Growing Native Perennials From Seed

purple coneflowerMust be easy to spread yourself around when you’re a plant that produces lots of seeds, right?¬†After all, look at what happens when kids¬†blow the seeds off dandelions! Dandelions pop up everywhere next year!

Unfortunately, it’s an ironic fact of gardening life that whatever you are trying to grow takes some effort, whereas the plants¬†that you don’t want (aka “weeds”) just seem to appear without any help from you.

Now, even though regionally native plants (if sited correctly) tend to be easier than exotic plants to grow¬†in temperate climates such as New England, that doesn’t mean that they will necessarily establish and spread without some help from us. You can buy established container plants from native plant nurseries, but this gets expensive, plus many¬†commercially available natives are cultivars – genetically identical clones that contribute little¬†genetic diversity and resilience to the species as a whole.

Here’s where we hands-on, DIY gardeners come in, by helping nature along a little bit!

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is easy from seed.

The beautiful Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberose) is very rare in the wild, but is easy to grow from seed from existing plants.

In an ideal world, our plants would bloom at the right time, be pollinated by the right kind of insect or bird, form seeds and fruits that ripen and are carried (again, by bird, insect or wind) to an appropriate location to germinate when the weather is just right. Some of them do, and if they survive the first year or two, may become established plants that flower, go to seed and continue the cycle.

In the real world, though, seedlings don’t have a high survival rate. Seeds that are not picked right off the stem by hungry birds might,¬†if they¬†have the misfortune to blow¬†into a lawn or roadside ditch, be mown down repeatedly or doused with weedkillers. Some seedlings are crowded right out by¬†vigorous exotic (non-native) plants that make up about 40% of the natural vegetation in New England. Other seeds will just never germinate, no matter what. Such¬†are the laws of life, genetics, and human-controlled landscapes.

actaea vincent

Native plants such as Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) are often expensive to buy because they are slow to propagate from seed. Photo used by permission of Vincent Normand.

So what’s a native plant gardener to do, if they want large quantities of native plants? Why, collect seeds and grow your own, of course! You can help support local plant and wildlife communities and have a beautiful, natural native plant garden¬†by collecting seeds from existing natives and growing and¬†distributing the seedlings around¬†the landscape via¬†friends, family and fellow citizens.

Collect¬†seeds from plants that are as locally native as you can find — in Massachusetts this usually means buying mature flowering plants from nurseries at New England Wild Flower Society’s Garden in the Woods (Framingham and Whately)¬†and the non-profit farm¬†Project Native in Western MA. If you are lucky, you may find local plant suppliers¬†that propagate from local seed banks. Avoid buying seeds from foreign suppliers or even other areas of the country–seeds may not be adapted to grow in your particular climate. You can also collect seeds from native plants that you’ve seen growing and blooming locally – but never take more than about 10% of a plant’s seeds for your own use.

Best Way to Sow Natives?

Recycle clear plastic salad containers with lids to sow native seeds outdoors for the winter.

If you don’t have a cold frame, sow native seeds in recycled clear plastic containers with lids and place outdoors for the winter to protect them from critters or floods.

The easiest way to grow from seed is¬†by simply allowing plants to go to¬†seed and letting nature do the seeding, but you may have little success with this¬†if¬†your gardens are heavily mulched or lots of critters are present¬†to dine on the seeds. Because most native plant seeds need an extended period of time (sometimes several years) before they will germinate,¬†¬†you’re usually¬†better off sprouting native seeds in a protected area outdoors, such as a cold frame or greenhouse, and letting them take the time they need.

Learn Your Seed’s Needs

Do some homework to find out whether your seeds have any special requirements for germination. For example, our native milkweed and bee balm¬†seeds require at least one winter outdoors in a moist environment¬†before they will sprout. Wild cranesbill¬†seeds are hydrophilic and should not be allowed to dry out in storage. Seeds from wild senna and goat’s rue require scarification/scraping of the seeds to loosen their hard¬†seed coats to allow for germination. I use William Cullina’s book¬†Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada¬†from New England Wild Flower Society, which lists germination requirements for each plant native to North America. Miriam Goldberger’s new book Taming Wildflowers also lists germination requirements for plants along with other tips for growing wild plants from seed.¬†Prairie Moon Nursery¬†has online¬†germination requirements for the various native seeds that they sell.

Propagation beds at Garden in the Woods

At Garden in the Woods, Trilliums and Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) are sown in raised nursery beds where seeds can sit through several winters and grow until plants reach their flowering stage. At that time, the best selections are transplanted to the garden or potted up for sale in the nursery.

Easy Native Perennials from Seed

For your first attempt, try growing the following eastern natives from seed — fresh or dried seeds¬†usually germinate easily without any special treatment (cold exposure or scarification) in New England:

Rudbeckia and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) are easy to grow from seed sown when they ripen on the plant.

Rudbeckia and Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) are easy to grow from seed sown when they ripen on the plant.

  • Aster
  • Lobelia
  • Helianthus
  • Rudbeckia

Native Seeds that Require At Least 1 Full Winter Before Germination:

Most of our northeast¬†natives will only germinate after being exposed to several¬†months of cold, snowy weather….in other words WINTER. As moisture-filled seeds¬†freeze and thaw through winter and into spring, their outer seed coats break up,¬†signaling¬†seeds to germinate when temperatures get warm again. Locally-evolved¬†plants are smart — their seeds know better than to germinate too early and have their babies get zapped by the cold.

Liatris ligulystilis

Liatris seeds readily germinate in spring after a winter outdoors in moist soil.

  • Asclepias (also needs light to germinate, sow seeds on soil surface)
  • Aquilegia
  • Echinacea
  • Eupatorium
  • Eutrochium
  • Geranium (hydrophilic seeds, do not¬†let¬†dry out)
  • Goldenrod
  • Liatris
  • Monarda
  • Phlox
  • Pycnanthemum
  • Tiarella
  • Verbena
  • Vernonia
  • Viola
  • Zizia

Some native plants only germinate after multiple winter/spring cycles of freezing/thawing:

  • Trillium
  • Actaea
  • Senna*
  • Polygonatum* (hydrophilic seeds, do not let dry out)

* If you start early by sowing seeds in fall or early winter after collection, you might be able to coax seedlings from these the first spring after sowing.

pond pond path chickensWinter Sowing in Containers

On our farm, my free-range chickens love to pick at seeds and scratch up seedlings in my plant beds, so I collect seeds from my best plants in fall and germinate them in recycled plastic containers with lids, to protect them until they can germinate and grow a little bit.

Here is¬†the¬†native plant nursery that lives on our patio from early¬†winter and spring each year — by late spring, I transplant seedlings into individual containers or directly into the garden:

winter-sowing-montageTo sow seeds in plastic produce containers, poke holes in the bottom and top of the container, sow seeds on a few inches of moistened seedling mix, water well, and place the containers outdoors for the winter. When warm temperatures arrive in spring and seeds begin to germinate, open the lids on warm days. When seedling roots reach the bottom of the containers, you can transplant them, either right into the ground, or into containers to grow on until they are larger.

Winter sown seedlings grown in containers will be tiny in their first spring, but very hardy! Unlike seedlings grown indoors, they need no hardening off after lids have stayed open for several days and nights.

More Info on Native Plants and Winter Sowing:

Winter Sowing FAQs at GardenWeb 

How to Germinate Native Seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery

Gardening in Winter – New England

Please comment here if you know of other online resources for gardeners growing natives from seed!

© 2014, Ellen Sousa. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    These are great tips, Thank You! Right now I’m “shopping in my yard” by dividing and transplanting the plants that do so well in my garden that they pop up everywhere. So because they are obviously tough enough to thrive, I’m moving them from the back garden where I spend most of my time to the front garden where I’ve been doing battle with invasive Bishopweed for 14 years now. The more I get that area stuffed with plants, the less room for the Bishopweed LOL

    Now you’ve given me some great ideas on how to get more plants for the front garden, and a great way to reuse those clear plastic veggie containers :)
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..What Plants Attract the Most Wildlife?

  2. Erin says

    I have tried growing native plants from seed for a few years now. So far it has been high investment, low reward. Most of the seeds I have attempted didn’t germinate, and the vast majority of seedlings that did germinate died quickly. First I didn’t get the seeds cold long enough. Then I let the seedlings get too wet. Then I let the seedlings get too dry. Then I let the seedlings get too cold. Some pots aren’t deep enough for the taproots, others are so deep I go through soil really fast.

    After spending $$ on seeds, potting mix, extra perlite, pots, materials for a shade frame, memberships in plant societies to get their literature & seed banks, hiring someone to water the babies if I leave town — the few plants that have survived past baby time are more expensive than any store-bought plant. And that doesn’t account for the hours spent researching, pages of back-and-forth inquiry with experienced growers, days of sterilizing pots, preparing batches of soil mix, potting plants, pricking out and repotting seedlings, gingerly watering each seedling every couple of days to avoid getting the stems wet. The survivors turned out kind of scraggly and thin, not like the plants I bought.

    I’m pressing forward since I still have some living seedlings this year, but I’m not sure this is a realistic project for a lot of regular gardeners. I’ve grown other plants from seed – veggies and herbs and flowers – but these little guys are super difficult. I hope New England plants are less finicky than Utah plants!

  3. UrsulaV says

    I’m a ferocious mulcher, so my natural seed germination is low for most plants. I have good luck with Pluchea, blood sage, and purple coneflower (and as for Boltonia and Rudbeckia fulgida, look out!) just by letting the seed heads fall, but it took me a couple tries even to get jewelweed established, and that’s a mad weed here. (Now that I have it, of course, it is eternal!) Been pleasantly surprised to see wild ginger popping up at distances that seem unlikely to be the result of rhizomes, but the ants get more credit for that than I!

    One I never have luck with is milkweeds. I can get them to germinate, but the transplant stage always nukes ‘em. Mind you, I have the same problem with tomatillos, so I think the problem is with the gardener, not the garden!

    • says

      Ursula – orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is notoriously difficult to transplant because of its taproot, but if you transplant when roots are still small, they should be OK. Maybe it’s the soil you’re planting into?
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Taming Wildflowers

  4. says

    Ellen, what a GREAT post. Thank you for the many tips and excellent how-to photos. As I continue to share seeds of the various native milkweeds and other goodies, your post will be the “GO TO” site I also share with these budding wildlife gardeners. Thank you for making my “job” easier! Happy Gardening, Pat
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Monarch Garden Tours: Sept. 19, 20, & 21


  1. […] The flowers mature into hard fruits consisting of multiple tiny dark brown clusters of achenes (nutlets) containing two seeds. These persist for some time on the plant, but if you want to collect the seed, do by late summer or early fall before they are eaten or dry up and succumb to harsh weather by falling off. The seeds can be planted with no pre-treatment, just keep them fresh. […]

  2. […] Swamp mallow is easily grown from seed, look for pods that have not been attached by weevils. Weevil damage can be detected by holes in the sides of the pods. The seeds can be harvested and stored in the refrigerator until spring. Need tips on growing natives from seeds? Here’s is a great primer: Growing Native Perennials from Seed. […]

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