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Eco-Answers from the Pros: Sourcing Native Seeds

I am currently working on a pollinator project in Staten Island, NY. I’m planning on growing natives from seed. Suppose I were to procure seed from Prairie Moon Nursery (which is about 1000 miles away from the location I’m working on) in order to add more diversity. Would I be helping or hindering as these seeds originate from a different ecoregion?

∼Dan Wilder, Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary 

This question is a raging debate in the conservation world at the moment, and there is a lot of push for hyper-locality when sourcing materials. From what I understand, the push for hyper-locality is mainly based on conjecture as the science puts significantly more emphasis on diversity over the locality. Understanding that this is a question that we’ve really only just begun to explore in-depth, take the following as my best guess with the current information available to us, i.e. subject to change as new information becomes available.

 I would aim for a diverse set of seed sources from a range of locations within the greater region (think of the region as the entire northeast, not on a county or state level). At Norcross, we consider local to mean anything east of the Mississippi and North of Virginia, and we strive for a diverse mix of genetic material.

 There is another argument that states we should be planting from southern ecotypes in an effort to get ahead of climate change. There is some good reasoning behind this argument, but it is untested like the rest.

 Finally, there is a real argument. Source the seeds you can and do the best you can. Don’t let the great be the enemy of the good.

 I hope this helps.

∼Neil Diboll, President Prairie Nursery

To answer the question, one must define both “help” and “hinder.”  If introducing new species from 1000 miles away that provide pollinator services to a number of insects and other pollinators, favoring a more robust population of these valuable creatures, then it would seem that would be helpful.  Of course, many close symbiotic relationships have developed between various plants and animals over the eons, so the “foreign” plants may not have access to certain specific pollinator species upon which they depend in their native environment.

 If introducing distant plants causes disruptions in the genetic integrity of the same species of local origin, or introduces a new plant that exhibits weedy behavior, then that would seem to hinder the goals of ecological restoration.

 Two common concerns people have voiced regarding introducing plants from distance sources are:

  1. Pollen from the distant sourced plants will “pollute” local ecotypes with maladaptive genes that are suited to their place of origin but may be deleterious to the progeny of the cross-pollinated local plants (out-breeding depression).
  2. Introducing new species may run the risk of bringing in a new aggressive species that may be well-behaved in its place of origin but not so well-mannered in a new, distant location.

 The generally accepted wisdom is that one should source plants from as close by as possible in order to plant locally-adapted ecotypes.  This is a good rule of thumb but does not mean that non-local plants won’t necessarily thrive or will not be good members of the local native plant community.  That said, should one not err on the safe side and not bring in plant genetic material from distant sources?  There are many unanswered questions on this topic, and it almost certainly applies on a species-by-species basis.

Happy Native Gardening!

Mark B. Fiely, Horticulturist, Ernst Conservation Seeds

A question that comes to my mind is, why do you want to add genotype diversity? Many native wildflower species are polyploids, meaning they have more than one set of chromosomes in their nucleus. I attended a conference where I recall a presenter describing a particular polyploid species having more diversity within a population than there was among populations. In short, those extra chromosome sets carry a fair amount of diversity. That diversity may not be readily apparent until the population is subjected to a particular environmental stress.

If you do not have a seed supply or still wish to add genetic diversity, I would use seeds whose genetic origins are closest to your site.

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