COLLECTING NATIVE SEED IN SUBARCTIC ONTARIO, CANADA

By Brittany Rantala-Sykes and Daniel Campbell, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Mining and resource extraction has extended over the past couple of decades into the remote subarctic regions of northern Ontario and is set to expand further. For instance, the Ontario government recently announced agreements with three First Nation communities to build a road to access the large mineral deposit known as the ‘Ring of Fire’ in the remote far north of Ontario. The Ring of Fire mineral deposit is approximately 5000 km2 and could provide over a century of mining. Existing mine developments in the region have strict agreements with local First Nation communities to use only native plants for their mine closure revegetation. However, the local native seed supply in northern Canada is limited, and in northern Ontario, it does not exist.
    Mining companies have few choices. They can purchase seed from a limited number of species that are sourced from far away (>1000 km west or south). They can collect seed themselves from local wild populations. Or, they can encourage people from local communities to collect and sell native seed. Collecting seeds locally, or within seed zones and from a comparable habitat (i.e., moisture regime, soil type) poses the lowest ecological risk and leads to better survival of plantings over the long term (Jones et al. 2001, O’Brien et al. 2007, Vander Mijnsbrugge et al. 2010). Mine restoration planners are unlikely to possess the local knowledge needed to find and collect desired seed. In contrast, local people may be familiar with plant abundances and their regional phenology, although they may require some training on sustainable collection practices and seed cleaning procedures. For both ecological and economic reasons, local seed collection by nearby communities should be encouraged for the restoration of current and future developments in the region. 
    Our research focused on the developing simple protocols that use accessible and inexpensive equipment for seed collection and processing. We have published our general protocols online along with species-specific protocols for collecting, cleaning, storing and propagating 60 species which may be useful for the rehabilitation of mined lands (www.nativewildseed.wixsite.com/nativewildseed).

Figure 1. Simple container ideas free up the collectors hands and increase the seed yields. (A) To collect from moderate-sized shrubs, a bucket is tied to the collector leaving both hands to collect the seed. (B) A tarp placed below a bountiful buffaloberry bush increases collection rates. (C) For low growing species, buckets tied to the collector free their hands for collecting. (D) Using a pole with a hook and hand pruners allows for the collection of seed from trees such as poplars into large paper leaf bags.

Figure 1. Simple container ideas free up the collectors hands and increase the seed yields. (A) To collect from moderate-sized shrubs, a bucket is tied to the collector leaving both hands to collect the seed. (B) A tarp placed below a bountiful buffaloberry bush increases collection rates. (C) For low growing species, buckets tied to the collector free their hands for collecting. (D) Using a pole with a hook and hand pruners allows for the collection of seed from trees such as poplars into large paper leaf bags.

    We emphasize the importance of considering plant traits when planning to collect native seed, such as the height or location of the seed, the anticipated volume of the collection, how evenly the fruit ripens, and whether the plants have defenses which make collection challenging (e.g. prickles). A few simple strategies and tools can double collection rates.  For instance, using containers tied to the collector allows you to collect with both hands (Fig. 1A). Or placing a small sheet below the plant, then flailing the branches onto the sheet or your running hands along the stem to dislodge the fruit increases collection rates (Fig. 1B). Simple hand tools or readily-available power tools can also increase seed yields at a low cost (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Simple hand tools such as A) the berry rake, B) scissors, C) pole with a terminal rubber hook, and D) a reverse leaf blower can increase collection rates and the comfort of the collector.

Figure 2. Simple hand tools such as A) the berry rake, B) scissors, C) pole with a terminal rubber hook, and D) a reverse leaf blower can increase collection rates and the comfort of the collector.

Seeds must be cleaned to maintain seed quality in storage and to sell them, but there is no doubt that it can be time consuming without mechanized equipment. However, it is also quite costly and unrealistic to ship seed away to a processing facility or to purchase mechanical seed cleaning equipment. To simplify the process, we compiled and modified existing seed cleaning protocols for several native species.

Threshing can be used to separate seed from the fruit once dried (Fig. 3A) or for larger seeded berries that may be damaged by a blender (Figs. 3B and 3C). Threshing can also break pappus hairs from the achenes of asters and goldenrods (Fig. 3D), or separate seed from the plant stalk (Fig. 3E). The shop vacuum technique (Fig. 4) and the blender technique are also simple and inexpensive ways to clean seed to a high degree of purity.

Figure 3. The threshing technique modified from Young and Young (1986), used A) to separate ninebark seed from the fruit once dried; B&C) to crush large-seeded dogwood berries; D) to break off pappus hairs from achenes of aster; E) to separate slender wheatgrass seed from the plant stalk.

Figure 3. The threshing technique modified from Young and Young (1986), used A) to separate ninebark seed from the fruit once dried; B&C) to crush large-seeded dogwood berries; D) to break off pappus hairs from achenes of aster; E) to separate slender wheatgrass seed from the plant stalk.

Figure 4. The shop-vacuum technique, used for cleaning long haired seed such as the poplars, willows and fireweed, modified from Fung and Hamel (1993).

Figure 4. The shop-vacuum technique, used for cleaning long haired seed such as the poplars, willows and fireweed, modified from Fung and Hamel (1993).

We are currently hosting workshops at the Victor diamond mine and in the First Nation community of Attawapiskat to teach people how to collect and clean native seed and to test seed quality (Figs. 5 and 6). The goals of the workshops are to improve the understanding and efficiency of collecting seeds from wild native plants and to build the capacity for small seed collection businesses. We hope our research will encourage small businesses in local communities to collect seed and increase the native seed supply in the far north of Ontario.

Figure 5. Youth seed collectors in Attawapiskat First Nation, collecting catkins from a balsam poplar tree using a pole with a hook and hand’s free collection containers.

Figure 5. Youth seed collectors in Attawapiskat First Nation, collecting catkins from a balsam poplar tree using a pole with a hook and hand’s free collection containers.

Figure 6. Attawapiskat First nation youth seed collectors are learning about alternative propagation strategies for a native species with low seed yields.

Figure 6. Attawapiskat First nation youth seed collectors are learning about alternative propagation strategies for a native species with low seed yields.

Literature cited

Fung, M. Y. P., and B. A. Hamel. 1993. Aspen seed collection and extraction. Tree Planters’ Notes 44:98–100.

Jones, A. T., M. J. Hayes, and N. R. Sackville Hamilton. 2001. The effect of provenance on the performance of Crataegus monogyna in hedges. Journal of Applied Ecology 38:952–962.

Vander Mijnsbrugge, K., A. Bischoff, and B. Smith. 2010. A question of origin: Where and how to collect seed for ecological restoration. Basic and Applied Ecology 11:300–311.

O’Brien, E. K., R. A. Mazanec, and S. L. Krauss. 2007. Provenance variation of ecologically important traits of forest trees: implications for restoration. Journal of Applied Ecology 44:583–593.

Young, J. A, and C. G. Young. 1986. Collecting processing and germinating seed of wildland plants. Timber Press, Portland, OR.