This fall I experienced another kind of forest restoration that I really didn’t know existed near me. My Dad and I decided to go to a morning restoration event since it was at my favorite forest preserve. Thinking we were going to be cutting buckthorn, as described on the forest preserve website, we brought saws and gloves. However, once all of the volunteers gathered in a circle and announced, “It’s seed collecting day, hooray!” I realized that I was greatly mistaken.
At first I was slightly disappointed. I was hoping for some heavier work as opposed to the ease of seed collecting. As time went on, I became very grateful for the opportunity to learn something new. Also, the volunteers' excitement wore off on me greatly. They had been waiting all year to start picking seeds again and begin spreading the seeds to new forest areas. I had no idea how important these seeds were and how they would be used.
The volunteers split everyone into two groups: beginner and advanced. The beginner group was my Dad, one other girl, and I. It really felt like a private tour through the forest. Along the way we learned how to identify a multitude of forest plants. I had the hardest time keeping all of the names straight, but I had it pretty well down by the end of the day. I was amazed how the people in the advanced group were able to list off the full scientific name of any flower we spoke of. Getting to talk with experienced volunteers was really inspiring.
For the most part, our group leader would show us what kind of seeds we would be collecting, give us a plastic, ziplock bag, and tell us to search the surrounding area. For each different plant we were told how many seeds to take. Most of the time we left one-third of the seeds on a plant. That way, those plants would continue to spread in the area, while allowing us to also spread them in other places.
When the restoration was over both groups met by the parking lot. We laid out all of the bags of seeds and one volunteer wrote the name of the plant on a piece of paper that would go in each bag. In just a few hours we had collected hundreds of seeds from dozens of plants. The pile was quite satisfying.
Our leader explained that seeds were collected in the forests of the surrounding area and all brought to a warehouse to be sorted and processed on a designated day. The seeds would be made into mixes to be spread into areas that needed them. For example, hardy plants are put into a mix to be spread in a recent wildfire area. Other mixes might be put into an area that was recently deforested because of invasive species and so on. The seeds are not spread past a certain number of miles from where they were collected to keep in their natural range. Why is this so important? Because of the mix of city and forest, seeds often don’t make it to a new destination like they normally would. Many seeds get obstructed by houses and streets.
From listening to the importance of the seeds, it is easy to see why the forest preserves have the strict policy of not collecting anything. So many times I’ve wanted to take home a flower to press or a leaf to study and perserve; but if it was allowed, the natural cycle of the forest would be altered. Just imagine if everyone in the area took one flower.
Perhaps my favorite part of the day was being allowed to walk in amongst the flowers and smell the mountain mint we picked. Why is the forest where this event took place my favorite? Because in all of the years I've been coming to that forest I've learned where the wildflowers and birds are, their names, where the paths lead, and so on. The familiarity can be more special than the uniqueness of the landscape. In my experience the more you know an area, often the more amazing it becomes. To help the forests around you and get more involved with nature, I highly recomend going to a restoration event. Learning about these forests is a truly special experiece! Who knows, maybe after a few restoration events you'll pick up a multitude of scientific plant names and be able to rattle them off like the volenteers I met!
An important reminder: Seed collecting should only be done as part of a forest group that has permission. There are multiple groups that have their own websites and also the forest preserve websites. Sometimes the events all have the same description, so be ready for tree cutting, seed collecting, and anything in-between! If you have questions there is usually a number to call and/or an email.
Cook County Forest Preserve Volunteer page:
Other counties also have restoration days on their own websites.