Smoke Water

Posted by Graduate Research Associate Carl Elliott

In a plant nursery that focuses on native plants and restoration, expectations are a bit different than at a traditional commercial nursery. Commercial nursery production has focused on those plants that make a good economic return for the grower. All managers of commercial nurseries know that if you have a rapid and efficient turn-over of plant material through the year, you generate a greater income per square foot. There is an industrial infrastructure and research to support the industry in this process.  For restoration nurseries interested in basic germination protocols or more complex issues of genetic integrity or in-breeding depression, there is not such a well-developed research infrastructure, and a great many questions remain to be answered.

At the conservation nursery at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, we have generated a number of basic scientific questions regarding the germination ecology of the prairie species we cultivate. One of the most engaging is the seeds response to prairie fires. Fires have been an integral tool to maintain prairies in the Pacific Northwest for at least 8,000 years. The fires in this ecosystem are not natural; they were used by First Peoples to maintain the extant and health of the prairies that are surrounded by evergreen woodlands. The seeds of over 250 species of plants have been shown to significantly increase in response to the smoke generated by fires. This is particularly true for species from fymbos matorral, chaparral and grassland ecosystems. So, our project developed a question to determine whether the smoke from fires could increase the germination rates of some of the more difficult to germinate plants.  Rather than apply smoke (and therefore fire) to the seeds themselves we applied smoke infused water as a treatment to seeds.

I took on the scientific design and execution of the seed germination experiments as part of my graduate thesis at The Evergreen State College. However, the experiment is a fully collaborative endeavor. The Nature Conservancy collected and curated the seed from their Shotwell’s Landing nursery. The offenders at Stafford Creek cleaned the seed, counted out replicates and participated in the germination experiments involving six of the species. The experiment involved measuring the germination rate of the six species. The seeds were divided into three treatment groups: two different levels of smoke water and a plain water control. The offenders applied the treatments to 10 replicates of each and the monitoring for germination went for 35 days.

Inmates at Stafford Creek Corrections Center count seed.

To prepare for the experiments, the offenders participated in workshops designed to facilitate discussions about the scientific methods used to come to robust conclusions. It was not the first time that offenders were exposed to a scientific reasoning process. Many have previous educational experience or have attended enough lectures organized by the Sustainable Prisons Project to be confident about offering their opinions to a discussion on scientific methods. At this point the experiments are nearly complete on most of the species and we can compile and analyze the results. My goal is to be able to go over some of the statistical methods used and get the offenders input on how the results we get can be used in the nursery to increase our propagation success. Look forward to the results in future posts.

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