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Mercer Meets the Grand Champions of Big Bend
Seed collecting trips have become an important tradition at Mercer Botanic Gardens.
Horticulture staff members travel to exotic locations around the world every year to gather seeds and material from plants, grasses, and trees for Mercer’s garden display collections.
But staff members last year didn’t choose the lush tropics of Ecuador, the redwood forests of California, or even the coastal marshes of Florida. Instead, they headed to the deserts of west Texas, a region known more for its expansive mountain views and arid landscapes than diverse plant life.
The team of plant experts spent five days in early October collecting seeds and studying plant habitats at Big Bend Ranch State Park. The goal was to collect samples from one of the two champion Mexican blue oak (Quercus oblongifolia) trees at the park, which are the largest of their kind in Texas.
“It’s a very slow-growing oak compared to other trees,” said Brandon Hubbard, the grower for The Mercer Society. “That’s why it was so nice to see the mature, champion ones.”
Mexican blue oak trees thrive in environments that closely resemble that of Mercer, a region that botanists refer to as a riparian zone.
“We thought that Mercer would be a great place to (try) one of these trees that goes through lots of floods,” said Jacob Martin, the greenhouse manager at Mercer Botanic Gardens.
Once the group returned to Mercer, they planted the acorns of the Mexican blue oak tree in cages to keep squirrels from digging up the seed. When ready, the trees will be planted in the garden. Other seeds collected during the trip were added to Mercer’s cache of reserve seeds shared with garden institutions around the world. Maintaining these seeds is important to the global botanical community and for the preservation of all plant species.
“The biggest part of it is conservation,” said Martin. “If another center shared seeds with us and they experienced some catastrophe, we have a reserve of some of the seeds they may have lost. It’s always good to trade and share so nothing is ever lost.”
As a participating institution for the Center for Plant Conservation National Collection of Endangered Plants since 1989, Mercer maintains a seed bank of rare native plant seeds for research and restoration. These rare native seeds are collected under strict protocols. Before the seed collecting process begins, Mercer employees must get permission from the property owner and the proper permits to maintain healthy seed populations in the wild.
Mercer staff members climb trees to harvest material from hard-to-reach places and use pruners and other tools to pick seeds growing closer to the ground. Fallen acorns must be collected no more than a day after hitting the ground or they may go bad or be eaten. Samples from fruit-bearing trees and plants are also collected and preserved for later plantings.
Collecting trips have yielded 170 plants and approximately 30 different species so far, and more seeds are being planted at Mercer each week. Many of the species are collected in the wild and can be used for research. Mercer has additional gardening trips planned this year to help preserve critically endangered trees.
Volunteer opportunities are available for those who can pick and clean seeds or want to volunteer in any other capacity. Mercer also accepts seed donations, but all donations must be dated and labeled to prevent the spread of invasive species.