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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Collecting Seeds

By Jim Bishop.

In 1959, we were transferred from Monahans, Texas, to Houston. Though both are very flat with spring thunderstorms and long hot summers, they have drastically different climates. Houston annually receives over 50 inches of rain compared to Monahans’ meager thirteen. The result in Houston is steamy tropical weather for nine or more months a year. The difference in flora was remarkable. Most of Houston is under a forest of native loblolly pines, oaks, sweetgums and southern magnolias. Houston had been a lumber town long before oil was discovered in east Texas. We had azaleas growing in the front yard and my mother tried growing bananas in the back. The neighbors down the street had pine trees over 75 feet tall.

On one pleasant spring day, mother would put our play table on the back patio and cover it with an embroidered tablecloth. My younger brother and I would pick a vase of dandelions and serve Kool-Aid and homemade cookies to the twin girls next door. Was this the pre-cursor of our popular Coffee-in-the-Gardens?

As a result of moving every 12 to 18 months, mother had developed impressive skills painting, sewing drapes and curtains, and reupholstering furniture. As soon as possible, she would plant a flower garden from seeds saved from the previous home. I remember the petunias, rose moss (Portulaca grandiflora), marigolds, touch-me-nots (Impatiens balsamina), and bread poppies (Papaver somniferum) that grew so well in Houston’s wet springs and summers. Helping collect seeds and put them in paper envelopes was my first hands-on gardening experience. As a 4 year old, I found gathering seeds strange and fascinating. It became my first plant obsession.

The different way each plant produced seed was amazing to me. Gathering petunia seeds required looking down each plant stem for a dried flower. Underneath there would be a small brown dried dome surrounded by the sepals. Squeeze the dome to crack it and seeds poured out.

I loved the bright flower colors, plump leaves and red stems of rose moss. It was my favorite plant and also my first succulent. It has a semi-spherical dome that covers the seeds. The top easily pops off when the seeds are ripe. Turn over the little cup that remains on the plant and out drop the seeds.

When I first collected seeds from marigolds, I would put the entire dried flower in the envelope. Over time, I learned to break open the dried flower. Inside would be straw-like material and things that looked like black grains of rice. You could see where the tiny true flower was attached to the top of each grain. These were fertile seeds and the rest could be thrown away.

The favorite for collecting seeds, as well as for the other kids in the neighborhood, were the touch-me-nots, or as my mother called them Lady Slippers (Impatiens balsamina). After each flower fell off a juicy green and fuzzy pod would form at the end of a little stem. Squeezing the ripe pod results in the sides splitting open and curling up around your finger and the seeds inside shooting out in all directions. These were lots of fun to explode, but difficult to actually collect the seed. I still remember the smell of the pod and the feeling of being pelted by seeds.

The oddest of all were the bread poppies. My mother grew large hot pink double and semi-double “carnation flowered” poppies. After the petals fall off, a one inch diameter spherical shaped container with a flat top is left behind. When the seed inside ripens, it spills out of holes at the top like salt out of shaker. I thought this was really cool…and next to impossible to catch all of the seeds. When I bought my first house in 1983, mother mailed me some of the poppy seeds she was still collecting. They didn’t flourish in my crowded Encinitas garden, but did well enough that I was able to collect and bring some of the seeds to our current house in Mission Hills. I scattered the seed on the hill behind the house just before the first fall rain like mom did 50 years ago in Houston. They’ve been coming up annually (alas, mostly in the gravel pathways) ever since.

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