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Separating the Seeds from the Chaff

It is a common mistake made by those gardeners who wish to save their own seeds.  Just what part of a seed pod is actually the seed and what is the chaff, that part of a seed head that can be separated and thrown away.  Sounds easy to tell?  It is, if you are saving squash, tomato, sunflower and other easily distinguishable seeds.  However, if you have ever gone to a seed exchange, perhaps you have excitedly brought home a small zip lock bag full of handpicked, thin, sharp, dark brown “seeds” from the Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  After carefully planting and watering these “seeds” in your garden, you find that not even one grows.   Unfortunately at this point you have now joined the ranks of many gardeners in confusing the seeds from the chaff.

Coneflower, a native perennial, is one of the prettiest and easiest plants to grow in both full sun and even partial shade.  Though they prefer good, fertile soil, being a native plant, they will adapt to less hospitable areas and are hardy in USDA Zones 3-9.  Long-lived and drought tolerant once established, they are impervious to most insects and diseases.  A butterfly nectar plant, their seed filled cones are a favorite of song birds such as Goldfinches.

Purple Coneflower in Bloom

Hybrid Coneflowers now come in a wide variety of colors including pink, white, yellow, and orange.  Unfortunately for the seed saver, these hybrid varieties may not always reproduce true to their parent plant.  However the native Purple Coneflower is an easy plant from which to save seed, once you know the secret of distinguishing the seed from the chaff.

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To save the seed, wait until late summer or fall when the coneflowers begin to fade and the seed heads develop.  At this point, begin to keep an eye on the plant, so the seeds can be harvested at the right time: after the seeds have matured, but before they drop off or the birds eat them.

imageUsually the seed pod will turn from dark brown to black and the stem will begin to wilt.  At this point, if you inspect the seed pod, you can easily see small, light brown, bullet shaped seeds nestled in the spiky, woody seed pod.

To save the seed, one of the easiest methods is to cut the seed pod off, leaving a little stem, tie a paper bag around the stems and dry upside down, letting the seeds fall off themselves.  Another method is to manually separate the seeds from the spiky pod by crushing the pod.  Be sure and wear gloves when doing this as the needle-sharp dried spikes can be painful.  After the pod has been crushed, it is easy to pick out the plump, hard seeds.  They can be stored in a cool, dry place in a paper envelope or in an airtight container in the refrigerator.  The addition of a silica gel pack, found at craft stores, to the container will help keep the seeds dry.

So next time you are at a seed exchange and see a packet of sharp, brown, skinny spikes labeled Purple Coneflower seeds, remember that, just as in life, it is necessary to distinguish “the wheat from the chaff,”  Do not take that which is unnecessary but look instead for those light brown, plump seeds.  They are the ones to save.

Carolyn

Pictures by Ann

More about seed saving?  Click here.

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