Inconsistent Seed Germination is Nature's Plan for Native Perennials

Photo: Native primrose

Ken Boettger a member the listserve Trillium-L, explains why inconsistent seed germination is part of Mother Nature's Plan. (See Boettger's Alpine WildSeed of Ellensburg WA)

With Ken's permission, here are his comments -

"In the native plant industry this adaptation (difficult or long term germination potential) is beneficial to 'Seed Soil Reserves'.

The idea is that the seeds are predisposed to be difficult to germinate.

Ecologically, you want germination variability.

There are many examples, but here is one. Plants produce seed. All seeds germinate immediately. Spring turns out to be very hot and dry and all wither and die. The plants then lose their gene pool and if a wildfire happens to come through that year and kill the parents, the plants are entirely gone from the site with no progeny. Rather, the plants benefit from some seed germinating this year, some next year, some three years from now.

The probability of at least one germination group finding good spring conditions greatly improves. And if a wildfire happens to come through and kill the parents, some of the seed that did not germinate from previous years and may have been buried by trampling, insects, rodents,etc, would be available to germinate in future years. And so the plants depend upon inconsistent germination.

Annuals many times do not follow this rule nor do those plants that have seed carried on the wind.

But perennials that shed seed locally tend to follow this soil seed reserve model.

Native plants do not like to put all their seeds in one basket. It's a male adaptation thing in many animal species, too, and common throughout nature.

In any event, this is why native plants are difficult to germinate.

Sometimes the seeds are adapted to a particular natural cyclic environmental process, whether
this be wildfire or going through a birds gullet (aka, acid treatment).

The seeds develop germination requirements that are related to the environment from which they came.

Again, there are many examples, but Australia was one of the first to do work on smoke treatment to stimulate germination. But in many cases, there is still variable germination. Some seeds germinating the first year after treatment, some the second, etc.

Boettger's inspiring Mission Statement is on his website. Here are excerpts -
"My (our) mission is to provide an ecological and sustainable alternative of native floral services to support private and public nurseries and industry in their efforts to embrace wildland reclamation.

My reclamation with native plants began in 1981 while employed with the US Forest Service as a back country ranger. . . . This eventually led to early reclamation projects in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. I was involved in some of the first reclamation projects utilizing native plants in the northwest.

. . . There is more to native seeds than sales and I fear a large corporate and largely financial influence would tend to erode my true ecological concerns and a sustained effort to promote genotypical native seed. As with the care of my plant communities, my philosophy is one of managed, contained and sustained growth.

I strive to think in the long term rather than the short term. The greatest gift in life, the most challenging path to follow, is to be successful in striving to give rather than taking for ourselves.

. . . As the sole owner of the business, I do all my own field collections as well as the administrative side and lab work here at my home. Ultimately, I hope that our efforts contribute to a greater sense and ecological concern in business and our way of life."


kate said…
This is really interesting and shows, yet again, how intelligent plants are.
Anonymous said…
And, all these years I thought seeds not germinating was a result of poor gardening.
Now I know to not give up so soon. Some perennial gardeners make a place in the garden for perennial seeds that they leave in place for 3-years before they give up.
Must learn more patience.

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