January 29, 2012

Seeds from a Collecting Trek in Tibet

A Blue Himalayan Poppy ( Meconopsis) blooms aside an alpine lake high in the Himalaya. These and more arrived from an expedition share in Tibet that I received from Chris Chadwell's latest trip.

When seeds first arrive, I like to organize them by type - bulbs and woodland plants need to be separated from shrubs and trees. Alpines, Primula species and tender tropicals all need to be researched to learn the proper method for germination, such as stratification or chemical treatment to stimulate growth. Collection numbers must be noted, since this is serious business - often the only other groups growing some of these rare seeds are a botanical garden or two in Europe who surely have a staff working on tracking the accession numbers and collection numbers. 

A large packet of seeds arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, part of a share purchased from an expedition to Little Tibet, and an additional package both from noted plantsman and seed collector Chris Chadwell, who stayed with us twice this past summer. Chris runs the Sino-Himalayan Plant Association and he is a very prodigious seed collector having traveled throughout the Himalaya. He  is one of the last of a handful of explorers today to still travel to far away places collecting and discovering new species and genus. One can purchase shares for a few hundred dollars in any one of his seed collecting trips to the Himalaya ( he has been more than 27 times), and you will get in the mail, a selection of seeds, many quite rare, and very precious. Chris gave us a few extra seeds in our share as a gift for staying at our home this summer with his son, and I am most grateful to have many of these species which are new to me. Now the hard part comes - sowing and cultural research for each species. I thought that I might share the process a bit.
I start my process by creating labels - two for each pot of seed. One will have an accession number on it, a long number which I keep in an Excel spreadsheet so that I can track the progress and keep an accurate record of sowing dates, successes and failures. The naming convention  I use is long, and includes the date, year, collection number, and much more information that anyone else would find boring. I print the number, and mount it on one vinyl label which I place in the bottom of the pot, incase mice steal it or I lose it. The other label includes the name of the plant and the collection number. I track the cultural information in another document, that I can access quickly. The tags are waterproof, and I prefer white type on black, opting to use the Brother P-Touch system and 1/2 inch black waterproof tape.
Each pot of seed is properly sown, which requires some up-front work. First I research the species, and sometimes the genus. Knowing the specifics about culture is important, since these are not seeds that you can just simply sow, many are woodland plants, ephemerals, or they are seeds of hardy trees and shrubs, each genus and each species will need a different treatment. Some species must be allowed to be exposed to light, others, must germinate in the dark. Some need a splash or boiling water, or need to be soaked, others may need an acid treatment or will need to be frozen for a time to simulare winter. Temperatures for many require a shift from day to night, and others, particularly tree species require first a warm, moist period for a couple of weeks, and then a freezing period outdoors for a few months, only to be brought indoors again. I try to group pots of seeds that require similar treatment.
This latest collection has everything from bulb seed for Arisaema and Lilies, to many Iris species as well as seed that is almost microscopic. There are some packets of tree seeds like Maples and Olive,, and then there are some woodland species like impatiens. There are even some very choice alpine plant seeds for rare primula, saxifrage and nepeta ( the cat mints). Many of the genus that Chris has collected have medicinal value, a new focus for him since he has been getting alot of interest from medicinal plant reasearchers, ethnobotanists and pharma - all who are looking for the next big discovery. In researching many of these species, I have been surprised at the medicinal value that many of these plants have.

Empty seed packets are kept in an old clay pot, and then brought indoors where in the evening, I can enter the names and numbers into my master spread sheet that will track progress. Keeping accurate records is essential, since these are important collections, and one must function as carefully as a leading botanical garden does. Some of these species are quite rare, and one would not want to lose a tracking number or a collection number, for what if a certain species is new to science, or a new form? One has a tremendous responsibility with such seed, yet it is all still very fun. I was particularly thrilled to have gotten a packet of a rare lily, Lilium polyphyllum, the rarest of rare.

Some seed needs special treatment, such as these seeds from the giant lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum. These may take 7 years before they become large enough to bloom, and some may take over a year to germinate.

Seeds are all sown carefully in pots, and then covered with either sand, or gravel, or simply soil. Some seeds need daylight, others, must have complete darkness. Some require smoke, needing a forest or field fire to germinate, so they are treated with smoke paper so that the right chemical will be released. Nature makes germinating seeds of some plants very difficult with specific needs.

Once potted, gravel chips are spread on top, since most of the flats will be placed out doors so that winter temperatures can stratify the seeds that need it. The labels are pushed down deep into the pots ( so that birds, or little terriers cannot see them an pull them out). And the rest is up to mother nature herself.

With any luck, the first seedlings will emerge in a few weeks with many of the perennials, and then the fun really begins. I urge many of you to consider buying a share in a seed collecting expedition or to join a plant society and to purchase some seeds from one of the many seed exchanges that most plant society's have. This is often the only way to obtain many of these rare species, since most plants today are either hybrids or mass produced. There are still many species new to horticulture, or many more that are the pure species, which are often much more interesting than their fancy relatives. In collections such as this latest one from Chris Chadwell, many of the species are available no where else since very few explorers have been collecting some of the western Chinese, Tibetan and Nepalese species.


  1. Oh wow, that is so amazing!!!!!

  2. This was fascinating. I am so thankful that folks like you and your friend are doing this work. You are making a difference more of us ought to appreciate.

  3. What a great post. My own seed sowing this morning in my garage was not nearly as interesting. It filled the plant record nerd in me with glee that you are accessioning them.


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