Propagating native plant seeds should be easy. It happens in nature, with no help from humans, so it seems logical that if humans try to help the seeds along, they should be able to produce healthy plants.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

“Unlike with vegetable seeds, you can’t just plant them in the spring and have them come up,” said Shawn Jalbert, who propagates native plants at Native Haunts, a nursery he owns in Alfred. He was speaking at a wildflower symposium last month at McLaughlin Garden in South Paris. “With some of these plants, four or five years later they will just be germinating.”

Many seeds have to go through many steps before they produce a plant. Take hobblebush, for example, which goes by the Latin name Viburnum lantanoides and is a common understory shrub in hardwood forests. Before it can produce seedlings, it needs a warm period, followed by a cold period, and then another warm period.

The black tupelo tree, native to southern Maine, produces its seeds inside a fruit, as do many plants. To germinate, the fruit flesh must be removed from the seed. The seed has a tough husk, so it then has to be scarified or scratched, which usually happens when an animal eats it. After that, it still must go through a cold period.

“Mother Nature’s plan is to keep seeds dormant,” Jalbert said, “and it isn’t just to irritate us.”


If seeds lie dormant for several years, they will be ready and waiting if disasters – say fires – eliminate the parent plants. Another advantage of is that the seeds can widely dispersed by animals.

“The fruit is saying, ‘Here’s a food source. Poop me out farther away from the mother plant,’ ” Jalbert explained.

A lot of plants need moist conditions to germinate, Jalbert said, among them mountain laurel, swamp milkweed, pitcher plants and native rhododendrons. The best way to get them to germinate is to put your containers with the seeds in a Ziploc bag.

Barbara Murphy, a former Cooperative Extension educator who taught the Master Gardener program for many years and now with her husband, Michael, is proprietor of the Wake Robin nursery for native plants in Paris, said soil conditions are also important for native plants.

“A plant’s habitat is where you would find that plant in nature,” Murphy explained. “In the garden, you want to recreate that habitat in terms of soil, moisture, light and air.”

Many plants that are native to northern New England still exist here but are rare. Humans aren’t necessarily to blame. It may be that the conditions they need to survive are rare. Take alpine plants, for example, which are popular in rock gardens. In nature, they grow above the tree line in places like Mount Washington. They require very little soil, as they grow in the cracks of rocks. Alpine plants are short to withstand strong winds, and they must tolerate deep snow, too.


Or consider woodland perennials, like red trillium and pink lady slippers, which get sun only early in the season, before the tree leaves come out and block the sun. To get healthy woodland perennials in the nursery, Murphy plants them in sand, packing the plants close together, replicating how they grow in the wild. Neither of these types of plants will thrive in typical garden soil.

“The whole history of adding organic matter to the soil to make our plants thrive is starting to be questioned,” Murphy said. “Ornamental plants are lean plants by nature.”

Red trilliums, she added, will rot if the soil is too rich.

Lois Berg Stack, another retired Extension educator, said choosing natives is not the sole consideration when selecting plants for a garden. You have to choose the right natives, plants that will perform a task.

“If your garden is only beautiful, you are missing half the point,” she said.

Depending on your property, you might want plants that will control erosion, feed wildlife, create wind breaks that will lower your heating costs and, perhaps, out-compete invasive plants, she explained.


To pick well, first determine what conditions you have.

“You have to be brutally honest with yourself on that,” she said, meaning that all the wishing in the world will not make a plant that requires full sun flourish in a very shady yard.

None of this is meant to discourage gardeners from planting native seeds. Far from it. Yes, you will have to do some research if you want to start plants from seed. And even if you start with the plants themselves, you’ll still have to find or create the right habitat.

Since it could take several years of hot, cold and moist spells before your seeds even germinate, get started now: do the research, then collect or buy native seeds that you can propagate in your own garden.

If you pick the right ones, your garden will mimic the natural areas around your region. The plants will feed pollinators and other animals that are native to your area, many of which are threatened by ever more people and ever more development. And that is a garden that as useful in addition to being beautiful.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

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