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Seed Gathering Season: Jon Stokes on a magical time of year

The Tree Council

September 25, 2023

Jon Stokes

Jon Stokes is The Tree Council’s Director Trees, Science & Research, and co-author of books including The Good Seed Guide and The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern Ireland, among others. Tree Talk spoke to Jon about his enduring passion for Seed Gathering Season, which begins with the Autumn Equinox, on September 23.

What does Seed Gathering Season mean to you?
More than 20 years ago, growing trees from seed was seen as the realm of really, really clever scientists. There was only very heavy technical guidance on how to produce trees from seed. This seemed a bit odd as we’d spent most of our history in these islands growing trees from seeds, but over the last 200 years we’d lost some of that experience.

It had become highly technical, highly forest species orientated, information. One day, a colleague and I were trying to think of a way to make seed gathering more accessible to the public, more understandable. We were sat in a pub in Hampshire and bizarrely a group of bishops came into the pub to have lunch. We were trying to think of a way of engaging people with trees at different points in the year, and we could overhear the bishops talking about harvest festival coming up. We started to think, how could we harvest some seeds? How could we make it something interesting?

The first attempt was Seed Gathering Sunday, which was the second Sunday in October, to try and give people a focal point to go out and collect seed. We quickly realised one day was too limited as trees have a variety of seeding times, so we stretched it into Seed Gathering Season – taking it from the Autumn equinox, for a month. The whole purpose was to try and make people think about seed in a different way.

In combination with that, we talked to all the seed experts at Forestry Commission, and using the true expertise of Forest Research, came up with a new methodology for processing seeds, and called it The Good Seed Guide.

The idea was to make it accessible, easy and relatively people-friendly to get trees grown from seed. We’ve been on that journey for 20 years trying to encourage people and explain to people that it’s really easy, that our ancestors pretty much always planted trees from seed, and that we shouldn’t be scared of it.

What do you enjoy most about the process of seed gathering?

It’s because it’s simple. In an acorn lies a giant oak tree, if you just look after it correctly, get it started and growing. So, getting people to see that, literally, life starts with the seed – if you get them right and put them in the right places, you can get free trees anywhere. That’s the joy of it.

It requires a bit of skill, a bit of luck, and a bit of knowledge, but it means you can celebrate the good in your local treescape. You can collect the seed from the trees that look nice, the ones that are best adapted, the ones that are locally suited to growing in your part of the country.

If there is a particularly fine Rowan tree then it is worth trying to plant its seed as there is a chance the seed might resemble the parent. It’s that whole journey of finding what’s locally adapted, celebrating it and planting it. Anybody can do it, one tree at a time – collect an acorn, grow it in a pot – you can do it.

How do you approach seed gathering?

In a rational sense, one should always think about what you are going to do with them before you collect the seed. You don’t want to go and gather 500 conkers and then realise you have nowhere to plant a conker tree.
There is that element of everybody goes for the easy ones, the big ones, the obvious ones, but they may not be the ones you want to plant in your community, so you should really start from the other end of the journey: what space do I have?

Then work out that, what I need to put in that spot is a hawthorn, so then you go and collect some hawthorn seed. You should always really put your effort into collecting seeds you know you will have a home for.

It’s perfectly acceptable to keep it in a pot for its entire lifetime as a bonsai. I have trees in my garden that I’ve grown as bonsai, from seed, because that was always my intention – I wanted them as a bonsai, I wasn’t ever planning to plant them out.

Are there any particular varieties you are looking out for this year?

It’s looked particularly good this year for the rosaceous species, by which I mean things like, sorbus and hawthorn. That’s because last summer was really warm and hot so they laid down lots of flower bud, which has led to lots of fruit. There are surprising quantities of a variety of species and collecting their seed is great – but you’ve still got to have the place to put them. You’ve always got to temper what’s out there with what you can use.

How do you identify healthy specimens?

Find the healthy looking trees first. Find the ones that look well grown and well adapted to your circumstances. You also physically have to be able to collect the seed, you don’t want to do damage to the tree in collecting it so there is also an element of, can I get to it? Can I reach it? Ideally, you don’t climb the trees, you want to be able to pick from the ground. Sometimes you might have the most perfect tree but you can’t physically get the seed without causing damage.

With all of this, you are trying to give a few seeds an extra head start, so even a few help. You don’t have to do hundreds and thousands – just a few.

How is 2023 looking to you?

It’s looking like a good year across many species. Oak had a good year last year but in various – not all – parts of the country it seems to be having a good year this year as well, which is a bit surprising. There is no system for recording this, there is no collective data, it’s all anecdotal. So, there is definitely that element of, know your own local community and know what’s going on in your patch. Certainly down here (in Hampshire), it’s a good year.

What is your top seed gathering tip?

Don’t take seed you’re never going to do anything with because it becomes mentally distressing if you’ve grown 500 conker trees and nobody wants one. Only grow trees that you know somebody wants, or you have thought about what you are going to do with it.

How magical does growing from seed remain for you?

It’s great because it’s that joyous thing of starting with something as tiny as a seed, and suddenly you’ve got a tree growing and you never know what it’s going to do.
The one that always gets me, the most magical of all, is apple pips. Every single apple pip is unique and every single apple tree you grow might be the next best apple tree in the whole history of the world. You have no idea whether you’ve just grown a stinker, or the next Bramley apple.

That’s the joy of an apple seed – it’s unique, it’s distinct, it’s yours it’s personal – and you will never know until you’ve grown it and found out.

Jon Stokes is The Tree Council’s Director of Trees, Science & Research. This article was first published on  The Tree Council’s substack channel, Tree Talk. To subscribe, please visit www.treetalk.substack.com

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