It can be easy to forget where our food comes from and the work that goes into making that food (and that it doesn’t just appear in a grocery store). In a similar way, it can be easy to ignore where the native seed mixes we purchase come from. In the era of online shopping, it just takes a few clicks to have a nice sack of native wildflower seed mix delivered to our doors, but of course, much more work goes into the process of making sure there are enough native seeds to go around!

Ernst Conservation Seeds (Ernst) was started in 1964 by Calvin L. Ernst with the initial goal of providing naturalized species to prevent erosion along highways and reclaim strip-mined areas. Over the past 25 years, they’ve shifted their focus to producing seeds for songbird and pollinator habitat creation, erosion prevention, and invasive species control. In order to provide over 200 seed species, Ernst owns or rents around 10,000 acres of land spread out up to 2 hours away from their processing facility. On August 4th, Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council (CCLC) provided the opportunity for the public to tour their facility and fields.

A spotted bee balm plant

One of the quicker stops highlighted spotted bee balm, Monarda punctata. It gives off a thyme-like scent and is frequently pollinated by wasp species. Its name refers to the purple spots that decorate the yellow flowers. Photo Credit: Rebecca Lauver

Many of those who attended were from eastern PA, including my coworker, Jim Kauffman, and I, and we all made the trek across the state to Meadville, PA to see where the native seed mixtures we use in our work originated from. In many of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s lawn to meadow conversions, we use seed mixes from Ernst Conservation Seeds to plant native meadows. These native meadows result in fewer lawns to mow (thus less fossil fuels burned), more native wildlife habitat, and more sources of nectar, pollen, and seeds for our native insects and birds. We need reliable sources of native plant stock in order to complete this important work, which is where seed producers like Ernst steps in!

For the first portion of the tour, we boarded a school bus that took us around to some of the seed production fields close to the processing facility. Mark Fiely, a horticulturist for Ernst, was our tour guide for the day; every so often as we drove along the back roads of Crawford County he would halt the bus and we would descend on a new field of native plants in bloom. We stopped at around 10-15 different fields that ranged from milkweed to beebalm to wild senna. At each stop and on the bus in between, Mark shared information about Ernst’s operation and facts about each of the species we looked at.

The Swamp Milkweed Fields

A few turns on a dirt road took us to the first large field we visited, composed of a blanket of swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. As we walked out into the field of pink, Mark had the group stop to smell the milkweed to experience its fragrant, vanilla-like scent. The field was bordered by trees and numerous butterflies, wasps, and bees flew around; the group spotted a few monarchs and one observant attendee who happened to crouch down at the right spot pointed out a monarch chrysalis.

Milkweed species (like swamp, common, and butterfly milkweed) contain glycosides that are toxic to many insects but monarchs have adaptations that allow them to consume these toxins and repurpose the chemicals for their own defensive purposes. Swamp milkweed is important for a variety of other insects as well; the red admiral butterfly, great black wasp, and great golden digger wasp are all some of the species that frequent swamp milkweed.

The pollen of milkweed is pretty interesting to look at up close if you get a chance to see it under a microscope or look a photo up online. The pollen grains are packaged as sacs called pollinia and two of these pollinia are joined together by a filament to give the pollen a saddle-like appearance. The seed pod of milkweed is a follicle, which indicates that it splits open along one side as compared to a legume that splits open along two sides. The light fluffy seeds inside are then carried away by the wind. At the swamp milkweed stop, Mark talked with the group about the importance of harvesting their fields at the correct time. Harvesting times vary each season based on the annual weather variations and so it takes regular checks to ensure that the seeds are collected at the proper time.

The Ironweed Fields

We saw 2 species of ironweed throughout the bus tour. The first species, New York ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, was popping up in a field of false blue indigo. However, Mark wasn’t too concerned about the crossover of these species. Ernst now has sophisticated machinery that is able to sort seeds that are distinct enough from each other like ironweed and blue false indigo.

The second species we saw was growing in its designated field. The field was full of the purple flowers of giant ironweed, Vernonia gigantea, which can grow up to 10 feet tall. Its seeds are an important source of food for birds. It is commonly found in moist areas and its dense growth creates suitable habitats for animals like woodcock. It also supports a variety of pollinators, one of which being Melissodes denticulatus; a specialized bee that prefers feeding on the nectar and pollen of ironweed.

The Wild Bergamot Fields

One of the last fields we visited was of wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, and this field somehow stretched on even further than the others. The skies were beginning to darken in the distance which created an even more dramatic landscape to take in the sea of purple that also gave off a strong minty fragrance. Sometimes called beebalm, Oswego-tea, or just monarda, this plant tolerates a pretty wide range of growth conditions and can be found across the United States. Similar to the previously mentioned species, wild bergamot also supports a wide range of pollinators. Some insects who don’t have the correct morphology to reach down the flower’s long tubes commit nectary thievery and chew a hole at the base of the flower. Through this hole, short-tongued bees and many wasps gain access to nectar while bypassing the pollen.

The Processing and Storage Facility

A large red bin full of seeds

This large bin of coneflower seeds was just sorted and waiting to be packaged. The sorting process removes any unwanted species and nonviable seeds to ensure a higher quality seed mix. Photo Credit: Rebecca Lauver

The tour resumed after lunch, this time focused on the processing, sorting, and packaging aspect of Ernst’s work. The facility gave the impression of a typical agricultural seed processing plant, complete with large harvesting machinery and towering metal silos. But rather than corn or soybeans, all of this equipment was used for planting and collecting of native plants.

Once the seeds are collected from the fields, they are brought back to the processing facility to sort out nonviable seeds and seeds of undesired species.

Bags of seeds on shelves

Bags upon bags of seeds were stacked in the cold storage facility that Mark led us through. Keeping the seeds stored at a relatively low humidity and temperature ensures that they will stay viable for a longer period of time. Photo Credit: Rebecca Lauver

There were a plethora of different processing machines around the facility. There were ones that shook and rattled in a way that moved lighter seeds up and heavier ones down. There were others that were sophisticated enough to sort seeds by color. Each time the machine identified an unwanted seed, it sent out a puff of air to remove it. The seeds were sorted into 50-gallon containers and then packaged to be placed in cold storage until they were needed. Mark shared with the group that they try to keep a stock of at least 2 years of each species. This allows Ernst to continue to supply seeds of each species, even if there is a year of less ideal weather for a species which would reduce its production.

The end of the tour put us in the room where the seeds were in large open white sacks that sat on top of wooden counters and were alphabetically organized by species. Finally, these seeds had reached the end of the process and were ready to be used to fulfill incoming orders. Ernst has a wide selection of different types of seed mixes. The mixes are catered to specific soil moistures, amounts of sunlight, and wildlife goals. This ensures that you are planting the correct species in the correct location, thus getting the most successful native planting established.

Of course, as any good tour of a plant nursery should end, there were many free plants given away! Mine all found homes in my backyard in a continuing effort to shrink the amount of lawn and increase the amount of native diversity and habitat that I can provide. Photo Credit: Jim Kauffman

In case you missed it, be sure to check out Ryan Davis’s article from last month for more information about the importance of native meadows: Visit a Meadow for the Best Free Fireworks Show This Summer.