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How to collect, store & plant seeds

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GROWING WOODY TREES AND SHRUBS FROM SEED

When is the right time to collect seeds?

Every tree and shrub has its own timetable for deciding exactly when its seeds are ripe and ready to gather in each autumn.

Not every autumn is the same and seeds on individual plants may become ripe earlier after a hot late ‘Indian’ summer as opposed to a mild wet one where growth continues for longer and leaf fall is later.

Therefore you need to identify trees and shrubs which show clear signs of setting seed in September and observe them closely on a weekly or even daily basis into October and November.

Of course not all trees and shrubs produce seeds every year and some may only do so occasionally. If flowers are frosted or damaged by wind in the spring cross pollination may be impossible and no seeds will set. After a wet summer and a good growing year a plant may well feel no need to set seed to ensure its continuing survival. Conversely when a plant is stressed after, say, a drought or a dry summer then it may feel the urgent need to procreate and will therefore set a copious crop of seeds.

Some plants from other continents or hemispheres never set seed in our generally mild UK climate. Some plants do not set seed at all and are effectively sterile (most hydrangeas) and best propagated by cuttings instead.

When are seeds actually ripe and ready for collection?

Plants which produce colourful fruits and berries designed to attract birds and animals to eat them are normally ripe and ready to collect earlier in the autumn than trees with less obvious or attractive seed crops. Often fruits and berries will appear long before the plant loses its leaves. Some plants will have ripe fruit in September.

If the colourful red, orange, black or, occasionally, blue fruits or berries start to fall to the ground, are obviously being eaten by birds and can readily be detached from the tree or shrub they are most definitely ripe and ready for collection

Do not wait long or birds, mice and squirrels will eat them all and deposit the ingested seeds in their ‘droppings’ far away from the mother plant as nature intended.

The majority of plants which instead produce seeds (rather than fruits or berries) generally take longer to ripen and will only be viable to grow on later next spring as the leaves on the tree or shrub turn to their autumnal colours and/or begin to fall.

Seeds which are still green in pods or as individual seeds or seed clusters and still firmly attached to the twig or branch are not ripe or yet ready to collect.

Seeds which have turned brown or started to split in their brown pods are ripe for collection. There is not perhaps quite such a rush to collect them immediately when ripe but, if they are so ripe that they fall to the ground of their own volition, then they are often harder to find in the leaf litter and, again, mice, squirrels or jays may well get to them first. Timing is everything.

After strong gales and wind semi-ripe, nearly ripe or ripe seeds will often be blown off the tree. Those that are well swollen and of a good size may still be fertile and useable when dried off even if still green. There are risks and judgements to take when this happens.

Some examples of ripe and unripe fruits, seeds and seed pods

There is such diversity and peculiarity in the ways in which individual trees and shrubs choose to set seed to ensure their survival that a short article like this can only generalise.

However here are some specific examples of seeds which are indeed ripe, and those which are not:

Magnolia seed

Only when the bright orange coated individual seeds are literally popping out of the large reddish pink seed pods are they ready to collect. This is usually in early to mid-October.
 

 

Unripe Magnolia grandiflora seed click for larger image
Unripe M. grandiflora
Unripe Magnolia globosa seed click for larger image
Unripe M. globosa
Nearly ripe Magnolia cambellii seed click for larger image
Nearly ripe M. cambellii
Ripe Magnolia sargentiana robusta seed click for larger image
Ripe M. sargentiana robusta
Ripe Magnolia sargentiana robusta seed click for larger image
Ripe M. sargentiana robusta
3 Ripe Magnolia sargentiana robusta seed click for larger image
Ripe M. sargentiana robusta
4 Ripe Magnolia sargentiana robusta seed click for larger image
Ripe M. sargentiana robusta
Ripe Magnolia mollicomata seed click for larger image
Ripe M. mollicomata
Magnolia campbellii var mollicomata seed click for larger image
M. camp. v. mollicomata
Ripe Magnolia seiboldii  seed click for larger image
Ripe M. seiboldii

Rhododendron seed

Rhododendron seed trusses are unripe while they remain green. They are ready to gather when the seed heads turn brown and split to reveal individual tiny seeds. This will normally be in early to mid-November.
 

Unripe Rhododendron megacalyx seed click for larger image
Unripe R. megacalyx
Unripe Rhododendron  'Saffron Queen' seed click for larger image
Unripe R. 'Saffron Queen'
Unripe Rhododendron 'Jock' seed click for larger image
Unripe R. 'Jock'
Unripe Rhododendron eximium seed click for larger image
Unripe R. eximium
Ripe Rhododendron 'Saffron Queen' seed click for larger image
Ripe R. 'Saffron Queen'
2 ripe Rhododendron 'Saffron Queen' seed click for larger image
Ripe R. 'Saffron Queen'
Unripe Rhododendron seed click for larger image
Ripe Rhododendron seed
2 Unripe Rhododendron seed click for larger image
Ripe Rhododendron seed
3 Unripe Rhododendron seed click for larger image
Ripe Rhododendron seed

Camellia seed

Camellia seeds appear as brown spherical balls containing three or five individual dark brown or black seeds. These are fully ripe when they turn dark brown and begin to split open in November but can safely be picked and stored just before they begin to split.
 

Unripe Camellia reticulata seed click for larger image
Unripe C. reticulata
Unripe Camellia japonica seed click for larger image
Unripe C. japonica
Ripe Camellia japonica seed click for larger image
Ripe C. japonica
Ripe Camellia sasanqua seed click for larger image
Ripe C. sasanqua
Ripe Camellia reticulata seed click for larger image
Ripe C. reticulata
2 Ripe Camellia reticulata seed click for larger image
Ripe C. reticulata
 Ripe Camellia chekiangoleosa seed click for larger image
Ripe C. chekiangoleosa
 Ripe Camellia tsai  seed click for larger image
Ripe C. tsai

Styrax seed

These appear as individual or clusters of spherical green seeds. They can be collected once they start to turn brown and can easily be detached from the tree.
 

Unripe Styrax japonicus click for larger image
Unripe S. japonicus
Unripe  Styrax americanusclick for larger image
Unripe S. americanus
Unripe  Styrax serrulatusclick for larger image
Unripe S. serrulatus
Unripe  Styrax hemsleyanus click for larger image
Unripe S.hemsleyanus
Ripe  Styrax serrulatusclick for larger image
Ripe S. serrulatus
Ripe Styrax  seed click for larger image
Ripe Styrax seeds
Ripe Styrax  seed click for larger image
Ripe Styrax seeds
Ripe Styrax hookeri  seed click for larger image
Styrax hookeri seeds

Acer seed

Acer seeds have ‘wings’ to enable them to travel distances from the mother tree in wind when ripe and ready to fall. Collect them only when they turn from green to brown.
 

Unripe Acer palmatum dissectum seed click for larger image
Unripe A. palmatum dissectum
Unripe Acer griseum seed click for larger image
Unripe A. griseum
Unripe Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' seed click for larger image
Unripe A. palmatum 'Osakazuki'
Ripe Acer seed click for larger image
Ripe Acer seeds
Ripe Acer seeds click for larger image
Ripe Acer seeds

Oak seed

Until acorns turn brown and the ‘cups’ they sit in turn brown as well as they begin to fall they are not ripe.
 

Unripe Quercus myrsinifolia seed click for larger image
Unripe Q. myrsinifolia
Nearly ripe Lithocarpus (evergreen Oak)  pachyphyllusclick for larger image
Nearly ripe Lithocarpus pachyphyllus, too small
Nearly ripe Lithocarpus (evergreen Oak)  pachyphyllusclick for larger image
Nearly ripe Lithocarpus pachyphyllus
Ripe Quercus acutaclick for larger image
Ripe Q. acuta
 Ripe acornsclick for larger image
Ripe acorns
 Ripe acornsclick for larger image
Ripe acorns
 Ripe acornsclick for larger image
Ripe acorns

Staphylea seed

These prominent swollen ‘bladder nuts’ are not ripe until they turn from green to red and are ready to split.
 

 nearly ripe Staphylea pinnataclick for larger image
Nearly ripe S. pinnata
 Ripe colchica Staphylea click for larger image
Ripe Staphylea colchica
 Ripe Staphylea pinnataclick for larger image
Ripe S. pinnata
 Ripe Staphylea holocarpaclick for larger image
Ripe S. holocarpa

Sorbus seed

Mountain ash or sorbus seed comes in a variety of colours from red to orange but can also be white or pink. Collect only when the fruit clusters are swollen and fully coloured.

Ripe Sorbus 'Pearly King' fruits are edible.
 

 unripe Sorbus folgneri fruitsclick for larger image
Unripe S. folgneri fruits
 unripe Sorbus folgneri fruitsclick for larger image
Unripe S. folgneri fruits
 ripe Sorbus fruitsclick for larger image
Ripe Sorbus fruits
 ripe Sorbus fruitsclick for larger image
Ripe Sorbus fruits
 ripe Sorbus reducta fruitsclick for larger image
Ripe Sorbus reducta fruits

Stewartia seed

These have a distinct shape and are often reddish as they develop. Collect only when they turn brown and start to spilt open on the tree.
 

nearly ripe Stewartia rostrata seedclick for larger image
Nearly ripe S. rostrata seed
nearly ripe Stewartia rostrata seedclick for larger image
Nearly ripe S. rostrata seed
ripe Stewartia rostrata seedclick for larger image
Ripe S. rostrata seed
ripe Stewartia rostrata seedclick for larger image
Ripe S. rostrata seed
ripe Stewartia rostrata seedclick for larger image
Ripe S. rostrata seed
ripe Stewartia rostrata seedclick for larger image
Ripe S. rostrata seed

Symplocos

Only pick Symplocos paniculata when these fruits when they are bright blue.

Ripe blue Symplocos paniculata seedsclick for larger image
Ripe blue Symplocos paniculata seeds
Symplocos dryophylla seedsclick for larger image
Symplocos dryophylla seeds
Cornus kousa

 

unripe Cornus kousa fruitsclick for larger image
Unripe Cornus kousa fruits
ripe Cornus kousa fruitsclick for larger image
Ripe Cornus kousa fruits
Quince

 

unripe Quince fruitsclick for larger image
Unripe Quince fruits
ripe Quince fruitsclick for larger image
Ripe Quince fruits
Others

 

Enkianthus palibiniclick for larger image
Enkianthus palibini Seeds
ripe Pyrus pashia fruitsclick for larger image
Ripe Pyrus pashia fruits
ripe Mespilus germanica fruitsclick for larger image
Ripe Mespilus germanica fruits
ripe Viburnum betulifolium fruitsclick for larger image
Ripe Viburnum betulifolium fruits
Michelia  var doltsopa Seedsclick for larger image
Michelia v. doltsopa Seeds

 

Continue to next page - How to store seeds over winter...

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