COLUMNS


Wild Germination

By Rebekah L. Fraser




Cayte McDonough reveals the elaiosome in a red trillium seedpod.
Photos by Rebekah L. Fraser.

Stroll the produce section of any health food store or visit your local farmers' market and you're likely to see some unusual offerings: wild edibles. In New England, health-conscious consumers pay premium prices for fiddlehead ferns, elderberry jam and beverages, and other natives that many gardeners and farmers still consider weeds. While some suppliers may simply be foraging, it's clear others are carefully and purposefully growing plots of edible native species. This benefits not only health-conscious people, but also indigenous pollinators and wildlife that depend on native plants for food and shelter.

As people become more aware of the advantages of eating wild edibles and growing native species that are inedible for humans but beneficial to the local insects and fauna, the work of Cayte McDonough will become even more important. The nursery production manager for the New England Wild Flower Society, McDonough propagates plants that are native to New England and bordering ecoregions at Nasami Farm Nursery. By making common native species of perennial wildflowers, grasses, ferns, trees and shrubs available to home gardeners and commercial farmers, McDonough supports the local ecosystem and helps maintain its biodiversity. In a recent visit to the New England Wild Flower Society's lab and greenhouses at Nasami Farm in Whately, Mass., I observed McDonough preparing seeds for germination trials.

McDonough's passion for plants is clear as she handles each seedpod, but she looks especially pleased to show off the berry of a native Trillium erectum. Red trillium takes five to seven years to grow a flowering plant, and it's tricky, even for a horticulturalist. McDonough and her colleagues hope to shave a year off germination time by collecting and sowing the seed early. She peels open a trillium berry, revealing a seed with its fleshy appendage, a sticky substance called elaiosome that attracts ants, which disperse the seed in the wild.

If there's a question about viability, McDonough will examine the seed under a microscope. "We cut into the seed and look for an appearance similar to the inside of a coconut: white and firm. If it has holes or dark spots, we know that a parasite has attacked or there has been some decay. We can't grow the seeds we cut, but can presume the seed lot is viable if the few that we examine are viable," she explains.

Viable seeds are stored until the appropriate season for sowing. Recent work with Geranium maculatum revealed surprising information about when to sow the seed. Wild geranium seed needs to go through a cold period and does not tolerate dry storage. In autumn 2011, McDonough sowed wild geranium that had been carefully stored in a plastic baggie in the refrigerator for several months. Germination was very poor. "Last year, we decided to sow it into seed flats immediately after collecting it in late spring. We stored it in the greenhouse. The results were excellent," she notes.

This probably mimics G. maculatum's natural process. G. maculatum has five seeds, each in a capsule. The capsules start out pressed down against the stem. At the end of the season, as the plant dries out, these capsules spring up like a catapult to disperse the seeds. Thus, in nature, the seeds would land in the cool, moist soil, where they would overwinter before germinating in the spring.

After experiencing low germination with Tiarella cordifolia in 2012, McDonough plans to try sowing it early this year, using the same process that succeeded with wild geranium. "We're still playing around with the timing and storage," she says.

Earlier this year, staff at Nasami Farm celebrated the successful germination of Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana), an attractive woodland plant whose small tuberous roots taste like cucumber. Not much has been written about how to grow this species, and it isn't readily available in nurseries. "We hope to offer this for sale in the nursery in a few years," she says.

McDonough and her colleagues at the New England Wild Flower Society value genetic diversity. They want healthy plants, but not necessarily uniform plants. She says, "As long as it's a healthy plant, we'll consider growing it. That's not to say we haven't selected for traits. We have a grass that the organization is in the process of having patented, but that's not our focus now. We're not out looking for the next new clone."

Note to western Massachusetts farmers: Four greenhouses and about 5 acres at Nasami Farm are open and available for lease to a compatible nursery or farming operation. Learn more about the New England Wild Flower Society and Nasami Farm at http://www.newenglandwild.org.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.