Preparing to Prepare to Prepare the Ceanothus Seeds

We live in the middle of our road, and each morning Duncan and I and sometimes Rat walk first towards the end where the road joins the single track road that takes us to civilization. At that end I'm watching the Sea Foam, Holodiscus discolor. I want their blossoms to set seed.

They are gorgeous. It's a feathery flower and I'm never sure when it has set and ripened its seeds. I have a dozen or so plants grown from cuttings and they are doing great - I want to use them as an edge-of-woods shrub, maybe this fall. But I also want to try growing them from seed. I think people around here would enjoy seeing this plant around their homes, in a semi-shady spot.

We turn around and walk past the house towards the cul-de-sac end of the road. We stop at a point where Duncan can watch for bunnies, and I can watch for the seeds of Blue Blossom, AKA California Wild Lilac, AKA Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, whose readiness I am also eagerly awaiting. They have been green for ages. Suddenly some are kind of shrinking and going black.

July 11th when I collected, there were really quite a lot.

So I gathered a good handful - plenty more on the tree.

I tried licking them. BLERCH! YEUCH! Spit spit spit spit spit. I don't think these nutlets are destined to go through a gut in order to germinate. Nope, I read this on the Native Plant Database provided by University of Texas at Austin:
Because dry capsules disperse their seed abruptly with a sudden ejection, it may be necessary to tie cloth bags around the clusters of capsules to catch the seeds.
I also read on the same page the source of the name thyrsiflorus:
The scientific name, meaning thyrse-flower, refers to the compact, branched flower cluster; thyrsus is the name of the staff, adorned with leaves and berries, that belonged to Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.
Well that's interesting.

The seeds are very sticky and I don' t know why. Maybe it stops animals eating them till the seeds are ready to disperse.

But I just read the Curbstone Valley Farm post on ceanothus from earlier this year - do go read if you are interested in this tree in general. Great post. The post says that chipmunks love the seeds, which scatter over a deck area. So once the seeds have popped out of the nutlets, they are apparently palatable to animals. The yucky flavor must be to protect the seeds until they have dispersed maybe? I'll have to keep watching for that phase and maybe try again.

I asked Ellen Holmes (of Central Coast Wilds) about the disappearance of the Ceanothus thyrsiflorus around here - my neighbor said thirty years ago they were everywhere. Well, said Ellen, they are fire followers, and if there was a lot of clearing around here, you would expect them to grow as if after a fire. Then - well they last about 30 years, and that's it - till the next fire or clearing.

So this afternoon I looked up how to prepare these seeds for planting. They require hot water and then cold stratification to break dormancy (by simulating winter). Here are the instructions, then I'll illustrate my attempt to follow them:

1. Separate the seeds from the nutlets and stems.

2. Pour water at around 180 to 200 degrees on them, six or 8 times their bulk, and let them soak for 12 to 24 hours.

3. Mix at a ratio of 1:3 or more with moist peat moss or moist vermiculite, place in a tightly sealed polyethylene bag or glass jar, and store in the fridge at 35 to 41 degrees F.

4. The seeds must be kept moist during the entire length of the treatment. Check periodically and add water as needed.

For Ceanothus, my Seed Propagation of Native California Plants by Dare E. Emery says: 2-3 months in the fridge.

5. A couple weeks before the specified term, check for germination: When white root tips are visible on any, sow them all.

OK. Have to gird my loins before tackling this one. Curbstone valley farm post says they just need a soaking, but I'm going to go the whole hog.

So first I rinsed them all off. They made the water quite foamy. Native Americans used the flowers as a surfactant, I read.

So - 1. Separate the seeds from the nutlets and stems. How the heck... This is tedious! I tried mashing them in a sieve, then I tried separating them in a glass of water - opposite to expectations, the seeds floated and the sticks - and seeds mixed in - sank. Pounding and rolling them with a handy can of baked beans worked better. Spread the result out on paper. Then picked out all the little teeny weeny stems. Major pain. Of course if I could be more patient and wait till they had dried it would have been less painful.

But wait, there's more. I thought by separating out the four nutlets that forms one little nugget I was done. But there is a seed inside each nutlet. I don't know the technical terms here as yet.

Back to the cutting board and more rolling and pounding. Result: chaff and tiny shiny blackish-brown seeds, all mixed up. How to separate them? I tried the water method again - No clear separation. Maybe you're supposed to leave them for a while before the separation thing happens.

OK, dry them off again on paper towels, turn them onto a cutting board that has been used enough it has a little 'tooth' to it - gently blow - voila - the chaff goes towards the edge and I brush it off. Repeat many times. And voila - seeds!

Gere's the chaff:

The final harvest of cleaned seeds:

I did read that you can gather them in the green stage, but not too early on - maybe then it's a bit easier to get the seeds out.

Then off for a nice hot bath, the seeds that is, and leave them overnight before tucking them in, with some moist peat moss (or vermiculite) and put them to bed in the fridge! Here they are soaking:

Looks like they're floating, eh? And here they are in their moist peaty bed, well labeled:

and finally - tucked up in the fridge to sleep and then - hopefully - wake up refreshed and germinating. They'll work their way gradually to the back of the fridge!

So there you are - everything you never wanted to know about my first experience of propagating Ceanothus thyrsiflorus from seed - except - - will they actually germinate? I'll let you know that in two or three months time.


Christine said…
Hilarious adventure! The instructions always sound so easy and straight forward until it comes time to follow them. I love how your tool of the day ended up being a can of baked beans! Did you try tasting the seeds, too or was the original fruit tasting enough?
Country Mouse said…
Hi Christine - You know I got so anal about saving every little seed I'd worked so hard to clean, I couldn't sacrifice any to taste! I was rescuing every little stray seed that got away before it went down the sink etc etc.

But I am thinking of tying a muslin bag around one of those clusters of green fruits to see if I can capture more when they are really ready to pop, and then I'll taste them for sure. I'm getting interested in native foods - Jeffrey Caldwell wrote to the Gardening with Natives yahoo group about his interest in that subject recently and it revived those idle thoughts again.

I've also been pondering these forced methods of propagation we employ, using up peat moss in potting mixes in an unsustainable way and all that - and contemplating my impatience even with the hurried horticultural approach to making things propagate before their time. It would be nice to get into a rhythm of activities that just puts things in the right conditions and leaves them there, protected. After a year or two there would be things coming to readiness all the time anyway. I really want to look into a more natural and sustainable approach. Anybody reading know anything on this topic?
Christine said…
Hmmm, is it possible to replace the peat with coconut coir? At least it's a renewable resource, but I don't know if it has the acidity of the peat.
By the way, finally tasted a gooseberry from my Ribes speciosum- good, but too many seeds to get much of a taste.
Wow, that's really cool. I'm a little bummed there was no actual fire involved, just hot water, lol. Let us know hwo the planting goes!
Timely post, I just harvested some seed from our tree in the orchard last weekend. Seems like an involved preparation method just to get to the seed! Looks like the seeds foam more than the flowers do though. I tried the flower blossoms as soap...wasn't so effective. I was going to leave my seeds in a paper bag until the capsules exploded. That or fight the chipmunks for the ones that get scattered across our deck :P Propagation is certainly more 'involved' than I expected. A couple of texts I read previously suggested they were relatively 'easy' to propagate, although, who knows if the authors actually ever tried. Would be interesting to try this refrigerator method versus the hot-water-then-sow-outdoors, either in flats or direct in soil, method (you don't sow until cold weather is you don't need the fridge for the cold stratification step). Things get lost in our fridge. I'd be curious to see if it makes a significant difference between the two, would love to compare notes come spring!
What a great, detailed article. I guess cookery for chipmunks must be a different affair than that for humans... It'll be interesting to see how well the seed do in the fridge. My ceanothus seed experience last summer had the seed germinating both in the fridge and in the summer greenhouse without any stratification, both after going through the hot water treatment. That was a different species (C. leucodermis) so it probably would behave differently from yours. It sounds like a lot of work, but you definitely know where your genetic stock comes from this way. "Plant local" doesn't get much more local than down the street.