The Role of Seed Laboratories in Erosion Control: What They Do, Why It’s Important

Sept. 1, 1999

Seeds have a long history of being connected to challenging human endeavors. In Greek mythology, among the daunting tasks Psyche faced in order to be reunited with her lover Cupid was that of sorting a roomful of mixed grains before nightfall. In the nick of time a colony of ants came to her assistance by dividing the grains into piles.

Today, seed labs face tasks far more complicated than Psyche’s. Although reunion with the Divine isn’t the goal, the success of reclamation and erosion control projects rests, in large part, on procedures carried out in seed labs.

Whether erosion control contractors reseed via hydraulic means, plant with drills, or scatter seed by hand, knowing that the seeds are alive, free of noxious weeds, and able to germinate in a timely fashion are all of paramount importance for the success of the job.

We spoke with people at registered seed laboratories, seed producers and distributors, and contractors to find out what goes on within a laboratory, why it’s important, and how the work helps make the contractor’s job easier and more successful.

Aleta Meyer is director of Ransom Seeds in Carpinteria, CA, a lab founded by her mother, Betty Ransom, in 1933. According to Jim Effenberger, associate seed botanist for the State of California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, Betty was “progressive, fantastic, and internationally known.” She also was at the forefront of working with wildflower seeds.

The detailed information coming from seed labs such as Ransom allows others to label seed bags correctly. Labs determine the mechanical purity of seeds, their viability, and the total amount of pure live seed (PLS). Labs determine PLS by multiplying the percentage of pure seed by the percentage of the total viability. For example, a March 22, 1999 test on Hemizonia fasciculata at Ransom showed 26.04% pure seed times 70% total viability (which represented a combined viability of 37% germination and 33% dormant) for a PLS figure of 18.23%. The lab also details additional material in the seed sample: other crop seed, inert matter, and weed seed, both the kinds and amounts in percentages. Ransom’s analysis adds one other figure: the amount of live seed per pound. With the Hemizonia fasciculata, the number was 141,783 live seeds per pound.

Meyer says, “We only look at seeds; not flowers, leaves, or roots of the plant. All that, including the harvesting location, is done by the collector.” She also points out that labs similar to hers do not deal with the pathology and genetic variety of seeds. “Other types of professions and organizations handle those issues.”

Sometimes Meyer becomes involved with more than just testing seeds before a seed lot sells. She explains, “We’re also involved in situations where something is planted and a disagreement ensures. For example, if a hillside was planted for erosion control and something emerges that shouldn’t have, we’re involved if the contractor kept a sample of the seed applied.”

Although the procedures for handling and testing seeds for purity and viability initially sound straightforward, proverbial burrs soon find their way under the laboratory saddle. For example, the protocols set up for seed laboratories hark back to those of agricultural crops in the beginning of the century. This would be fine if erosion control contracts called for spreading Bibb lettuce and soybeans along highway slopes. Agricultural crops, genetically bred to germinate with nearly flawless accuracy within a short time period, have little in common with their cousins, the wild and native plants. And it’s these plants that are specified with growing frequency for erosion control and reclamation projects. Still full of “native intelligence,” wildflowers and native plants refuse to respond to the protocols set out for the bred-down agricultural crops.

Let’s leave the basket of burrs alone for the moment and follow a sample of 400 seeds arriving at the Ransom laboratory. Ransom services about 350 customers, and seeds from perhaps 50 of its customers end up planted for erosion control.

The seed sample first goes into Ransom’s computer system, which generates a work card that follows the sample throughout its stay in the lab.

Next comes identifying the seed, if it’s one the laboratory doesn’t know, which might happen with native seeds. Meyer says, “First we try to get it into a family by turning to seed keys, to seed pictures in photo books, or to our herbarium, which has about 5,000 different species of seed examples. All are classified by family first, because a family has the same genetic characteristics. Family, then genus in alphabetical order, then species. If we still don’t know, we send it to the California State Laboratory. They have three seed herbariums.”

Then follows the physical purity test, which involves everything from microscopes and tweezers to blowers and graduated screens to separate the seed from other matter, such as material collected in the field with the seed (flowers, twigs, weed seed). “We only plant pure seed for the germination test,” says Meyer. “If seeds arrive in pods [two in each pod], we work with pods. We don’t open them.”

Meyer creates miniature greenhouses out of hard, clear plastic containers—sandwich boxes—with seeds placed on blue-blotters. For some seeds, she uses chemical-free paper towels and stands them upright with the seeds rolled inside. All seeds receive spring water.

The Ransom lab has five different combinations of control temperatures for testing germination rates, and they test seeds from seven to 28 days. The constant temperature is 68°F. Alternating germination is 16 hours at 68°F and eight hours at 85°F, or 16 hours at 58°F and eight hours at 78°F. The constant for many natives is 58°F.

“What we count in the lab is all the initial parts,” Meyer describes. “The roots, to anchor the plant in the ground; the stem or hypocotyl; and the cotyledons. They look like two leaves, but they aren’t. They’re food for the tiny baby sprout. Cotyledons get used up as a food source when the leaves grow. In alfalfa sprouts, you’re really eating the cotyledons.

“Through years of data, we know that if from our 400 samples we grow plants that have all those initial parts intact and are in good health, the seed will go forward and make healthy plants. Being able to control the water supply and temperature, it’s a cost-efficient way of getting initial data.”

The specifications Meyer uses come straight from the Association of Official Seed Analysts (AOSA), the government regulatory agency. “We follow its guidelines,” she says. “We try to grow the seeds in the optimum range of temperature and moisture for initial germination.” When through with the samples, “they go into the compost mounds and finally into our garden.”

While AOSA is governmental, the Society for Certified Seed Technologists (SCST) is a professional organization. Members are either independent laboratories (like Ransom) or individuals who work for private companies (like Northrop King). SCST has about 159 members in the United States, while AOSA has about 100. Both organizations can certify seeds. “We’re two groups doing the same thing,” notes Meyer. “We standardize our data so they’re believable and correct on the labels. We all follow the same directions for testing, and we meet once a year.”

The number of professionals belonging to both organizations doesn’t seem large, given the population of America. Even so, Jane Hall, a registered seed technologist and laboratory manager of Precision Seed Testing in Arvada, CO, comments on issues of wildflower seeds and laboratory testing. “There can be no quality assurance of wildflower seed without purity and germination testing by a qualified seed analyst.” Although some states still do not require purity testing of wildflower seed, Hall adds that “standards are rapidly emerging, and buyers are increasingly demanding such information. Germination testing, in contrast, is required for seed labeling, and testing for seed dormancy the purity of most commercially produced wildflower seed is generally 95% or higher. However, she admits that “high percentages of weed seed (greater than 2%) can be found in some seed lots because of difficulties in cleaning.” Occasionally a weed seed remains unidentified even after it has been searched for in reference materials because “wildflower seed is grown in many parts of the world, thus presenting the analysts with the occasional unknown weed species,” Hall points out.

A problem with purity can occur with wildflower seed “because of unique structural traits of the seed,” Hall states. “For example, yellow daisy has a pappus that disarticulates and is similar in size and density to the seed. It therefore cannot be removed through cleaning, thus reducing the average pure seed to about 50 percent.” She says that an inexperienced analyst “might not realize the pappus is inert material since it closely resembles the seed.” Many wildflower seeds have peculiarities that can challenge a lab analyst. The Catchfly (Silene armeria L.) and the Papaver spp. “both have extremely small seeds that tax the analyst’s vision and motor skills and require the use of a microscope for purity analysis.”

To test the germination of wildflower seeds, Hall recommends having the mind of an explorer. “Persistence, patience, and the ability to change course midstream are recommended qualities. Germination testing, seedling evaluation, and testing for dormancy using tetrazolium chloride [TZ] are commonly conducted.” Hall states that the most important quality-assurance concern associated with germination testing of wildflower seed “is the wide range of germination methods used and the lack of seedling evaluation criteria. Over 260 methods of flower-seed germination testing are listed in AOSA’s Rules for Testing Seeds [1996].” In Hall’s laboratory, 102 of the listed species are tested for germination on a regular basis. Of these species, “50 percent are tested using AOSA rules, and the remainder using alternate methods, including the International Seed Testing Association‘s [ISTA] Rules for Seed Testing [1996] methods, developed by wildflower analysts over many years of testing and from methods inferred from other sources.”

Hall concedes that the wide range of germination testing methods “and lack of seedling evaluation guidelines cause differing results between laboratories. Two labs can test the same seed lot and produce significantly different germination results because differing methods might have been used, differing criteria for seedling evaluation might have been employed, and the seed might have been tested for dormancy in one lab and not the other.”

Because discrepancies in test results influence the percentage of total viable seed (TVS) reported by labs, seed producers may send samples to several different labs to obtain the highest germination percentage. “By selecting the test with the highest TVS percentage, the seed producer may increase the value of the seed lot by thousands of dollars.” Hall realizes, however, that different test results breed confusion for the seedsman as to the actual quality of the seed lot.

How to address this issue? Hall suggests first following existing AOSA seed-testing rules, then ISTA’s seed-testing rules. If satisfactory results still elude the technician, she suggests initiating paired tests to compare alternate methods side by side.

Questions of hard seed and dormancy don’t exist in agricultural crops. They lie within the genetic strengths of native and wild seeds. It’s what allows the plants to survive no matter what nature sends their way. As Meyer says, “Many wild seeds used for erosion control have a natural protective quality—a genetic track—so they don’t all germinate at once. Some can even germinate 20 years later.” As a general rule, the more recently harvested seeds have more dormancy. “Freshly harvested alfalfa seed might be 70 percent hard seed. It’s the same with lupine. Hard seed is a type of dormancy that won’t let any water into the seed, protecting the seed so it can wait. There are also embryo and temperature types of dormancy. Dormant seed will at some time make viable plants, but how long the seeds remain dormant varies.”

To counteract dormancy issues, it’s possible to manipulate seeds artificially to break down hard seed. You can scarify them, you can hydrate the seed to the point just before germination, and you can use oxygen or certain chemicals to bring the seed very close to germination. It can be dried and shipped, but the seed is now more vulnerable. It has been changed.

Hall discusses tetrazolium testing on wildflower species. “Tetrazolium testing plays a very important role in wildflower seed testing and is used in the laboratory on a daily basis. As elsewhere in the seed industry, the TZ test is used as a quick viability test, but more importantly, it is used to test firm, ungerminated seed found at the end of the germination test to determine the percentage of dormant seed and total viable seed.”

However, once again the wildness of the seed can play a wild card. Some species are so small that TZ testing is not practical. Others, Hall notes, have “very tiny embryos, and the best the analyst can do is conclude that the seed stained viable red. And seed with mucilaginous seed coats can also make TZ testing difficult. Finally, seeds from the Asteraceae family can exhibit differences in staining patterns. The analyst must be aware of such differences to avoid interpreting the light-staining embryos as damaged or dead seed.”

People often forget that seeds are living organisms. As Jim Effenberger says, “There’s respiration going on there. They can have abnormals, and in the right condition, heal themselves. And they can produce abnormals too.” Because of these testing issues, Paul Albright, president of Albright Seed Company in Camarillo, CA, calls lab testing “a bag of worms.” Speaking of seed tests, he echoes Hall. “It’s guaranteed that different lots of the same items will have variances. But the same lots studied by different labs also get different results, depending on the percentage of seed purity.” Albright says to remember that “it’s people testing the seed, not machines.”

He also asks, “What is the definition of pure seed? Perhaps the seed is not in the manuals. There are over 18,000 grasses in the world, and some were just discovered or were renamed yesterday.” He, like many others, also raises the issue of appendages on many seeds. “Do you call the spikelets part of the seed or plant? And what about the awns attached on the end of the seed? You can have a 100-pound bag and all the seeds have awns attached, so they’re counted as part of the seed. But if they break off from drying out or from shipping, you retest and have only 80 pounds of pure seed, because you test by weight. Now the awns are counted as part of the inert material.”

Albright also comments on the slippery side of seed germination. “What’s a germinated seed? It’s a judgment call because of dormancy and hard seed. You have to look at the actual plant to see if it is in full germination or just a partial one.”

He points out how germination tolerances were written for agricultural seed and “don’t go any lower than 60 percent. But a lot of seed is sold today with less than 60 percent germination; the vast majority of seeds aren’t listed as agriculture seed.”

Albright feels that PLS accentuates the problem. “With a 10 percent variance first in purity, then a 10 percent variance in germination, what does the PLS number really mean?” He therefore feels it’s important “to rely on the integrity of the seed companies, but they’ve moved away from performance specifications to prescriptions specs. Only performance specs will work—so many plants per square foot, and increase the vitality of the plants you specify, and decrease the number of opportunistic weeds. PLS is a theoretical concept. You must accept tolerances. Nothing in the physical world is a hard number. Engineers get confused and think of one-half-inch rebar.”

Albright counts on information from seed labs and is quick to point out that Betty Ransom got into the testing of natives and wildflowers early. Albright also connected early with wildflowers, selling natives to hydroseeders around 1965. “I decided to try to get Caltrans [California DOT] interested in more than barley and rye. To get wildflowers to work, I had to get Caltrans not to use rye grass. I first sold natives to BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit]. They loved it!”

As far as working with seed-lab information, he asks, “How do we decide what it means on a particular job? PLS per square foot is great for a design concept, but what are the tolerances for that number? How many seeds per pound of Mediterranean grass are competing with what you are putting in?”

Howard Bright, owner of the Ion Exchange in Harpers Ferry, IA, works with seed labs and says, “The best they can do for you is give germination, purity, and weed count. If we get extreme lab results on seeds, I send them back and forth until I get a tolerance I can live with. For example, if I get a 60 percent germ from one lab and a 30 percent germ elsewhere (and this is not very often; we have to be aware enough of our seed quality and storage conditions), we’ll send it off again right away, most of the time to the same lab. If we get a low tolerance once more, then I’ll plant it in the road ditch. I won’t put it on the market for sale.”

As does Albright, Howard Bright talks about the issue of awns or pappus, the fluffy material attached to about 10-15% of seeds. “If you have lots of seed and don’t remove the awns and send them to the lab, it can come back 90 percent pure.” With awns attached, it can also make five times the amount of the material. “The end user needs to be aware of seeds per ounce being sold and if the pappus is attached to the seed. I put an asterisk by those that have awns attached.” Bright also indicates when seed has been defluffed. “For example, New England Aster sells for $20 per ounce, and the label indicates that the seed has been defluffed. The buyer needs to be asking those kinds of questions. The only way the customer will know is either to ask or to see if it’s marked with an asterisk.”

Bright wishes seed labs could improve their germination techniques as well as the way they deal with the detachable part of the seeds. “We have to specify in some way that the attachment was counted as part of the purity and weighed so much, so that we can say the attachables are x percent of the weight of the pure seed.”

Bright recognizes the issues of germination rates among natives and wildflowers. “Maybe 20 to 30 percent of our seeds take 60 to 90 days to get full germination.” Yet as Effenberger points out, “Seed labs were set up for agricultural crops. With corn you might have 60,000 to 80,000 seeds per acre. For hillside erosion control, maybe you seed three seeds per square foot! Our money comes from the Department of Agriculture, so all research and time is spent on protocols for testing agricultural crops. Those protocols are hard to apply to natives.”

Bright knows that labs are aware of germination problems, and he says, “They aren’t trying to sell us a pig in a poke. But labs that are just getting into testing in the last few years.well, they are not as astute. Actually, most labs are probably more aware of the problems of native grasses and wildflowers than we growers are.” He adds, “It would be totally crazy to be a seed lab and not be accredited.”

Effenberger points out that in California, Caltrans is “really heavy into natives. Yet how much is pure seed and how much is weed? If the seed size is large and the weed size is small, you can end up with more weed seed than seed of the plant you want.”

This can have disastrous results because many introduced species, such as Mediterranean rye grass, are very aggressive and push out native plants. Effenberger says, “Cornell University just came out with the information that we’re losing 5,000 acres a day to weeds in the West. We thought it was only 2,000 acres! In crop fields, farmers have a 42 percent loss from weeds, 27 percent from insects, 28 percent from disease, and 3 percent from nematodes. Weeds take out water, sunlight, and nutrients.” He concedes that putting natives back into California is hard to do. “Once you put them in, you must go back and help the natives by roguing—taking out the undesirable plants. If you don’t go back, aliens will come right back in. When natives do get established, they can do all right.”

Effenberger adds, “We’re seeing that more and more people want lab-tested seeds to fill their erosion control contracts.” Because of the wily characteristics of native and wild seeds and because seed lab protocols were established for agricultural crops, it’s important to send seeds to registered seed technologists at established seed laboratories—preferably labs experienced with the kinds of seeds one needs tested.

Norm Poppe, general manager of Applewood Seed Company in Denver, CO, who works closely with Jane Hall, tells a revealing anecdote: “About five or six years ago, a lady called from Nebraska. She’d been collecting leadplant seeds in the summer, a native to the prairie. She sent me a sample. Jane took one look and said, ‘This isn’t leadplant.’ It was a common weed. The woman insisted it was leadplant, said she’d sold it to many plant companies and ‘no one has complained yet.'”

Poppe says that many seed companies sell untested native seeds. Narrowleaf purple clump flower is an example. “It sells for $300 a pound and routinely is not tested!” He says there is still a lot of ignorance about native plants and “what’s truly wild-collected is often like a cottage industry. The buyer needs to know about seed companies and where the seed was tested.”

Not only do seeds need professional testing, end users—including erosion control contractors—need to know what the testing means. Poppe says, “Pure live seed is very important for erosion control purposes. It’s the relationship between purity and germination rate. Often people buy on price alone. Sometimes by spending more money you get a better value, because there’s more PLS. On the ornamental side of the seed business, where you have 98 percent pure seed and 80 percent germination, PLS isn’t important. With native seeds, PLS varies widely and is very important for the contractor to know.”

Poppe admits it’s a slow process to educate people. “More education is the key to buying the quality and species you need.” Seed labs, he points out, level the playing field, allowing seed companies to be honest about what they’re selling.

Dave Weigand, reclamation manager for Randall & Blake in Denver, knows he’s getting the seed he pays for because “we only buy from Arkansas Valley Seed in Denver. They provide me with a certificate of a seed analysis, what we call a COC [Certificate of Compliance]. It shows the name of the lab, the lot number from which the seed was taken, the kind and variety, the purity, the crop, the inert matter, the weed, the origin, the germ and the hard and dormant, the date of the test, the noxious weeds, and PLS. We’re required by law to ask for this information for government jobs. Normally with private jobs they don’t ask for it and we’re not required to give it, but we know we’re getting good seed.”

Weigand says they’ve never had a problem with seed coming from Arkansas Valley. “We’ve pretty much used them for 18 years. We just finished doing 1,000 acres and used their seeds. We use natives, forbs, legumes, and specialized wetland seeds.”

As far as advice for erosion control contractors, Weigand warns, “Be careful of the snake oil that’s offered to you. There are some seed companies that would try to push a product or recommend different things you can put into your seed to make it germ better. We don’t use any additives in our seed.”

Bruce Berlin, until recently at S&S Seeds in Carpinteria, CA, suggests, “Every time an erosion control contractor buys seeds, he should ask for seed tags that verify the quality of the seeds and the lab results. But that happens less than 10 percent of the time in California. Now Caltrans has specifications. It’s one of the few agencies that ask for a certain quality of seeds and proof of lab analysis.”

Victor Schaff, president of S&S Seeds, stresses that “there are no rules for native seeds. Use a lab that can recognize and identify seeds and weeds correctly. You want the lab result to be realistic so another lab can come along and test it. Find a lab you can hang your hat on; the best labs are those experienced with natives.”

For seed companies, accurate lab results are essential. Schaff points out that if noxious weeds end up in seed packets, “we could be responsible. Say that my seeds make up $10,000 worth of a $70,000 sale of seeds. If our part pollutes with weeds, we could be responsible, financially and legally, for the whole $70,000.”

In terms of improving labs, Schaff wishes the professional association would “weed out the labs that do a poor job—follow through with standards the labs must adhere to, or shut them down. However, I doubt the bad guys are very often kicked out.” He also says if a lab indicates a test showing a better quality than the seed really is, then the seed producer likes that kind of lab. “He likes it if weed seeds are not really counted correctly. He’ll get a certificate and can then sell seed that really has more weeds than the certificate indicates.”

Even when seeds and weeds are properly tested, the issue of time comes into play. The older the seed, the more the viability can change. Meyer says, “Eight to 16 months after testing, seed samples need to be retested.” At S&S Seeds, Schaff retests all seeds that the company purchases, “even those from our own growers. We retest almost every six months on almost everything.”

There are variabilities inherent in any human endeavor, and seed labs are no exception. Lab technicians are people, not robots (at least not yet). Variations in test results also occur because of the sampling—a randomly chosen sample from 15 bags out of 100 is just that: a random sample. The assumption that every single bag is identical is incorrect.

Ron Wade, general manager of Applied Ecological Services/Taylor Creek in Brodhead, WI, says, “Our policy is that any seed that’s three years old will be tested before we sell it.” His is a three-tier company: ecological consulting, a contracting firm, and a native seed nursery. “We consume 80 percent of our seed in our own contracting work.”

Wade emphasizes that the native seed business “is so new in comparison to agriculture. Ten years ago there were no rules. The tendency now is toward PLS testing; more end users are asking for it. There’s no question in my mind that in five years all forbs and natives will have PLS testing. It’s the maturing of the industry and the growing sophistication of our clients.”

Wade reports that he almost never has a planting totally fail. “But year one looks like a weed patch, year two like half a weed patch. Year three, it begins to look like a prairie.” He feels that erosion control contractors need a basic understanding of PLS vis-à-vis native seeds and the proper use of Truax drills. “They need to know how to use the drills for getting seeds to the right depths. They also need to know soil preparation, what the right seed is and how to install it properly, and maintenance of the project for three to five years.” To create a prairie, for the first year “it needs to be mowed to about 8 inches high to keep weeds from going to seed.” With native grasses, one-third of the biomass is aboveground, two-thirds are belowground. “They evolved this way over time to survive extreme weather conditions on the prairie, as well as burning.”

Wade says he has no quarrel with anything he gets from seed labs. “They give me timely information at a reasonable price. It’s the next step along the way that gets people in trouble. Erosion control contractors need someone knowledgeable in planting and the properties of native species to know how to get it right. When prairie plantings fail, it is because they were not done right.”

Poppe would like to see erosion control contractors educate themselves about the difference between dormancy and hard seed, as well as which tests seeds have been through. “Natives just aren’t straightforward species, and they never will be. Even the percentage of hard seed varies from year to year.”

There is a push all across America to use more native and wild seeds. As Howard Bright says, “A lot of people are just now seeing that living in an area is relating to those plants that are native. More than ever, they’re taking pride in something Mother Nature took 25,000 to 100,000 years to evolve. Why replace them with something not native to your area? With native wildflowers, people feel like a part of something. There’s a sense of community.”

Kirk Henderson, county coordinator for integrated roadside vegetation management and manager of the roadside program at the University of Northern Iowa, says, “We’re after the real Iowa natives. Ultimately we’re getting seed with a yellow tag on it, indicating source identification. Howard Bright is one of our best native seed sources. And we want his seeds certified through the Iowa Crop Improvement Association at the Iowa State University. The association has been there forever, and it’s happy to work prairie grass and wild seed into its program.”

One problem Henderson has is getting more growers to certify seeds, including source identification. Why does he want that? “It began from a purist point of view—planting seeds from as close to home as possible and to deter bringing in out-of-state seeds.” Fifteen years ago, prairie-grass seed came from seed dealers in Nebraska, Mississippi, Kansas, and Texas— “states that have used natives for rangeland management for decades. Those grasses are aggressive. After all, they were selected for forage uses, such as switch grass, and that takes over,” Henderson points out.

Always known for corn and beans, Iowa now wants its own seed as much as possible, Henderson remarks. Although the Iowa Highways Department is sensitive to source plant issues, it has not yet specified local seeds in contracts because of the quantities needed. “But we’re getting to the point where they can,” he says. “More and more local seeds are now available.” A $376,000 grant from Iowa DOT stipulates buying prairie grass and wildflower seeds for 52 of Iowa’s 99 counties. “We can use Iowa source seeds even though they are six to seven times more expensive. Actually, Canada rye was $25 per pound, but now it’s $6, $8, and $10 a pound because of more competition.”

Henderson specifies that he wants PLS information on purchased seeds. “It’s up to the growers to test their seeds. We open the bag and look at the seeds, to see who cleans and debeards the most. That has improved over the last five years.”

Henderson feels that he’s now getting good seed. He doesn’t take the time to send in seeds and see if lab results compare with seed growers’ results. “Early on, we were used to an inferior product—prairie grass. Most were a light, fluffy seed with awns. Jim Truax had to develop a special native grass drill and it costs $10,000. Iowa’s DOT bought 30 of them for themselves and another 30 or more for counties. However, the seed is so much cleaner now that Jim might have to change his drill. It already has three boxes: one for light, fluffy seed; one for harder seed; and one for really fine wildflower seeds.”

Native seeds are a young business in Iowa. Fifteen years ago, one woman, Dorothy Berringer, started selling real Iowa seed. Henderson says there are now “about half a dozen pretty active producers. Some are getting large-scale. Dorothy wasn’t doing production plots, just harvesting in the wild. She retired this year.”

About seed labs, Henderson says, “You hear weird things. For example, you can send seed to two different places and you might get pretty different results. And sometimes you hear people can get the results they ask for.” He does know that Iowa seed labs are getting better at dealing with native seeds. “We’re still used to numbers like 50 to 70 percent germ in wildflowers. We think that’s good.”

Russ Nicholson with Pennington Seed Company in Madison, GA, stresses finding the right lab for the job. “Don’t just pick one out of the phone book.” Concerning seed purity, “We know at the time the seed goes to a lab how much is attached. We use several labs, and seldom do we get a big variation. That usually depends on where you grab the seed from a mountain. We have a full-time field department that classifies the cleanliness of the field before the lab analysis. If there are no weeds in the field, there are no weeds in the sample.”

He acknowledges the high cost of cleaning. “We clean one species at a time, and it’s expensive for native grasses. They’re often harvested by hand, and it can take a half a day or three-quarters of a day just to clean the machine and funnels between species. We have to take the machine apart and clean it with air hoses.” One harvest might weigh only 100,000 lb., which after cleaning reduces to 50,000 lb. of pure seed, and after the machines have run only a day or two, they have to be thoroughly cleaned again.

Because of the variables inherent in wild and native seeds, and because there are, on average, three registered seed technologists per state, it’s important for contractors to be sure that they purchase seed from reputable seed dealers who, in turn, have their seed tested at professional seed labs.

However, not only do contractors often purchase seed based on price, rather than PLS, seed is generally purchased at the end of a project. It’s the home stretch, and the contractor is itching to finish. Details about the kind of seed—its purity and viability—are often overlooked.

Yet when natives and wild seeds are what the contract calls for, the results from seed labs can make all the difference. And if alien seeds are mixed in the seed bag, efforts to return an area to its predisturbed condition will fail unless there is a strict maintenance clause in the contract.

This is why many seed experts recommend performance contracts rather than prescription contracts. As Paul Albright points out, natives go through a succession of pioneer plants before reaching climax species. The pioneer plants come first to build up the biological activity in the disturbed soil, creating the habitat for the climax species. If contractors simply hydroseed without considering the condition of the soil or the natural succession of plants, and if there is no maintenance clause in the contract, all might be for naught.

Albright champions performance specifications and is adamantly against the prescription specifications used by Caltrans. He pointedly asks which scenario is more deceiving: “Buying for the people of California a system that doesn’t work, or a contractor who pockets the money he saved by not buying the expensive seed, even though the contract says to, and instead puts in another seed?”

S&S’s Schaff echoes Albright. He says, “Once Caltrans puts down certified seeds and the mulch required, there’s no responsibility after that. And that’s a big problem. The seeding part of the design comes at the end of the contract. The general contractor builds the roads, bridges, and so forth, and at the end has a small part of his budget for seeds. It doesn’t matter to him if it’s the wrong time of year for the seed or anything. It’s the tail wagging the dog. This is a fairly large situation with Caltrans.”

Albright adds, “A wet-behind-the-ears landscape architect in Los Angeles might not consider soils or microclimates or the way they’ve been modified by putting a highway through, so that you now only have subsoil, no topsoil with microbes in it. Storing topsoil kills all the microbial activity because oxygen gets to it, so what they have left when they bring back the topsoil are the weed seeds that didn’t die!” This frustrates Albright because his approach is the exact opposite. “We just like to copy nature and keep an eye on how God does it.”

In comparison to the world of seeds today, Psyche’s task in that room full of grains might now sound as easy as a Sunday picnic. Following the trail of seeds—from harvest to handling to seed labs for analysis to bagging to storage to shipping to selling to replanting—is a long, arduous journey. Success requires specific actions and careful attention every step along the way. And tests performed in registered seed laboratories provide vital information to help make the journey successful.

About the Author

Katherine Holden

Journalist Katherine Holden is a frequent contributor to environmental journals.