Meeting the Need for Native Plant Seed
Building a network to supply seed for our ecoregion
A recent surge in demand for New England native plants highlights a well-documented bottleneck in the supply chain: a shortage of locally adapted seed from sustainably managed sources. Native Plant Trust and Ecological Health Network, with partners including Botanic Garden of Smith College, Eco59, Highstead Arboretum, Norcross Wildlife Foundation, and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut have launched the Northeast Seed Network to grow native plants in seed-increase plots, or seed-producing gardens. Seed from these plots will be used in ecological restoration projects and by nurseries to grow plants for sale.
Native Plant Trust administers the network, supported by funding from private foundations and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. We are expanding seed-processing infrastructure and capacity at our nursery, Nasami Farm, so that we can serve as the regional seed bank for the network. Staff at Nasami Farm will collect seed sustainably from the wild to use in establishing the seed-increase plots. Nasami staff will also teach the technical protocols to others who wish to join the network.
The infrastructure improvements and initial staffing are funded by anonymous foundation grants and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Installation of the seed plot is funded by a grant from Northeast Sustainable Agriculture, Research, and Education (SARE, project number # FNE22-009).
We are now seeking a seed collection coordinator to work with our Northeast Seed Network coordinator at Nasami Farm. See the job description here.
"Climatic mega-disturbances" create need for ecological restoration on an unprecedented scale.
An Assessment of Native Seed Needs and the Capacity for Their Supply: Final Report (2023) from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine underscores the persistence of native seed shortages and the urgency to remedy the problem. From the report's Preface:
"Since the publication of our Interim Report in late 2020, the need to strengthen the nation’s supply of native seed for ecological restoration and related purposes has only become clearer. The year 2021 came in just behind 2020 in terms of number of multi-billion-dollar climatic disasters (20 versus 22) and third in total costs (behind 2017 and 2005), with a price tag of $145 billion. Major climate-related events in 2021 alone included a severe cold wave in the South, massive wildfires and continued drought in the West, flooding in California and Louisiana, 3 tornado outbreaks, 4 tropical cyclones, and 8 other severe weather events. The increasing magnitude and frequency of such climatic mega-disturbances is straining not only our economy but the recovery capacity of ecosystems, in synergy with other unceasing stresses including invasive species, energy and mineral extraction, urbanization, and land conversion. As the vulnerabilities of humans, wildlife, and critical ecosystem services to these disruptions grow, the need for ecological restoration in the 21st century will continue its trajectory toward a previously unmatched scale. In the US just as elsewhere in the world, a limited supply of native seeds and other native plant materials is a widely acknowledged barrier to fulfilling our most critical restoration needs."
Northeast Seed Network: Vision, Action, Stakeholders
First steps in building a network
In 2020 Native Plant Trust assessed our own seed-production, processing, and storage needs for the coming years. Our seed uses include banking the seed of rare species for our seed bank (ex situ conservation) and growing common native species for contracted restoration projects and sale in our two retail shops. The assessment confronted us with a daunting uptick in need—not only for plants, but also for the seed to grow them.
Most of our common species were grown from seed that our staff and volunteers collected sustainably in the wild throughout New England. Collection from wild populations alone cannot meet demand, and more importantly, not without inflicting stress and damage to the wild population. Native Plant Trust began discussions with other organizations in our region about seed scarcity and how to fill gaps in the supply chain similar to those identified in Native Plant Materials Use and Commercial Availability in the Eastern United States (Tangren and Toth, 2020), which compiled survey results from 760 respondents in 26 states east of the Mississippi River and in 32 US Environmental Agency Level III ecoregions. Of those respondents, 92% use native seeds and 74% expressed an overwhelming preference for local ecotype. They cited the lack of commercial availability of seeds as the primary obstacle to using local ecotype plant material in their habitat restoration, creation, and pollinator support projects.
In 2022 Native Plant Trust brought stakeholders together for a virtual symposium, Need for Seed: A Strategy for the Northeast, that could be a catalyst for a regionwide initiative. The presentations echoed findings in the Tangren and Toth report and homed in on specific needs within our region:
- Coordinated seed-increase program, with target species lists
- Standards for definitions, protocols, practices, and seed labeling
- Education, training, and support
- - Bulk seed cleaning facility and equipment
- - Seed storage
- Data and documentation
- Engagement with stakeholders who use native seed (see diagram)
After the symposium, Native Plant Trust and its partners formed the Northeast Seed Network. Our vision: Building a network of trusted partnerships across all the key seed and plant material supply chain steps (see diagram) to increase the accessibility of genetically diverse, source-identified wild seed and plants for the ecoregions of the northeastern US.
For Native Plant Trust, there also two big steps forward in 2023. First, with a grant from Northeast Sustainable Agriculture, Research, and Education (SARE) we will build five seed-increase plots at Nasami Farm and study their efficacy as a viable and sustainable native seed-production method (SARE project number # FNE22-009). Second, we are expanding the controlled-environment seed-storage space and constructing a bulk seed-processing building to prepare for the nursery's role as regional seed-distribution hub for the network.
The Northeast Ecoregion and Its Ecotypes
Why seed from local ecotypes is important
The map below shows the Northeast US ecoregion, one of 15 broad ecosystems of regional extent in the US, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Ecoregions are large areas of similar climate where ecosystems recur in predictable patterns. As the map also shows, an ecoregion contains many distinctive habitats characterized by their natural landforms, climate, species, and ecological communities. Even within the same habitat or habitat type, local plant populations adapt to specific conditions at the micro scale, differing genetically from one population to the next. Such genetically distinct populations of a species occupying a particular habitat are known as ecotypes. They are genotypically adapted to specific environmental conditions. Maintaining the full spectrum of genetic diversity represented in ecotypes is important because changes in climate and other growing conditions might eventually favor some local adaptations over others.
When nurseries propagate plants through cuttings, cloning, or using seed collected from a small or cultivated population, they winnow out genetic diversity, rendering all the individual plants in the group susceptible to the same pests and diseases. Genetic diversity in a plant species might also ensure vital ecological relationships to particular pollinators or other animals. Plants grown from local ecotypic seed are genetically adapted to their environmental conditions, express resiliency in changing climates, and support myriad species that have coevolved in the landscape.