (Peponapis pruinosa). While it does have vines like the dastardly bindweed, its a much BIGGER plant (if you look carefully at the second picture, there is some bindweed in the lower-left corner) and doesn't spread through rhizomes. Instead it had an enormous, tuberous taproot. It is edible, well at least it's not poisonous and while the stringy flesh is very, VERY bitter, you could roast and eat the seeds and they apparently just taste like pumpkin seeds. Also, don't forget that cactus are my favorite plants and I have purposely planted Yucca glauca on more than one occasion.

    I have gone a little crazy with my native seed plans this year. Trying to make up for my abysmal gardening year last year coupled with the severe onset of winter-induced cabin fever has lead me to have some pretty grandiose plans. Luckily most of my seed is stuff I've collected over the years and have on hand, but I have to admit I went a little overboard on purchasing a few as well (including ordering some started plants to hedge my bets). Now the only thing is carving out the time to do it. I think overall I will be winter sowing and artificially stratifying something like 25-30 different species (give or take a few).

    The thing is, I've never had very good luck with the whole winter sowing thing. My penstemons always wind up drowning no mater how fast draining I think think I've made my mix and other things always seem to sprout WAAAAY too early in their little "greenhouses." I also get extremely spotty germination with this method (which is one reason I plan on starting what will seem like a metric tonne of seed). But they wont be in little "mini greenhouses" this year. Last year I converted a bunch of the gazillion CRW tomato cages I have everywhere into low tunnels covered in landscape fabric. So I'm putting the seeds in starter pots/cups and setting them under these low tunnels. No plastic covering that will trap heat and trick seeds into sprouting to early and the weed fabric will let water from snowmelt and rain pass through as well. I will probably have to take a more active role in supplementing water since there wont be a true "lid" to contain the moisture though, but that should help alleviate the damp off which I have had problems with with winter sowing as well. But the fact is I don't have nearly enough indoor space to grow plants and all of it will be taken up by stuff that really does need it like tomatoes and peppers. Like you said, these plants germinate and grow outdoors in our climate and weather all the time without our assistance so that's what I'm counting on. Besides that, I have TRIED to start native grasses and perennials indoors in the past and while many of them self sow with reckless abandon in the garden, I have never successfully raised a single little bluestem or hummngbird mint or purple coneflower from seed inside under lights. All of them have keeled over well before transplant time.

    I, too, love starting seeds. Watching the creation of life from but a small hard speck is nothing short of miraculous. “Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how" wrote Aldo Leopold, "To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree - and there will be one.”

    I do have to admit that taking care of indoor grown seedlings for weeks and weeks however is not my favorite part of gardening.

  • Skybird - z5, Denver, Colorado
    8 months ago
    last modified: 8 months ago

    Hi Zach,

    If you're planning to put seed outside for "winter sowing" in March or April I think you're gonna be disappointed! One year I was planning to do "regular" winter sowing, but I didn't "get around to it" till late March, but did it anyway, thinking that "surely we'd get enough cold weather" for it to work! We didn't--and it didn't! I wound up with something that amounted to "indoor sowing" but trying to take care of it OUTSIDE! It just didn't work, and would have been much easier to take care of if I had just grown them inside! If you're gonna stratify them inside (I'd recommend adding some "freezer time" to the "fridge time"), I think you might be better off when we're getting into spring if you just get them out of the fridge/freezer and start them inside--where they're much easier to "keep an eye on" in terms of moisture. Think about it!

    I way agree with you about how "tiring" it gets to be taking care of the things you start inside until they can be planted out! When I start my tomatoes and eggplants I need to carry them outside every morning and back in every nite since I have absolutely no light inside--and also since I have become totally convinced about how important it is for them to get wind as they start to develop! It gets SO old when I'm going on the sixth week--carrying them in and out and in and out and.....

    With the sweetgrass, last summer I was starting to figure out that it really wasn't liking the heat at all--I keep it on my deck where it gets west sun! I had pretty much decided that this summer I'm gonna put the pot along the back of my house somewhere, which is on the north side of a two story house! At mid-summer it does get SOME sun, but no more than an hour or two, so I'm gonna see how it goes out there!

    With the Helianthus maximiliani I think you may not be out of the woods yet!!! For the first 4 or 5 years I was thinking the same thing! Mine got "a little bit" bigger each year and I was wondering if everything that said it was invasive was lying! And then! It happened! All of a sudden one year it was going everywhere! It seemed to be easy to pull out the "runners" since they were near the surface, so that's what I did that year! The next year it was oh-my-god-all-over-the-place, and that's when I decided to LOSE it for good--before it could take over the whole yard! And mine WAS in "potter's clay!" So still "keep and eye on it!"

    I got my sweetgrass seed from Prairie Moon in '16, and got a bunch of wildflower seed packets at the same time--I was hoping to be able to plant them on the mesa top out at the trailhead on Ute Mountain Tribal Park, but "the opportunity" to do that has still not presented itself at this point, so I still have them all! I don't know what you may have ordered for yourself, but if you'd like 6-12 seeds of any of the things that I have--enough to start a couple, reseeding!, plants--I'll count them out for you and get them to you the next time we're at a swap together or see each other some other place! Here's what I have:

    Physocarpus opulifolius, Prairie Ninebark (This is obviously a bush!)

    Coreopsis palmate, Prairie Coreopsis

    Echinacea angustifolia, Narrow-leaved Coneflower

    Echinacea pallida, Pale Purple Coneflower

    Liatris punctata, Dotted Blazing Star

    Lupinus perennis, Wild Lupine

    Ratibida columnifera, Long-headed Coneflower

    Solidago nemoralis, Old Field Goldenrod

    Sorghastrum nutans, Indian Grass

    And I also got some sacred tobacco to grow to give to a friend, which I've done, so I have lots of seeds left, and if you'd like a few seeds of Nicotiana rustica, Midewiwan Sacred Tobacco, an annual (reseeding?), you can have some of them too!

    Let me know if you want some of any/all of those!

    Gotta go for tonite!

    Skybird

    P.S. I still am planning to reply to your email--sometime!


  • dandy_line (Z3b N Cent Mn)
    8 months ago
    last modified: 8 months ago

    Simple solution to a complex problem: Get a bird, any bird should do. Feed it seeds, then collect its poop. Voila-instead seed cleaning.

    ps: you can mail me the royalties for this great idea.

  • ZachS. z5 Platteville, Colorado
    Original Author
    8 months ago

    Skybird, are you saying to just germinate them indoors and move them outside as soon as they sprout or try to grow them as seedlings inside? I could try the first option, or maybe try getting them to germinate in the big metal outbuilding? I unfortunately don't have either the shelf space or the lights to try and grow the seedlings past germination though.

    Wind definitely makes for stronger, "beefier" seedlings. I keep a fan running on mine until we get days that are nice enough to start hauling them outside in the morning. Of course, once that happens and they start getting natural wind, I have to worry about it being a bit "too much." I have come home from work before to find pots and seedlings that were sent helter-skelter, rumble-tumble all over the yard. It doesn't usually hurt them too much as long as the stems don't get broken and roots aren't exposed for too long, but it's not a great deal of fun re-planting dozens of seedlings. Thankfully that hasn't happened on too many occasions. The carting in and out sure does get old. Especially once you've got them pretty much hardened off, and the weather is nice enough to just leave them outside all night and Boom! The weather man calls for 8-12" of snow on Mother's Day and they stuck inside for another week and the whole process starts all over again! I never "schedule" the official plant out day until the last week of May-first week of June because of that very reason but it sure would be nice if we didn't have to tote them in and out for as long as we do around here!

    I hope your sweetgrass does well! I will tell you that the heat shouldn't kill it outright (unless it also dries out). It should just "shut down" for a little while after flowering in late spring-early summer (an adaptation by cool season grasses to take advantage of the wet season and resist the dryer times of the year) and then you should get a little bit of new growth on it once the weather cools back down before it goes back to sleep for the winter. But, I have never tried to grow this grass, either in nature or here at home, so I don't want to give you the wrong information and have you lose a plant you worked so hard to get to grow!

    I got my Prairie Moon seeds today! Not ALL of them are native to this part of the country, but I've never been much of a hardliner when it comes to my gardening. After all, it's a garden, not a restoration site, but with that being said I TRY to be conscientious of growing things that could potentially become naturalized in the surrounding area. Anyway I got anise hyssop, purple coneflower, Rocky Mountain bee plant (I actually discovered I have a bunch of this seed tucked away so now I have a lot more than I thought I did), Joe Pye weed, hoary vervain (I have blue vervain growing wild around the ponds, but this is an upland species of Verbena that will do better up here by the house). We've also got soaproot yucca (the same one that most people try desperately to get rid of) and three species of milkweed (speciosa, incarnata, and arenaria).

    I'm always interested in seed Skybird! Let me know if there is anything I have that might be of interest to you as well (I also have a lot of collected seed) and I will set some aside for you!

    Oh! here's another one that most people will think I'm a bit "crazy" for wanting to grow:

    One of our NATIVE prairie thistles, Cirsium undulatum. At least I think it was wavyleaf thistle, but there is also Platte and yellowspine thistle growing in the area and it could be either of those (I collected the seed in 2018 so I can't remember 100% which one it was). Thistles are HIGHLY desirable to pollinators, which is why I want to grow this guy, but a great many of the ones growing along the Front Range are the noxious and invasive species. So, if you are an odd-ball like me and you plan on collecting seed/growing thistles, I implore you to make sure you are absolutely certain that it is not musk, Scotch, Canada, or bull thistle.

  • ZachS. z5 Platteville, Colorado
    Original Author
    8 months ago

    Dandy, I actually did consider feeding some to my chickens, but following them around for a day or two to collect their poop sounds like every bit as much of a hassle as just cleaning the seeds haha.

  • dandy_line (Z3b N Cent Mn)
    8 months ago

    Borrow, or rent a parakeet in a cage for few days. Collect the paper on the bottom of the tray. Should be easy-peasy.

  • Duffy Meadows
    3 months ago

    You had me at smelly gym socks. Lol! This reminds me of hoary puccoon. It grows like mad in our sand prairie but is apparently impossible to germinate or propagate.


  • ZachS. z5 Platteville, Colorado
    Original Author
    3 months ago

    Yeah, they are super neat smelling, haha. We get a lot of fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) I've never thought about trying trying to collect seeds or propagate it though. According to a University of Nebraska study, L. incisum seeds "readily germinate with no pretreatment."

  • Jay 6a Chicago
    3 months ago

    Zach, here is some good info about insisum seeds from the former president of our native plant society.

    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1883933581743189&id=100003796964585