Growing Indigenous Trees from Seeds

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Indigenous trees are those native species that have grown in our area since before European colonization.  They are suited to our climate.  They support our indigenous wildlife and make our landscape unique.

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North American trees were so highly valued in 17th and 18th Century Europe that a lively trade grew up between botanists in the ‘colonies’ willing to collect, package and ship seeds, and European plantsman eager to receive those packages and grow out the seeds.  North American trees were preferred for landscaping European parks and estates.  Beautiful flowers, autumn color and graceful structure made them instantly popular.  They added to the biodiversity of regions which had lost much of their forest, in prior generations.

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And as Europeans favored North American trees, so we often value Asian trees and shrubs and gravitate towards showy, named woody cultivars so commonly found at local garden centers.  Common native species that crop up in fields and on roadsides may not hold much appeal for us.  And even if we want to grow an indigenous tree, they are difficult to buy.

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Acorns may be found in September through December in our area

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Collecting seeds and growing indigenous trees provides a tremendous service to our community.  Growing trees from seed takes time, but is a simple, enjoyable activity for gardeners with itchy fingers who want to make a living contribution to the community.

September through December is the prime time to collect many fresh seeds.  Pick up acorns, beech nuts, hickory nuts, seed pods from redbud trees, ripe maple seeds, black locust pods, and opened cones with fresh pine seeds.

Seeds from woody plants respond well to soaking in hot water for several hours up to a day, depending on their freshness, before planting.   This allows water to enter the seed coat and trigger metabolism.  Consider soaking in a clean thermos bottle to keep the water hot, longer.

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Redbud tree seedpods

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Seeds may be wrapped in damp paper towel and kept in a baggy until they sprout, or they may be ‘planted’ in a baggy filled no more than halfway with damp sand, peat based potting soil or damp vermiculite.  Some seeds need light to germinate.  Other seeds need an extended period of either warm or cold stratification to germinate.  Ilex species grow best after passing through a bird’s digestive system, where the acids help prepare the seed coat.  Some seeds are ready to grow when fresh.

A little research on a particular species’ needs indicates whether heat, cold, or both is required for germination.  Seeds requiring cold stratification may be kept outside over winter or placed in the produce drawer of your refrigerator for several weeks.  Seeds needing warmth often respond well to a spot in the kitchen near a pilot light or a cabinet over the stove.

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Beautyberry seeds are found within the tiny purple berries. These native shrubs reseed themselves prolifically with little assistance from a gardener.  They are most commonly ‘planted’ by a bird. 

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When collecting acorns and other seeds, try to identify the parent tree.  A photo of the tree in leaf will help you identify or confirm the particular species later. Label the container used while collecting.

Once home, float each batch of seeds in a container of warm water.  Seeds that sink are viable, and those that float likely are not.  Look for any small holes where insects may have burrowed inside, and discard these.  If collecting a lot of seeds, it is useful to keep a log with details about each batch.

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An oak tree growing beside the James River near Jamestown produced many of the acorns I gathered last autumn.

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Oaks are some of the easiest trees to grow from seed.  The seeds are easy to find and to collect, and ripe acorns can be found from September through early winter.  Oaks species native to the South, like the Live Oak, Quercus virginiana, may germinate immediately.  Those native to northern regions, such as Quercus rubra, the Northern Red Oak, will likely need a period of cold stratification before germination.

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Test the seeds you gather by placing them in a container of warm water. Those that sink are viable, any that float, after a few hours of soaking, likely aren’t going to germinate.

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After soaking acorns in hot water for six hours or more, remove the caps and sow the seed.  If space isn’t a concern, each may be potted up in a 4”-6” pot, labeled, and then set aside in a protected area outdoors to sprout.  Otherwise, wrap the viable seeds in moist paper towels, or mix with medium, and seal in a labeled plastic bag.  Those that need cold stratification may be kept outdoors on a porch or in the produce drawer of your refrigerator.   Begin to watch for signs of germination after about 8 weeks of cold stratification.

In the wild, seeds wait to germinate until the weather will support their growth.  The period of cold stratification through the winter is needed before the warmth of ‘spring’ allows the seed to crack open and begin to grow.  A seed that germinates too early might begin to grow before weather conditions are favorable for its development.

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The Compton Oak, a natural hybrid of Quercus virginiana and Quercus lyrata, grows in the Colonial area of Williamsburg.  Quercus virginiana can be found growing throughout Colonial Williamsburg.

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Seeds started in a baggy may be planted into pots once they have cracked open and the root has appeared.  To plant the germinated seeds, mix up an appropriate potting mix from fine pine bark mulch, compost, soaked peat, with some builder’s sand or perlite added to improve drainage.  Let 2 parts be bark mulch, 1 part compost or peat and 1 part sand or perlite.  If using a commercial potting soil, mix it with an equal amount of bark mulch.  After planting the seed, mulch each pot with about ¼” of chicken grit, vermiculite, or fine aquarium gravel.

Most indigenous seeds begin to grow in forest duff, if they survive hungry squirrels, insects and birds, that is!  They don’t need coddling so long as you can meet their basic needs.  These seeds can germinate under a light layer of fallen leaves or pine tags, and some actually benefit from light during germination.

Of course, insects, squirrels or deer eating a seed like an acorn destroys it.  But when birds eat berries, the seed passes through their body intact.  Often the digestive acids help break down the seed coat to prepare it for germination.  That is why seeds encapsulated in fruits, like holly seeds and dogwood seeds, benefit from being ‘planted’ by birds.  Holly seeds may need more than a year before they can germinate.

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Native Redbud trees, Cercis canadensis, brighten the spring landscape.  These neat trees never grow very tall, and perform well in partial shade.

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Protect newly planted seeds from squirrels by placing the pots on a screened porch, in a cold frame, or in a container, such as a clear plastic box, with a lid.  Check the seeds regularly to make sure the soil is moist.  Once the seeds sprout, and new growth is visible, allow the plants to grow on in a partially shaded spot.

Expect to grow your baby trees for some time so they are well- established before they are transplanted.  Once growing, move the seedlings up to a deep enough pot for roots to develop without circling the pot.  Take care not to damage the main tap root.  A 1 gallon pot is a good start.

Wait until fall to transplant your seedling tree into its permanent spot.  If deer are a problem in your area, you may need to protect the seedling from their grazing for the first several years.  I had a seedling oak tree, that I purchased from the Arbor Day Foundation, grazed several winters in a row.  It would regrow the following spring from its roots.  Only after I protected it did the deer finally leave it alone long enough for it to grow above their reach.

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You can offer your indigenous seedling trees to neighbors or friends, or offer them to a local native plant sale.

However we get them into the community, we can use these indigenous trees to teach the larger community to value our native, indigenous trees; and make them available as an alternative to the mass produced trees so commonly available at local retail nurseries.

It is an investment in beauty.  It is an investment in preserving our local landscapes and the web of life they support.

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Woodland Gnome 2020

For more information:

Bubel, Nancy.  The New Seed-Starter’s Handbook.  Rodale Press.  Emmaus PA.  1988.

Copp, Catherine. Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns: The Complete Guide to Growing Oak Trees From Seed. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2017.

Dirr, Michael A. and Charles W. Heuser, Jr.  The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation from Seed to Tissue Cultures. Varsity Press, Inc.  Cary, NC.  2006.

Druse, Ken.  Making More Plants: The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation.  Clarkson Potter/Publishers.  New York, NY.  2000.

Wulf, Andrea. The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession.  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.  New York, NY. 2019.

Native Virginia Trees

Choosing A Tree

Obsession: Botany and Empire, As Seen From Jamestown Virginia

Native trees:

American Sycamore

Redbud Tree

American Holly Tree

 

 

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