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Best Practices for Collecting Plants and Seed
[A Spring 2007 PBIO 4650L/6650L Plant Taxonomy Lab Document]


The following pertains to plants you believe not to be common weeds of lawns, gardens, road sides, and forests. You may not know the status of species at this point in your training, so be conservative or take along someone who is more experienced. For this class, you need at most two representatives (whole plants or branches) of each species: one to press and (optionally) one to keep fresh for keying and as a back-up for pressing should the first fail or be lost. The one for pressing should retain the roots, if possible, so that plant is dead. The other need only be a cutting from the same or different plant. If from a different plant, that plant or much of its seed may still survive depending on the time of year and life history of the plant and the care taken in taking the cutting.

Although collecting for this class should have a very limited impact on any plant community, it is useful to consider what may be called Best Practices for collecting plants and seed from the wild for documentation and/or propagation. It is possible that the plant you want to collect is uncommon where you found it or even locally or globally endangered. Not likely, but it is probably best to treat any plant new to you as if it were rare.

The plants or plant parts that you collect should be what are called ‘fertile’. That is, they have flowers or immature or mature fruit, seed or empty fruits that are almost always required for a correct identification by a novice and often even by a professional. There is no reason to collect what are called ‘sterile’ specimens, those without flowers or fruit, unless the vegetative character states are unique to that species or you wish to document the variation in these characters. If the plants are not yet at a reproductive stage that allows them to be identified, flag the plants with a marking flag or flagging tape and come back later.

Get Permission to Collect Anywhere except in Public Rights-of-Way

There are few rules about collecting what most people think of as weeds or collecting parts of just shrubs or trees. Generally, permits are required in state and federal parks and similar properties and are usually difficult to obtain in timely fashion. Permits are also required to collect on any University property. You can probably collect in rights-of-way for roads, rail lines, and possibly sewerage lines and power lines. These are usually mowed or sprayed to keep vegetation below some height.

Be careful of sewerage and power rights-of-way. They are usually just easements across private land. Sewerage easements are usually mowed late in the year, so collecting above-ground parts at any time will not greatly change the composition of the existing plant community. Power-line easements are mowed and trimmed in cycles of several years to keep vegetation below about 10 feet in height, so collecting on these may have a larger effect on their plant communities.

These easements are often posted against trespassing (it being private land or utility company-owned land) and some portions of them may be under informal or formal conservation management for a particular species or community by the landowner, the power company, or a third party. As a rule, do not intrude very far into this kind of easement.

The owner of other private land may not want anyone on their property in order to limit their liability for injury or property loss, to avoid setting precedence for others to use their property, or because of concern about damage to the property, including its plant populations and communities. Inquire of the owners and then respect their wishes. If owners cannot readily be identified, go elsewhere. You are likely to find similar habitats later in your trips where collecting is allowed.

Collect Towards the Center of the Population

Populations usually expand at their periphery by vegetative reproduction or by seed germination. Do not take material or seed from the edges of a population; you should not retard its expansion or accelerate its contraction. Rather, take plants and seed from well within the population. Here other factors beside small changes in density or seed production probably maintain the density of the population.

The first plant of a forb or small shrub new to you and that you want to collect may be a single individual or a member of a population of hundreds or thousands. You do not know at the time. Mark it with a marking flag and keep exploring. If it turns out that the population is less than 10-20 individuals, consider documenting the species, and the population, with extensive photographs and descriptions in your field notebook rather than by taking a specimen. You could also leave the flag in place and return if you do not find it elsewhere.

Do not Affect the Numbers of Individuals in a Population or the Seed it Produces

There are various estimates of what fraction of individuals or seed may be removed from a population without affecting it. These range from 2% to 10%. Be sensible and conservative. If it is obviously an annual, take very little seed; the population next year depends on that seed. If a perennial, more seed may be taken because the population probably does not depend on seed produced during any single year but on what is probably already a saturated seed bank.

Make sure Others are not collecting the same Plant or Seed at the same Location

Not likely in normal circumstances, but students of this class may collect from the same locations on the advice of class members. Pay attention to clues that someone else has collected at the site. If so, go somewhere else because you will usually not be able to tell what species were collected and thus what effect you’re collecting may have at that site.

Take only what You Need and Use what You Take

Obvious, but some learning and careful work is required to be able to ‘get the roots’ or to take and preserve the ‘perfect specimen’ and even then many plants may be destroyed if the right tools are not used or the plants are not carefully stored and pressed. Ripping plants out of the ground rarely works, use a trowel to first loosen the roots. Be prepared and take the time to do it right.

Some species or populations have large variation is some character states such as leaf shape or phyllotaxy. Pay attention to possible variation within an individual or between members of the population. Record any variation in your field notebook. Select a representative specimen and possibly a few others exhibiting the extremes in the character state(s).

Do not Collect to Sell

You may discover populations of Gensing, Lady Slippers, Pitcher Plants or other uncommon or rare species that are commonly dug from the wild and sold. Do not be tempted; such thievery makes a profit only if done by skilled professionals. Do not collect anything. The site may be under surveillance by the land owner or by thieves. Rather, record its location and notify your LA so that the site may come to be protected.