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 that these and other native plants were started from wild seeds gathered by Patrick Over, one of the city’s two official seed collectors. The 35-year-old’s days are spent trudging through marshland, hiking into forests, and paddling by canoe to remote (and sometimes not so remote) spots across the city to gather seeds for the Greenbelt Native Plant Center. At the 13-acre grow space on Staten Island, 650 species of native plants are conserved in a seed bank, and staff members work on propagating the ones needed for the city’s flower beds and restoration projects, like replenishing wetlands damaged by the construction of the Goethals Bridge. We spoke to Over about his work and the very particular perspective on the city that comes with it.
How He Got Into Seed Collecting
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 lucky that in 2016 the Parks Department was hiring. I wanted to be outside in nature, and it ended up being my dream job. I like being in wild areas, but I honestly didn’t know a lot of plants or animals or birds or bugs before starting this job. Now it’s become a passion to learn more about the nature around me. I have to say, I’m still very much a beginner at it. There’s just so much out there, and it’s all very complicated. But it’s beautiful, too.
What a Work Day Looks Like
Every year, I get a target species list of what we’re looking to collect and grow. That’s where I start. I do some scouting trips looking for the plants on my list and then I go out for a collection. Like today, I just arrived at a field site. I’m in Marine Park, and I’m looking for a rush; it’s like a grass that we plant a lot for salt-marsh restoration. There’s a bit of salt marsh here, so I’m expecting the rush to be here too. When I go out, if I see some of it, I’ll try to estimate the amount of individual plants in the population. It can be tough since it spreads like grass through the roots. You want to have at least 50 individuals. And if there are that many, I’ll say, Okay, it’s a large enough population for me to collect.
I’ll basically pick the old seed heads — the fruit or flowers or berries — directly off of the plant. We try not to damage the plant too much. Our goal is to take no more than 20 percent of what’s available on any given day. The time involved varies so much from species to species. Personally, I love berry bushes and fruit trees and acorns because you can grab so many in a short amount of time. And then some things are just really fiddly and it’s really difficult to get the seeds. I know I just said I love berries, but strawberries can be pretty tough — you really have to go digging around in the grass on your hands and knees.
His Favorite Seed Feels Like a Squishy Toy
Eastern gamagrass is a relative of corn and likes to grow on the edges of marshes. It has a really big seed, and apparently you can pop it like popcorn, though I’ve never tried. When you pick the seed off, I love the way it comes off in your hand. It’s like one of those squishy toys or a Koosh ball. It’s a nice sensation of falling apart in your hand.
On Collecting Endangered Seeds
We generally don’t collect rare and endangered species unless they’re on park property. But we have done some, like, yellow thistle, Nantucket Juneberry, and the slender iris.
Another we’ve done that probably no one would know is the globe flatsedge. The seed head actually looks like a globe. Sedges look like grass, but they’re 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’s only a few counties that have the coastline for it. There’s a lot of it, actually, in Ocean Breeze Park in Staten Island. And we’ve collected it from Oakwood Beach, too, because there was an invasive species that was threatening to overtake it; the last time I went back, it was no longer there, and there was this invasive species called mile-a-minute everywhere. The goal is that once we get the invasive species under control, we can go back and plant it again, but I don’t know if that’ll happen any time soon.
Why Just Having the Seeds Isn’t Enough
The Nantucket Juneberry is a sad case. It was on South Avenue near the Teleport on Staten Island, and I think the last time we looked for it, it was no longer there. We have seeds, but we’re not sure where to put it back into the wild. Normally, you’d find it in coastal grasslands — but it’s rare in the first place because a lot of the grasslands and open areas have been developed.
What Happens to the Seed He Collects
After collecting, I take the seeds back to the nursery. I lay them out so that they can dry down a bit and so that bugs can crawl out. Then we put them in the seed bank to store them at a low humidity and low temperature until wintertime. It’s essentially a big walk-in cooler. The nursery actually used to be a cut-flower farm from the ’50s up to the ’80s. The seed bank is the old floral coolers that we converted with new temperature and humidity controls. Once I’m done making collections for the year, sometime in November, we start cleaning the seeds. And that’s basically removing the chaff from the seed — all the plant material, all the seed capsules. We store that pure seed in little seed envelopes in the bank. And then, whenever it’s time to sow them, our propagators go in there and take them out.
The Most Memorable Seed Hunt
We once did a collection from the Isle of Meadows. It’s an uninhabited island that belongs to New York City in that channel between Staten Island and New Jersey. We had to take a canoe out there. It was completely cleared out in the ’90s because of the Asian longhorned beetle, so there’s a lot of really young trees on it and a lot of poison ivy. There is a meadow there with flowers, and it’s just interesting because no one is there and it’s this sort of wild place. There’s interesting trash on it too, lots of weird old glass bottles. We found an old motorcycle that was rusting away. 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 there got to it first. We ended up collecting some grasses and a few other common wildflowers instead.
Why He Can’t Ever Clock Out
Once you start learning the names of plants, you see them everywhere. It’s become kind of a disease. My wife is always joking that we’ll be walking around Prospect Park, and she’ll be looking at the people and I’ll be looking at the plants.
Timing Is Everything
Getting the timing right on your collections can be tricky. Sometimes you go and the seed is not ripe yet. Or sometimes it’s gone, so you missed out for a year on collecting that species. I get tick bites all the time, poison ivy once or twice a year. And the last part is an emotional piece: You get really attached to these parks and locations and then when you start to see invasive species come in, or somebody develops part of a park, or puts in a path and cuts down the plants you collected from, it can feel really emotionally burdensome when the plants deteriorate.
Why He’s Dying to Walk the New Jersey Turnpike
Mostly we collect from parkland, but we do keep an eye on public county land or state land, too. For each of those, we go through a permitting process every spring, where we say, Okay, here’s who we are, these are the seeds we look for, and this is our protocol for collecting. 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 down there, and I see there’s a lot of sassafras growing in the median and the ditches. It would be easy to collect by walking along the roadway, but they haven’t said yes yet.
Why He Worries for the City’s Native Plants
I’ve only been doing this for five or six years, and already I get heartbroken because I’ve seen parks deteriorate in just that much time. Places that were healthy and full of native-plant populations are now full of invasive species. Seeing things get destroyed in such a short time makes me think it’s crucial that we store and grow these seeds because once they’re gone, they’re gone. It takes a lot of time to rebuild habitats. It doesn’t happen in a decade; it can take 50 to 100 years before you start seeing some of the rare plants come back.
The Native Plants He Has to Keep Secret
There are some orchids that grow in New York City — lady’s tresses, lady’s slipper, whorled pogonia, and fringed orchid — but there’s not a lot of them. They’re rare, and we don’t really tell people where they are. There’s some on Staten Island that we’ve put a deer fence around because the borough has so many deer and they just eat everything. The thing about our native orchids is that they grow in the ground, unlike the tropical ones that can grow on trees, and they all have special symbiotic relationships with certain fungi and can only grow where that fungi grows so you can’t transplant them easily. They only grow in pristine places, and once the soil has been changed or too much damage has been done to it, they’ll no longer grow there. You can plant them, but they’ll die because the fungus is no longer there. We don’t collect those seeds because we can’t propagate them elsewhere because of that special relationship. There’s no way for us to do that. So it’s more about preserving what’s left.