Collecting evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)

The Next Epoch Seed Library: It’s seed collecting season!

Winter is coming on fast, and I’m working with fellow artist Anne Percoco to launch the first stages of the Next Epoch Seed Library. And you are invited to participate! Collecting seeds is such a pleasant activity- it puts the collector in touch with her/his local ecosystem, both metaphorically and physically. Literally touching the plants that populate our urban environment isn’t something we do all that often. But I recommend it! I just spent several hours in a deteriorating parking lot in Providence, Rhode Island, surrounded by fall colors and a huge range of plant diversity. Below are some photos of the plants I collected from today. Milkweed puts on such a stunning display this time of year, but even the annual grasses are putting on a show. If you’re interested in trying your hand at seed collecting, Anne and I have developed some simple guidelines I’d be happy to share with you!

Now some of you may be thinking: this seems like an enjoyable, innocuous activity…sort of…but should we really be gathering and promoting the seeds of weeds? Aren’t they ecologically damaging? Aren’t they a nuisance? Good question! I won’t expand in length on that here, but as a start: there are a lot of gray areas in the traditional, binary reading of weeds versus beneficial plants, especially in our current environmental context, in which climactic conditions are increasingly unpredictable and require rapid evolutionary response from plant populations. So: yes, weedy species are aggressive, often not “native”, and can be prone to altering the composition of delicately balanced, historically relevant ecosystems.

The former parking lot where I spent my afternoon today

BUT: maybe what we need more than historically relevant ecosystems (those that mirror a past ideal of a bio-diverse, well-functioning environment), are living, breathing plants that are up to the task of dealing with the shit-storm we’ve created. Thriving plant communities come with loads of ecological and social benefits. Is it really worth raging against the geographical pedigree of a plant introduced 200 years ago if it’s functioning to stabilize soil, feed late season pollinators, generate oxygen, cool the ground, and improve human mental health? Sure, there are villainous weeds out there (think Kudzu), but it’s all context-based, and plant communities that suffer from being overrun by a weedy villain are often not in the best shape to begin with. Or so I hear from some of the ecologists I’ve grilled on this topic.

Looking down on a few square feet of deteriorating asphalt, on its way to becoming an urban meadow.

In the end, humans have made inaccurate assumptions so many times about so many things, that I’ve decided I’d like to (in general) fall on the side of life. If something has a will to live, I’d like to give it a chance. And these weeds certainly have that in spades. If you’re unconvinced, or want more evidence, I’ve enjoyed and been edified by the sources below over the past few months. As noted by Stuart K. Allison, landscapes decimated by human activity can be restored to their “original historical trajectory” without being returned to “their exact historical past”. This is my point exactly: ecosystems can still be functional with new mixtures of plant communities. Let’s not waste human energy, time, and herbicide fixing something that’s already working. We have bigger fish to fry.

J.L. Hudson: Natives versus Exotics: The Myth of the Menace (Non-native species as allies in biodiversity)

Joe Mascaro: Earthmakers

Stuart K. Allison: Ecological Restoration and Environmental Change

Conversations with theoretical ecologist Sasha J. Wright, who studies the relationship between plant community diversity, stability and productivity.

Peter Del Tredici: Flora of the Future

Emma Marris: Handle with Care

And finally, a few plants I collected seeds from today:

Linaria vulgaris (butter and eggs)
Celastrus orbiculatus (asiatic bittersweet)
Ambrosia artemisiifolia (common ragweed)
Verbascum thapsus (common mullein)
Solanum dulcamara (bittersweet nightshade)
Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed)
Mystery grass! I’m terrible at grasses. Help? Probably in the love grass family?
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