Why Common N.H. Plant Seeds Are Being Socked Away In A Vault

Sep 17, 2015

When hurricanes or other large storms roll in, we often focus on the human toll-- buildings destroyed, properties damaged.

But those same storms can also wreak havoc on ecosystems and the plants that are their foundation. And if a native system is wiped out, will it bounce back? One conservation group is trying to create a repository of native New England seeds, which can be used for just that purpose.

Michael Piantedosi from the New England Wildflower Society and his crew of four interns are tromping through the fields near the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Newington. It’s not the most idyllic scene – in fact it’s right under the flight path from the Pease Airforce Base – but it’s still a perfect spot to do some intelligent tinkering.

“Aldo Leopold says, in the Sand County Almanac, that the first step to intelligent tinkering is to save every cog and every wheel,” Piantedosi recites, “which gets to the heart of this matter, which is: hold on to it until you need it, and if you don’t need it, well you’ve still got it anyway.”

That century-old philosophy is what this crew is working at today: filing away all those cogs and wheels of New England’s coastal habitat.

The Wildflower Society has already stashed seeds from many rare or endangered plants, but today they are harvesting seeds from fifty native species of common New England plants. The project gets its funding from a $2.3 million grant that stemmed from the massive Hurricane Sandy relief bill that went through in the wake of the storm.

One of the interns, Emory Griffin-Noyes, grabs a milkweed pod, pulls it open and says it's ready to harvest.

“It has a kind of fleshy, leathery, oblong pod, and when you open it up you have a cluster of these chestnut 

Emory Griffin-Noyes demonstrates how milkweed seeds disperse themselves as the rest of the seed collection crew crunches the numbers to see if enough seeds are present to gather their sample.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

  brown flat seeds with these threadlike filaments attached.”

Griffin-Noyes pulls a pod or two from each plant as he walks past, and sticks it in a cloth bag. Back at base these seeds will be cleaned and dried.  Some of them will even be frozen and remain viable for maybe hundreds of years.

How Local Is Local Enough?

Normally, if a big storm rolls through and washes away a bunch of habitat, you’d have to go to a catalog or a nursery to order seeds. The problem is those seeds are often from far away, and just as there’s genetic diversity between people from different parts of the world, plants best adapted to survive in a certain place tend to be from that place.

“They are going to succeed if they have the ability to adapt. That means having a diversity of genes, that means having genes that are present in this immediate population and keeping them as rich as possible,” explains Piantedosi.

So how local is local enough? Turns out, very local.

For this project, they’re trying to collect their target plants from within 12 miles of the places they will be replanted.

And they won’t just sit around until some unspecified disaster happens. Some of these hardy survivors will be re-seeded just up the road in Dover, where the owner of the Sawyer Mills condo complex is hoping to remove the old, deficient dam that runs under the newly refurbished mill buildings.

Once the dam is gone, the water level will drop and all-of-a-sudden there will be some exposed soil.

It will look a lot like land damaged by a storm.

“Usually it just vegetates itself in, fairly readily,” says Kent Finemore, an engineer with New Hampshire’s 

The Sawyer Mills Dam in Dover will be the first New Hampshire site to receive plants from this collection, which will eventually be distributed to sites all over New England.

  Dam Bureau, “People are often concerned about having a mud pit, but it grows in pretty fast.”

And when nobody is paying much attention to what grows there? One can only guess, but what has sprung up already along the bank of the river could be a good indication.

“One of the things you can see pretty clearly is the purple which is purple loosestrife, which is an invasive species,” says Kevin Lucy, the habitat restoration coordinator with the Department of Environmental Services, “which speaks to the benefit of the work the New England Wildflower Society is doing, if we’re able to plant some native locally sourced seeds we can out-compete some of these invasives.”

Not For the Apocolypse.

Socking away seeds for storage for hundreds of years might sound like part of some plan for after the apocalypse-- after everything is destroyed, the survivors crawl out of their bunkers and start over.

But the seed collectors want to re-frame that idea.

“This is not waiting until the last minute, this is having things onhand, so that when there’s a need we can fill it as fast as possible,” said Griffin-Noyes

“Our goal is to take action now and fill that niche in 2015,” agrees Piantedosi.  “That’s all there is to that.”

So next time a big storm washes away chunks of the seacoast there will be seeds on hand, from just around the corner, ready to rebuild.