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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.


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.


Pictures by Ann

More about seed saving?  Click here.

Seed Saving: It’s A Good Thing

Though it is not quite time yet for “autumn leaves to drift by my window,” it is getting to be time for gardeners to start thinking about saving seeds from their favorite plants and flowers.  Dr. Tom Wilten, when he taught the Dallas County Master Gardener class on propagation, developed a list of ten reasons why someone might want to propagate plants from seeds and cuttings.   Some of these reasons included to save money, produce a genetically identical plant from cuttings, etc.  However, for some gardeners, it just seems inherently “right” to connect with the entire life cycle of a plant.

Seed Saving, Dallas Garden Buzz

Here we are connecting with the entire life cycle of the plant, in our kitchen, saving seeds.

When thinking about saving seeds, there are several factors that one should consider.  It is important to remember that not all seeds can be legally, or should be, saved.  According to Willaim Woys Weaver, author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening,  there are basically three different kinds of seeds.  Only one of these three kinds of seeds can, or should, be saved:

1) Genetically modified seeds (GM seeds):  These are seeds that have been artificially changed to make them resistant to pathogens and/or herbicides.  No matter what you may philosophically or medically think about the use and consumption of plants grown from GM seeds, it is against the law to save GM seeds since they are patented.  One cannot legally save seeds from or reproduce a GM patented plant unless you pay the maker a royalty.  In general, the average homeowner does not have to worry about this as currently GM seeds are used by huge commercial growers who grow monocultures, such as corn, soybeans, etc.  However, if growing a patented plant, just be aware of this.

2)  F1 Hybrid seeds:  This is another type of patented seed that is a cross between different plant species.  F1 refers to Filial 1:  the first filial generation of seeds/plants resulting from a cross mating of distinctly different parental types. These are commonly found in seed catalogues and purchased by homeowners.  One should not however save seeds from F1 hybrid plants because they will not grow true to type, plus after a few generations F1 hybrid plants will eventually lose the traits for which they were bred.  Most plants and seed packets are prominently labeled if they are F! Hybrid seeds or plants.

3)  Open-pollinated seed:  Open-pollinated plants are those plants that are pollinated by nature which may be bees, wind, birds, etc.  Seeds from these open-pollinated plants have often been passed down from generation to generation (heirloom seeds) though they may be more recently developed.

To save seed from open-pollinated plants there are several things to consider.  First, the seed must be fully ripe/developed.  This may seem obvious, but for some plants such as cucumbers, it means that the fruit must be left on the vine until it turns yellow, and gourds, beans and peas must be left on the vine until the seeds rattle in their hardened shells.

The second thing to remember is that because open-pollinated seeds are pollinated by nature, it is very easy to get cross pollination since bees fly from flower to flower and the wind may carry pollen across a yard or field.  Basil and mint are notorious for being “promiscuous” with different varieties easily cross pollinating.  Therefore, if you are saving basil seed you should not save seed from, for example, a lime basil planted too close to a sweet basil.  Seed from this cross may, or most likely may not, be good tasting.

Finally, when storing seeds it is important to let them dry thoroughly, and then store them in a cool, dry place.  If kept properly, most seeds will be viable for several years.

Do you have a favorite plant from which you save seeds?  Let us know, and tell us your technique for saving them.  Not just pass-a-long plants but pass-a-long knowledge is, as Martha Stewart would say, “a good thing.”


Picture by Starla

Larkspur Deconstructed

We have had Larkspur blooming in our garden since April.  It is a cool season, self seeding annual. Another words throw down your seeds in the fall and expect blooms the following spring.   Like Love in the Mist

Larkspur and  some Dallas County Master Gardeners

When the flowers begin to fade and seed pods turn to papery brown, you can either leave the flower stalks to drop more  seeds  and/or you can harvest them so you have a stash to share.  We have plenty, so we will share, thank you.

Larkspur Stalks With Seeds

Jackie, a Master Gardener and  seed saving expert, suggests turning the stalks upside down in a paper bag to let them settle at the bottom of the bag.  We are doing this at the Demonstration Garden and will sort out the seeds  and package them later this summer.

  I am trying this at home, using a metal trash can for the seed collection.Larkspur Seed Saving Process

Swedish Proverb:

“All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.”

Larkspur Seeds


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