A Colossal Need for Native Seed

Restoring wildlife habitat on fatigued public land starts with native seed—a commodity in short supply. Can the National Seed Strategy sow the grounds for success?

  • By Ray Levy Uyeda
  • Conservation
  • Mar 28, 2024

Multigenerational volunteers collect the seeds of roundheaded bushclover (above), a legume native to the tallgrass prairie, from the Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve in Kansas. A convergent lady beetle perches on Rocky Mountain bee plant (below) amid a Nebraska Sandhills prairie. (Photo above by Andrew Owen White.)

EACH SPRING, the native seed production farm at Oregon State University erupts in color. Under a vibrant blue sky, Oregon iris, western buttercup and narrowleaf onion paint the grounds of the 2.5-acre operation in hues of periwinkle, sunny yellow and lilac.

These wildflowers won’t end up at the farmer’s market. Instead, their seeds will go toward land restoration: the process of repairing a landscape’s health following events such as wildfire, extreme weather and mining. As the effects of climate change deepen and worsen, advocates say native seeds like these will play an increasingly critical role in making ecosystems more resilient and maintaining wildlife habitat.

“Plants are the only organisms that convert solar energy into life,” says Tom Kaye, executive director of the Institute for Applied Ecology, which runs the Northwest Plant Materials Program in Oregon. “Unless we make sure we’ve got these native plants in abundance, we can’t harness the value of the sun to support life on Earth.”

An image of a convergent lady beetle resting in the bloom of a Rocky Mountain bee plant.

Right now, however, there’s a vast gap between the native seed needed to complete planned restoration projects on public lands nationwide and the amount of seed available. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a federal agency and the largest single land manager in the United States, estimates it needs 1 billion pounds of native seed for restoration efforts spanning 117 million acres of BLM land alone. Still more seed is needed for other federal lands, from highway medians to national parks, as well as for Tribal, state, municipal and privately owned places where people live, work, play and worship. Around the world, the United Nations estimates 3.8 trillion pounds of native seed is needed for the restoration of 3.36 billion acres.

“Where we want to get to is to be thinking about the development of a seed production system that supports us in perpetuity,” says Brian St. George, BLM’s acting assistant director for resources and planning. “There is likely no end, in my mind, to our restoration need.”

Why the shortage? The native seed industry is young, evolving and working against the clock. Nonprofit organizations, federal agencies and local governments are collaborating to address the dearth of native seed as well as the deficit of seed-processing technologies and supply chain inefficiencies. In the meantime, ecologists are still figuring out which native plants should get planted where and when in order to grow and thrive.

“If we don’t start restoring lands, it affects all of our species,” says Meredith Holm, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Without restoration, the permanent loss of quality habitat could mean a “chain reaction that ultimately is going to impact people.”

In February, as this magazine was going to press, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the new National Seed Strategy Keystone Initiative, an $18 million effort to increase the supply of native seed for public lands projects that will include establishing the National Interagency Seed and Restoration Center. “A reliable, abundant and diverse supply of native seeds is foundational to ensuring that the ecosystems we all cherish can thrive for current and future generations,” Haaland said.

For his part, Kaye sees a narrow window for success. “We got an opportunity here,” he says. “I hope we take it.”

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An image of volunteers on a prairie restoration project at the Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Park.

Volunteers join the Native Lands Restoration Collaborative and Grassland Heritage Foundation on a prairie restoration project at Black Jack Battlefield and Nature Park in Kansas.

Why native seed

The United States is home to nearly 17,000 native species of seed-bearing plants, including flowering plants and conifers. These organisms are indigenous to the regions where they have evolved over thousands of years and form the basis for an ecosystem’s food web: Native plants support native insects; native insects pollinate native plants; and native plants and insects feed other animals, including humans.

A fissure at any level of the web threatens its integrity. Take the relationship between the monarch butterfly, a candidate for inclusion on the federal endangered species list, and milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only source of food. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the United States needs 1.8 billion stems of milkweed to reestablish the imperiled butterfly population before it’s too late. (See "Milkweed: It Makes an Insect Village" for more on the merits of milkweed.)

Milkweed is far from the only native plant with a vital role to play. Sagebrush, sulphur buckwheat and aspen fleabane help restore habitat for the greater sage-grouse, a bird whose conservation benefits many other species, including elk. Rocky Mountain bee plant, eschewed by livestock but especially attractive to bees, also supports upland game birds. Cordgrass is one of many plants native to the Atlantic Coast that helps restore eroded waterfront. The list goes on and on.

On the other hand, using nonnatives that haven’t evolved along with their ecosystems can cause more harm than good: leaving the diets of resident critters unmet while competing for resources—water, pollination, space—with, and potentially pushing out, beneficial native plants.

Restoration projects “can’t happen without native seeds,” says Jane Breckinridge, an enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma who runs the Tribal Alliance for Pollinators (TAP). Along with Tribal nations and community groups, and with funding from the Fish and Wildlife Service, TAP hosts free workshops on identifying, collecting, cleaning and planting seeds, and distributes free seeds to Tribes and individuals—helping increase the pool of habitat restoration specialists. TAP’s seed bank in Bixby, Oklahoma, currently houses more than 230 species of native plants, some of which “you won’t find anywhere else,” Breckinridge says.

TAP’s approach illustrates what Indigenous land stewards have known for centuries: Plants can heal the land. Now the U.S. government is mirroring and scaling up that strategy.

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An image of Courtney Masterson, and volunteer, Mellanye, collecting seeds from rosinweed.

Courtney Masterson of Native Lands (above right) and a volunteer collect rosinweed seeds from the Ivan Boyd Prairie Preserve in Douglas County, Kansas, as big bluestem and golden feathergrass nod in the foreground.

A national tipping point

In 2001, as more frequent wildfires bore down on western states, leaving degraded landscapes particularly susceptible to invasive vegetation, the U.S. Congress directed the Department of the Interior’s Burned Area Rehabilitation program to explore restoration through native seed planting. Four federal agencies including BLM responded to the request with a report that kick-started the native seed effort in earnest.

In the two decades since, wildfires have burned more than 150 million acres nationwide, and the intensity of hurricanes, cyclones and other storms has increased—as have drought and extreme heat, with 2023 the hottest summer on record. All of this led the National Academy of Sciences to formally reassess the national seed supply. The resulting report, released in January 2023, was immediately heralded for identifying the native seed shortage as a key barrier to restoration success, as well as the critical need for federal, state and local coordination to meet current and future demand.

Meanwhile, Congress has approved hundreds of millions in new federal funds for native seed production and landscape restoration. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $200 million for the National Seed Strategy, a BLM-led effort convening more than a dozen agencies and 300 nongovernmental partners—the funding source of the new initiative announced in February. Other legislation has allocated as much as $140 million for national forest reforestation, while the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act committed nearly $2 billion to other public lands and parks.

Given that the U.S. government owns or manages more than 27 percent of the nation’s total 2.3 billion acres of land—with 92 percent of those holdings located in Alaska and 11 western states particularly impacted by climate change—the seed supply certainly warrants federal attention and funding, advocates say. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We need large-scale production, but here’s where the complexity comes in,” says St. George of BLM. One state’s native plant is another state’s invasive. Regional plant selections must take into account soil, climate and wildlife considerations. “To get quantities of seed quickly and cheaply” at a national scale could be possible, St. George says, “but that doesn’t necessarily address the restoration goal.”

As Kaye puts it: “right species, right place, right time.” In other words, it’s a question of what, where and when—of quantity and quality—as well as recognizing that needs will shift as the climate continues to change.

“We don’t want to rely on three or four plants that we know how to grow and develop seed for,” says Vera Smith, senior federal lands policy analyst with the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. “We want to make sure we’re also developing native seed that reflects the natural diversity of native plants across our landscapes.” Smith leads a working group of like-minded conservation organizations—including the National Wildlife Federation—that is formulating recommendations to bolster the National Seed Strategy, encouraging the federal government to prioritize native keystone plants for ecosystem biodiversity and advocating for legislation to fund implementation.

“There is an encouraging increase in support for native plants in ongoing and new legislative efforts at federal and state levels that our collaboration is reviewing and signing on,” says Mary Phillips, a member of the group and the head of Native Plant Habitat Strategy & Certifications for NWF.

Regional efforts likewise are building bridges between federal and local projects. Holm of FWS is also a member of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Pollinator Task Force, which is working toward habitat restoration with a focus on bees. She echoes others in asserting that meeting national seed needs doesn’t come with a single nationwide solution. “Sometimes we can’t find enough seed for our projects,” she says. “Sometimes we can’t find the right seed—the seed that’s really needed for these pollinators.”

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An image of a volunteer collecting seeds from downy gentian.

A volunteer collects downy gentian seeds at the University of Kansas Field Station.

Learning Indigenous lessons

Still, “It’s a bummer that we have to do restoration, because that means that something went wrong,” says research plant physiologist Jeremiah Pinto. As part of his work for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Pinto, who is Diné and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, collaborates with Tribal nations to establish culturally relevant restoration projects. Because many Indigenous first foods—or those eaten prior to contact with European colonizers—come from native plants, cultural projects often double as landscape restoration projects.

Pinto assisted when the Stillaguamish Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs wanted to revive salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest. Together, they came up with a plan to plant native red osier dogwood and common snowberry along riverbanks, creating the shady habitat fish prefer. “Plants that are good for the salmon [are] plants that are good for us,” Pinto says.

Through his work, Pinto met Jesse Mike, a project manager and forester who helped launch the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Diné Native Plants Program in 2018. Each project the program tackles is by and for the Diné People, incorporating as many traditional Diné practices as possible. “That’s really one of our goals with this program: to re-form that connection with the native plants here in the Navajo Nation,” Mike says.

The severing of that historic relationship to the land echoes the degradation of the land itself, Tribal representatives say. As European colonizers transformed wetlands and prairies into pastures and commodity farmland—replacing native grasses with cattle feed and transforming fire-resilient landscapes into tinderboxes—the U.S. government removed and relocated Indigenous People from their ancestral homelands. Given that track record, while Mike sees promise in a federal seed supply, he’s skeptical of its ability to fix entire ecosystems.

“Industrialization and that scale of things got us into the climate crisis,” he says. “Replicating that and just inserting native seeds is not going to fix it.” Instead, he believes the key to landscape health lies in community-led efforts.

Breckinridge, of TAP, sees investing in native seed production as a way to support future generations while honoring the past. “Thinking about over 23,000 Muscogee (Creek) People dying during removal from the homelands on the Trail of Tears—just thinking about the sacrifices in that land being paid for in blood—how do we honor those sacrifices and use that land in a meaningful way, in a 21st century way?” she asks. “One of the most important assertions of our sovereignty we can make is how we treat our lands.”

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An image of volunteers cleaning seeds for storage in the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

Volunteers clean seeds for storage at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank.

The art of collection

Some native seeds take root fairly easily, says Courtney Masterson, an ecologist with the group Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, which is working to revitalize Kansas landscapes. She says it makes sense to let hardy plants—sunflowers and black-eyed Susans, for example—self-sow back into the ground. Other plants, like gentians and blazing stars, need more help to establish themselves and benefit from starting as seedlings before being transplanted in new locations. In either case, you can’t simply take seed from a healthy ecosystem and plug it into a degraded one. You’d run the risk of harming the collection site—and there isn’t enough seed in the wild to begin with.

To that end, seed collectors are skilled observers. These ecologists, botanists and trained volunteers can tell native Canada bluejoint apart from its invasive doppelganger, reed canary grass. They also can determine which plants are ready to release their seeds and which need more time. “It’s a little bit of a learning curve to understand,” says Breckinridge, who cautions that untrained collectors tend to harvest too early. “Plant identification is reasonably easy when something’s in bloom, [but] those seeds are not going to be ready to collect until it’s a dried-up, dead-looking stick.”

Whether gathering seeds on public or private property, collectors abide by two key laws of the land: First, glean randomly so there’s genetic diversity in your sample, and second, don’t overharvest. Native seed is typically collected by hand from areas unaffected by pesticides, and ensuing generations of plants are grown without chemicals as well. “It’s a really low-tech effort,” Masterson says. “It’s something humans have been doing for thousands and thousands of years.”

Read More: Rowen White on Indigenous Seed Saving »

Once gathered, native seeds—living organisms that can get stressed or die in adverse conditions—are transported to a cleaning facility as quickly as possible. The largest of these, such as the Bend Seed Extractory in Oregon and the Boise Regional Seed Warehouse in Idaho, are managed by the government, but organizations like the Northwest Plant Materials Program and TAP run dozens more.

Post gleaning and cleaning, seeds are tested for quality and stored in temperature-controlled rooms at places like the Chicago Botanic Garden’s seed bank then planted as greenhouse seedlings or distributed to restoration programs. With human support, these seeds can spawn entire landscapes. Take cardinal flower, Masterson says: One healthy seed produces one plant, which in turn can produce a million seeds.

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An image of a volunteer preparing a young rigid goldenrod for planting in a restoration project.

A volunteer transplants a stiff goldenrod seedling (above) as part of a Kansas restoration project. Selecting seeds that have evolved along with their environments helps support entire ecosystems, as with the common buckeye alighting on goat’s beard seed pods (below).

How to help

For the national seed supply to reach sustainable levels—and, by extension, for public and eventually private lands to heal from past degradation and fortify against future climate impacts—everyone has to get involved, advocates say. That includes backyard and front-stoop gardeners.

Kay Havens, chief scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, considers it part of her institution’s job to help people envision what a healthy landscape looks like. “Botanic gardens see themselves as shop windows for native habitats,” she says, “so people who want to do things in their own yard get ideas.” Havens, who recommends wild bergamot and dense blazing star for Chicago’s plains ecosystem, says massive federal seed purchases are helping create demand that will benefit home gardeners. In turn, home gardeners educating themselves on native plants raises public awareness, which could have implications for congressional seed funding.

Another way to support getting more native seed into the market? “When we’re at a nursery, [we can] ask: ‘Is this species native? Where is this particular plant from?’” advises Tom Kaye of the Institute for Applied Ecology. “Really demand that they produce a product you need.”

An image of a common buckeye butterfly on goat's beard seed pods.

NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® and Garden for Wildlife™ programs have been advocating for and planting native plants for more than 50 years. NWF’s social enterprise, gardenforwildlife.com, lets gardeners shop online for locally grown native plants, sorting by state, light and soil conditions, wildlife friendliness and more. “Consumer gardening research indicates that one in four plant consumers purchase native plants,” says Phillips of NWF. “Understanding that, without these plants we will not see butterflies, pollinators, birds and other wildlife, individuals are taking up the rallying cry for more native plants and habitat. The infrastructure happening at the federal level, combined with the groundswell of demand by communities, highlights a need for more native seed and plant availability coordinated on many levels.”

For those who want to start from scratch, most U.S. regions are home to at least one native seed operation, such as Central Coast Wilds in California and Wild Seed Project in Maine. But you don’t have to have a yard or be a property owner to join in. “Anybody can do this,” Breckinridge says. “You don’t need a lot of room. What you do need is somebody who’s woken up and realized that, man, with the scope of this problem, we’ve all got to pitch in and help.”

For those looking to get further involved, opportunities are sprouting up like wildflowers. There’s the Nevada Native Seed Partnership, which distributes free seeds for restoration purposes, and the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, which, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, provided more than 13 million plants for public-space restoration in New York City and down the eastern seaboard. Cities across the nation have implemented native seed policies, with Chicago offering rebates to residents who purchase native seeds locally. In Hartford, Vermont, researchers have proposed replacing highway medians with native gardens, which can aid in flood control and air purification—and which average about 5 percent the cost of asphalt to install.

While the native seed network has grown, so has the urgency around climate change. The time to act is now, Havens says. “We don’t have a choice,” she argues. “We have to. We have to keep native plants on the landscape, because they’re our life-support system.”

NWF priority

Sowing the Seeds

NWF collaborates with the Plant Conservation Alliance, growers, Tribal leaders, state affiliates and policy makers to support the National Academy of Sciences’ recommendations for long-term success of the National Seed Strategy. NWF advocates for no pesticides in native plant production and is grateful for Indigenous knowledge as all parties work toward ensuring a diverse supply of eco-regional native plants available to government agencies of all levels and consumers nationwide.

Read more about writer Ray Levy Uyeda.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Rowen White on Indigenous Seed Saving »
Native, or Not So Much? »
Seeds of Recovery »

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