The Seed Collector Who Roams New York City’s Marshes

Patrick Over is one of two seed collectors for the city’s parks service.
Photo: New York Parks

When the New York City Parks Department plants bright orange butterfly milkweed, soft purple mountain phlox, or lush royal ferns, there’s a good chance these and other native plants were created from wild seeds collected by Patrick Over, one of the town’s two officials. seed collectors. The 35-year-old’s days were spent trudging in the swamps, hiking in the forests and paddling a canoe to places far (and sometimes not so far) from the city to collect seeds for the Greenbelt Native Plant Center. In Staten Island’s 13-acre grow space, 650 native plant species are kept in a seed bank, and staff members are working to propagate those needed for the city’s flower beds and restoration projects. , as restore wetlands damaged by the construction of the Goethals Bridge. We spoke to Over about his work and the very unique perspective on the city that comes with it.

How he got started collecting seeds
I used to do microbiology in a lab and decided I didn’t want to be inside all day. I was lucky enough to get an internship as a seed collector in 2015 and even more fortunate than in 2016 the Parks Department was hiring. I wanted to be outside in nature, and this is ultimately my dream job. I love being in wild areas, but honestly, I didn’t know a lot of plants, animals, birds or insects until I started this job. Now it has become a passion to learn more about the nature around me. I must say that I am still very beginner in this field. There is so much there, and everything is very complicated. But it’s beautiful too.

Patrick Above
Photo: New York Parks

What a working day looks like
Every year I get a list of target species of what we are looking to collect and grow. This is where I start. I scout for the plants on my list and then I go out for a pick. Like today, I have just arrived on a field site. I am in the marine park and I am looking for a rush; it is like a grass that is planted a lot for the restoration of salt marshes. There is a bit of salt marsh here so I expect the rush to be here as well. When I go out, if I see any part of it, I will try to estimate the amount of individual plants in the population. It can be difficult as it spreads like grass through the roots. You want to have at least 50 individuals. And if there are so many, I will say, Alright, that’s a big enough population that I can collect it.

I’m basically going to pluck the old seed heads – fruits, flowers, or berries – straight from the plant. We try not to damage the plant too much. Our goal is to take no more than 20 percent of what is available on any given day. The time required varies so much from species to species. Personally, I love berries, fruit trees, and acorns because you can catch so many in no time. And then some things are really tricky and it’s really hard to get the seeds. I know I just said I love berries, but strawberries can be pretty tough – you really have to go digging in the grass on your hands and knees.

Her favorite seed looks like a spongy toy
Eastern Gamagrass is a relative of corn and likes to grow on the edges of swamps. It has a really big seed, and apparently you can pop it like popcorn, although I’ve never tried it. When you remove the seed, I love the way it comes loose in your hand. It’s like one of those squishy toys or a Koosh ball. It is a pleasant feeling to collapse in your hand.

On collecting endangered seeds
We do not generally collect rare and endangered species unless they are found on park property. But we made it, like, yellow thistle, Nantucket Juneberry, and the thin iris.

Another one that we have done that no one probably would know is the globe flatsedge. The seed head actually looks like a globe. Sedges look like grass, but this is a whole different botanical family and this one only grows in coastal habitats. Part of the reason it’s endangered in New York State is that there are only a few counties that have the coastline for it. There are a lot of them, in fact, at Ocean Breeze Park on Staten Island. And we also collected it at Oakwood Beach, because there was an invasive species threatening to overtake it; the last time I went back it was gone, and there was this invasive species called thousand a minute all over. The goal is that once we get the invasive species under control, we can go back and plant them again, but I don’t know if that will happen anytime soon.

Butterfly milkweed growing along the marine park salt marsh nature trail.
Photo: Willy Blackmore

Why just having the seeds is not enough
The Nantucket Juneberry is a sad case. It was on South Avenue, near the Staten Island teleport, and I think the last time we looked for him he wasn’t there. We have seeds, but we don’t know where to put them back in the wild. Normally you will find it in coastal grasslands – but this is rare in the first place because a lot of grassland and open areas have been developed.

What happens to the seed he collects
After harvest, I bring the seeds back to the nursery. I spread them out so that they dry out a bit and the bugs can crawl. Then we put them in the seed bank to store them at low humidity and low temperature until winter. It is essentially a large walk-in cooler. The nursery was actually a cut flower farm from the 1950s to the 1980s. The seed bank is made up of old flower coolers that we have converted with new temperature and humidity controls. Once I have finished making the collections for the year, in November, we start cleaning the seeds. And that’s basically removing the straw from the seed – all the plant material, all the seed capsules. We store this pure seed in small seed envelopes in the bank. And then whenever it’s time to sow them, our propagators come in and take them out.

The most memorable seed hunt
We once made a collection of Isle of Meadows. It is an uninhabited island that belongs to the city of New York in this channel between Staten Island and New Jersey. We had to take a canoe there. It was completely gutted in the 90s because of the Asian longhorn beetle, so there are a lot of very young trees on it and a lot poison ivy. There’s a meadow there with flowers, and it’s just interesting because there’s nobody around and it’s that kind of wild place. There is also some interesting trash, a lot of weird old glass bottles. We found an old motorcycle that is rusting. One of the main things we were trying to collect was a small population of butterfly milkweed, which everyone loves to plant, but unfortunately the deer got there first. We ended up picking up some herbs and a few other common wildflowers instead.

Blue verbena at Gateway National Recreation Area.
Photo: Willy Blackmore

Why he can never point
Once you start learning the names of plants, you see them everywhere. It has become a kind of disease. My wife always jokes that we are going for a walk in Prospect Park, and she will be watching the people and I will be looking at the plants.

Timing is everything
Getting the timing right for your collections can be tricky. Sometimes you go there and the seed is not yet ripe. Or sometimes there are no more, so you missed collecting this species for a year. I get tick bites all the time, poison ivy once or twice a year. And the last part is an emotional piece: you really get attached to those parks and places, and then when you start to see invasive species coming in, or someone is developing part of a park, or making a path and cutting them off. plants that you have collected. from there it can be very emotionally draining when the plants go bad.

Why he’s dying to walk the New Jersey freeway
We mostly collect in parks, but we also keep an eye on county public land or state land. For each of them, we go through an authorization process every spring, where we say: Okay, here’s who we are, these are the seeds we are looking for, and this is our collection protocol. And they either give us or don’t give us permission. I’ve been trying to get the New Jersey Turnpike for a while. I drive there, and I see that there are a lot of sassafras growing in the median and ditches. It would be easy to pick up by walking along the causeway, but they haven’t said yes yet.

Why he worries about the town’s native plants
I’ve only been doing this for five or six years, and I’m already heartbroken because I’ve seen parks deteriorate in just that long. Places that were healthy and full of native plant populations are now full of invasive species. Seeing things destroy themselves in such a short time makes me think that it is crucial that we store and cultivate these seeds because once they are gone, they are gone. It takes a long time to rebuild habitats. It doesn’t happen in a decade; it may take 50 to 100 years before you start to see some of the rare plants return.

The native plants he must keep secret
There are orchids growing in New York City – lady braids, lady’s slipper, whorl pursuit, and fringed orchid – but there aren’t many. They are rare and we don’t really tell people where they are. There are some on Staten Island that we put up a deer fence because the borough has so many deer and they eat everything. The problem with our native orchids is that they grow in the ground, unlike tropical orchids which can grow on trees, and they all have special symbiotic relationships with certain fungi and can only grow where those fungi grow. , so you cannot easily transplant them. . They only grow in pristine places, and once the soil has been changed or too much damage has been done to it, they will not grow there again. You can plant them, but they will die because the fungus is no longer there. We do not collect these seeds because we cannot propagate them elsewhere because of this special relationship. There is no way for us to do it. It is therefore more a question of preserving what remains.

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