A Beautiful Spring and Explosive Summer at WCCW

Photos and text by Jacob Meyers, Prairie Conservation Nursery Coordinator

Pop. Pop. Pop. Scream. Laughter. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Crew members (left to right) Tammera Thurlby, Danielle Castillo, and Angela Jantzi harvesting Viola adunca on a hot summer day.

That may sound like a group of teenagers watching a horror movie while waiting for the popcorn to finish in the microwave. In reality, it was a scene that played out a couple weeks ago, as I and several nursery technicians spent the afternoon harvesting Viola (violet) seeds. The scream was mine: a seed pod caught me off guard when it unexpectedly exploded in my cup. The crew (rightfully so) hasn’t let me forget that a Viola seed pod scared me half to death. (In my defense, a spider had just crawled across my leg and I was a little bit on edge.)

It’s rarely a dull moment at WCCW these days. While most of the flowers finished blooming in early May, June and July have been full of exploding violet pods and which means there is a lot of work to be done! As my co-worker wrote a few weeks back, the early-blue violet (Viola adunca) is an extremely important prairie plant in the recovery of prairie landscapes, and to the Fritillary butterflies (Zerene FritillarySpeyeria zerene bremnerii – and the Great Spangled FritillarySpeyeria cybele pugetensis) in particular. At WCCW, we have two species of viola currently – the aforementioned early blue violet and the yellow violet (Viola praemorsa). The Viola adunca cultivated at WCCW is collected for seed to aid in the recovery of the Zerene fritillary (Speyeria zerene hippolyta) on the Oregon Coast.

Violets are commonly known to even the most inexperienced gardener. Heck, even people who don’t garden are familiar with the small, heart-shaped flowers that are typical of the genera. But what you may not know is that the Viola genus contains more than 500 species! The ones we grow at SPP are a bit hardier than your typical Viola. The species we cultivate are found in places where water is hard to come by—prairies, savannahs, sand dunes and on the edges of woodlands. Regardless of where they are found, Viola species serve as an important nectar source for pollinators.

Here are some pictures of the beautiful blooms we had at WCCW this year:

 

The early-blue violet (Viola adunca) is found across the cooler states and provinces of North America in coastal sand bluffs, prairies, and woods. Another of its common names is the sand violet.

 

There are 8 beds of Viola adunca at WCCW. The plants are six inches apart, which is a bit tighter than is typical for a seed farm or nursery, but allows us to cram in approximately 400 Violas in each bed!!

 

Viola praemorsa, or the canary violet, is far less common than its bluish-purple cousin. This violet is only found in western North American oak savannahs and oak woodlands.

 

This is a wide view of all the raised beds at WCCW. Viola praemorsa in the foreground, Viola adunca (purple flowers) beyond, and two beds of wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) all the way in the back. Strawberries are also an important pollinator plant in prairie habitat.

 

 

Scott Skaggs is the Grounds & Facilities Supervisor at WCCW and helps manage the Nursery Crew. In the photo above Scott is doing a little bit of spot weeding.

While very pretty, the beautiful flowers have a forthcoming message – it’s reproduction time! And after those beautiful signals go off and a little bit of magic (sexual reproduction via pollination), little baby plants (aka seeds) begin to emerge!! After baking in the sun for a number of days or weeks, Viola species all form capsules or “pods” that split open and disperse. Or as is the case in the species we grow at SPP – the pods explode like the one in my cup. The photos below show seed pods developing, and their processing after we harvest them.

 

In the above photo, a Viola adunca plant is starting the reproduction process. The seed pods are typically green colored and curled up like an umbrella when they first emerge. As the pods mature, their color whitens and the stems stands up straight in preparation for pod explosion.

 

A mature Viola adunca seed pod: notice the whiter coloring and erect stem; this is the perfect time to harvest the pods.

 

This photo shows what happens when Viola pods go unharvested. Most of the pods’ seed disperses about 5 feet in every direction during the explosion – some have been found up to 10 feet from their parent plants!!

 

Sometimes, however, the seed stays put. This isn’t great for the plant’s reproductive success rate; for people collecting seed, it’s a welcome sight!

 

Harvesting all of the seed pods ready at one time can take the entire WCCW crew anywhere from 3 to 5 or 6 hours. Depending on when during the collection season we’re harvesting, there can be a lot of pods to pick!

 

After harvesting, all of the pods go into bins where they can continue to dry out and “pop” for easy collection. Here is a bin of Viola praemorsa sitting on a window ledge to get a little extra sunlight.

 

A tule cloth on top keeps all the seeds from flying all over the office!

 

In this photo most of the pods have already exploded and left behind their seed on the bin floor. These are Viola praemorsa seed which is quite a bit larger (at least 2-3x larger) than Viola adunca seed.

 

After going through several rounds of sifting with professional grade sieves all that remains is A LOT of Viola adunca seed. It has been a tremendously successful season at WCCW. We anticipate easily surpassing our goal of 2-3 pounds!

 

This picture illustrates just how small Viola adunca seed actually is! The small size is another reason why harvesting seed mechanically or after the pods explode is nearly impossible!!

Looking through these pictures one might be able to deduce that the task of harvesting viola seed can be monotonous, and quite time consuming. As technician Tammera Thurlby told me, “I harvested so many viola seeds/pods that when I close my eyes it’s all I can see.” But beyond helping the Fritillary butterflies prairie habitat here in the Pacific Northwest, the caring for and cultivation of violas at WCCW also produces something that might be harder to see – an opportunity for the technicians to grow and heal themselves. “My life has been a lot of taking, so it’s nice to be able to give back,” said Ms. Thurlby.

“Give back to what?” I asked.

“To everything. Helping save an endangered species, doing something positive and constructive with my life rather than destructive,” she replied.

Her words reminded me of what I heard from a technician at Stafford Creek, Michael Gorski; he said to a group of partners, “A lot of what they’re [SPP] growing is people. They’re saving lives – opening the master key for life.”

Little Viola seeds turn into plants with beautiful flowers, which in turn may feed an endangered butterfly; but you never know what kind of seed you are planting in any given moment or interaction when working with people.

Technician Tammera Thurlby holds up a tiny Viola adunca seed pod during a day of harvesting this past summer.

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