The Season’s Reflections
Hey Kansas City. It’s Jacob here, the coordinator for Kansas City WildLands’ Seed Team. We’ve spent the last year out in the field searching for and collecting seed, or in the barn cleaning and sorting our harvest. Finally, the seed has found its destination – public lands undergoing restoration. Places in our city that are ready to receive a diverse infusion of native plants so they can begin, little by little, leaf by leaf, to reclaim the biological wealth that was nearly lost.
The seed is on the ground, our bags and barn are empty, and I retreat from the elements indoors to huddle around the cold light of spreadsheets and emails, and if I’m lucky, breathe for awhile.
It is in this midwinter lull that I reflect on the previous season’s work – its products, pains, pleasures, and peculiarities. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share that process with you.
We’ll start broad: It was a good year. The WildLands Seed Team’s goal is to explore the few more or less undisturbed natural areas in our region, identify populations of native plants, and collect their seeds, which are used to restore and reconstruct more healthy, diverse landscapes.
Since the seed we collect impacts our ecosystems and ourselves in several ways, there are several different ways we might define success and measure progress.
Below, I’ll lay out a quantitative discussion, but since feeling is first (if Cummings is to be believed), we must start with the soft to develop the systematic. This year, as in years past, our choice of locations from which to collect and species to target has been informed by dogged research and expert opinion, but guided by no small amount of ecological intuition and botanical opportunism.
The question of what makes a good target for seed collection was, and remains, a question without hard and fast answers. The messiness of this problem is at once challenging and liberating, and there is a kind of wisdom in the mess. As Leopold put it,
“The old prairie lived by the diversity of its plants and animals, all of which were useful because the sum total of their co-operations and competitions achieved continuity.”From “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold
This year our efforts were more focused. We began by finding out what KC WildLands and other restoration sites would need our seed the most, and allowing those needs to temper and direct the messy continuity of collection. Woodland restoration at places like Ernie Miller Nature Park were high-priority recipients of seed, and so with that in mind, I used nearby analogous woodlands as models for what to collect.
Knowing exactly where the seed would go helped make decisions in the field about what species to prioritize and what kind of balance between them we wanted to achieve. Some plants are valuable because they’re rare. Some are more common but feed a wider variety of insects. Some are valuable because they can be leveraged for better management practices – providing fuel for controlled burns for example.
Prioritizing land managers’ requests didn’t compete with collecting more species or a larger amount of seed. Rather, it gave us a more specific context within which to increase the species list and seed quantity.
Additionally, we were more efficient in our use of volunteers. In 2020, the pandemic forced the seed team to refine and restructure how we lead volunteer groups, and that year saw a dramatic downturn in participation and consequently in seed production. However, the systems we put in place to manage that crisis have served us exceptionally well this year, and we saw more volunteer participation than we have since 2017. We saw long-time volunteers give more of themselves than ever before, and we engaged dozens of new volunteers, introducing them to some of the city’s best natural spaces while teaching them habits of good stewardship for their homeland.
Internally, seed collection, processing, and analysis went smoother and more quickly than in previous years, both because of increased volunteer input, and because of our continual refinement of our own processes. All this is a long-winded way of saying, I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.
— Jacob Canyon, February 2022
The astute reader will be satisfied with the above review, but for the remedial reader who must squint at numbers and charts to understand (I count myself in this category), below are this year’s stats and their explanations.
Volunteer Hours: 1,217 hours
Seed bulk weight: 3,738.62 oz (233lbs, 10.62 oz)
Pure live seed weight estimate: 2,082.14 oz (130lbs, 2.14oz)
Monetary value estimate: $149,023.85
Species richness: 178 species
Seed bulk weight: 3,738.62 oz (233lbs, 10.62 oz)
This one is relatively straightforward. The figure above is the total weight of all the seeds we collected from remnant habitat this year.
Pure live seed weight estimate: 2,082.14 oz (130lbs, 2.14oz)
We collect seed by hand and process and clean the seed by hand or with very simple equipment: a small hammer mill, winnowing screens, and the occasional one-off contraption for cleaning a particular kind of seed – something that looks like a DIY pachinko machine or a trashcan modified with a salad spinner’s guts and a shop vac attached.
Because of this we are limited in how ‘pure’ we can make the final product. Asters and goldenrods have tiny seeds on a tuft dandelion fluff which a commercial seed vendor would remove with specialized equipment. Such is beyond our capacity, but what if it wasn’t? What if we could clean each seed perfectly, removing all chaff and debris? The “pure live seed” estimate represents how much of the total weight is seed alone.
In terms of its impact on the landscape, the presence or absence of chaff and other plant debris probably makes no difference, provided the seeds are separated and scarified. But the PLS estimate allows us to make meaningful comparisons between what we collect and what is available commercially.
The estimated monetary value of the seed collected in 2021 is $149,023.85, higher than any year for which I have records.
I imagine this will be the most exciting number for some of us – and indeed it’s part of what makes me so proud of what the Seed Team has accomplished this year. It’s a key way we understand the value we provide to our partners who need this seed to restore public land.
This figure is an estimate, not a measurement. It’s the theoretical cost of purchasing the seed we collected this year from commercial vendors. There are some arbitrary decisions made when calculating a number like this, and reasonable people could come up with different results doing this calculation.
Different vendors have different prices for the seed of the same species, so which price is most representative? Many of the species we collect are not sold commercially, so how is their value factored in? How are large quantities evaluated for species that are only sold commercially in small amounts? We try to be rigorous in working through this, but there is always some ambiguity. Suffice it to say, the method of estimating this figure is consistent with the methods used in previous years, which are plotted below. To that extent, it is more meaningful when compared with other years than understood as a dollar amount out of context.
The monetary estimate is only one of many metrics we use to represent the value of the work. It does not take into account the genetic diversity, species diversity, or ecological function of the seed, only its commercial price. It doesn’t capture the specific needs of the land managers or the sites they’re restoring.
I’d like to note some interesting things that came out of the monetary analysis.
Eared false foxglove, Agalinis auriculata, was only available by the packet: $3.00 for 100 seeds. The seeds are very small and light, so at that price you’d have to spend $4,650.00 to purchase a single ounce worth. Per ounce, it was the most expensive seed we collected, and 2021 was a productive year for that species.
Here are what I take to be our MVPS (most valuable plants). These species had a good combination of availability and price. None of these have the highest price per ounce, but they have a high price relative to how much we were able to collect. The species that contributed the most to the value were:
River oats, Chasmanthium latifolium
Elm leaved goldenrod, Solidago ulmifolia
Round-leaf packera, Packera obovata
Leadplant, Amorpha canescens
Species Richness and Diversity
In 2021 the seed team gathered seed from 178 unique species. As with other figures there is a little ambiguity here. Sometimes botanists disagree in their descriptions – lumping previously distinct species, or splitting previously singular species into two or more distinct ones.
178 is a good number of species. Not the most collected in any year, but more than average for us.
Species richness only captures the total number of species and doesn’t factor in the quantity of each collected. In principle, you could collect 200 lbs of river oats and a single seed of 177 other species and you’d have the same species richness, but such a mixture wouldn’t produce a diverse ecosystem.
Species diversity, also called the Shannon diversity index, is a better metric that takes the number of species weighted by their relative abundance. Traditionally this is applied to populations in the wild, but I calculated the Shannon index for our seed. The math behind this is not too complicated, but I’m probably the last person who ought to explain it to you. Just know that this index is a number between 1 and 5, and larger numbers represent more diverse ecosystems, or in our case, seed hauls.
Interestingly enough, we had a poorer Shannon index than last year even though we collected more total seed, more species, and all of it was worth more money this year. The Shannon index is a useful way to gauge the biodiversity of what we collect, but on reflection, I think it would be better applied to the individual mixes that are broadcast at each site. Part of why the index dropped slightly is due to the large quantity of river oats, which were in high demand by land managers for specific purposes.
Calculating the index as I did above sort of assumes all the seed gets mixed together and dropped in the same spot, which is never the case. So this measure is also imperfect, but it allows us to see something that the total number of species misses, and is a useful tool for thinking about what we do.
A core part of WildLands’ mission is engaging with and educating Kansas Citians in stewardship of the landscape through volunteering. So, I see the total volunteer hours not just as means to get more seed, but as a means to develop a culture and community that have the skill and intent to care for its local ecology.
The seed team gave 1,217 hours this year. This is hugely motivating for me. It’s roughly equal to the amount of hours I work for KCWL in a given year, and probably worth more, given that many of our volunteers bring their own deep knowledge of different areas of ecology, botany, entomology, and horticulture, which can add to the effectiveness of the team.
Group Seed Team workdays engaged 903 volunteers, spread across 38 workdays. Our Independent seed collection (trained volunteers) amounted to 314 hours. Congratulations to the KC WildLands Seed Team for an outstanding year!