Prairie Rivers of Iowa Watershed Coordinator David Stein collecting native seeds.

by Watershed Coordinator David Stein

One of the first projects that I took on here at Prairie Rivers of Iowa was finding a way to not only get more habitat on the landscape here in Central Iowa but to also have local residents at the forefront of this conservation effort. In order to do this, I found that the easiest way for this to work was to store and distribute seeds free of charge – a modification of an idea that I have been sitting on throughout my time as a graduate student and researcher at Iowa State. That is where the community seed bank came into play.

This project originally started as a way to kill time during the field research season and to learn more about native plants in Iowa. I‘d find dried and ripe seed heads from asters and sunflowers at my research sites and bring them back to our lab to tear them apart and look more closely at the seeds under the microscope. When I was done with the seeds, they would either go into the trash or sprinkled back into the fields where I found them. Over time, I figured instead of just fidgeting around with these seeds, I could collect and store them for other projects later down the road. This is how the first iteration of my seed bank took shape.

For the summer field season of 2018, I documented and observed what species of plants were growing and which research sites had them in high abundance. Each time I would go out to collect samples of bee pollen or sweep up some bumblebees for analysis. I would make sure to keep a separate bag available for the seed heads, pods and shells that I wanted to add to the collection. As the field season carried on, I would find and flag rarer and more finicky plants that I would monitor until just the right moment where I would grab the seeds before they either blew away or were eaten by a hungry bird or rodent. As summer turned into autumn, my focus shifted away from the field research sites and more toward the campus of Iowa State. I would take to the unkempt campus prairies, the parking lot ditches and the occasional weed on the side of the road to collect any last species that I didn’t have. This even included a rare species of grass only found in two counties in the entire state of Iowa, which I found in a ditch alongside a driveway near one of the new science buildings (Iowa State then promptly demolished this patch of grass and built a parking lot over it. Nice going guys). Over time, the collection grew to 23 small glass vials full of native seeds. It was my hope that I could loan these seeds out to researchers in my department and they could be used in some cool new studies into their growth or flowering or something. There were no takers, and the idea was more or less brushed off by my co-workers (which I am still not over by the way).

Just a few of the native seeds available from our seed bank.

This leads into the spring and summer of 2019 when I began to work at Prairie Rivers of Iowa and decided to not only revisit the seed bank idea but expand it to be a major conservation tool. The project started out very slowly with some shy emails sent to a few native seed companies asking for donations of seed to support this new effort. Miraculously, this paid off incredibly well with two seed companies, The Prairie Nursery and Prairie Moon Nursery donating large amounts of staple native seeds including several grasses, milkweeds and coneflowers. Unsurprisingly, there were a few seed companies who were a bit skeptical about the project and let me know in some pretty direct terms. Despite this, we were feeling pretty good about the donations and we actually had some seeds to begin to give away. The next step was to send out some formal donation letters to both new companies and those who ignored the previous donation email. In total, we sent out 39 letters to seed companies all throughout the upper Midwest. From the second call for donations, Stock Seed Farms sent us six pounds of native grass seed mixes and Shooting Star Native Seeds donated around 20 storage
containers and five pounds of Showy Tick Trefoil seed.

Native seed prairie planting in Story County, IA.

Fast forward to today and things are continuing to look up for this project. We just received a grant from Walmart totaling $500 for use in re-stocking and expanding the selection of seeds in the seed bank. By using free online advertising like Craigslist and Facebook, we have been able to distribute seeds to 15 landowners throughout Central Iowa and enhance and create around 13 acres of native habitat. Those landowners also came in with their own donations for more seeds averaging around $15 each enhancing our little seed bank even more. For a project that started out small and ignored, as a byproduct of field research, the community native seed bank is only getting bigger, better and more influential for our conservation efforts.