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New York City Native Plant Center's Seed Is for the Future
A SEED, to most people, is an inscrutable thing, a closed box waiting to be unpacked. But for Ed Toth, the director of New York City’s native plant center on Staten Island, it is a wide-open window, with a view stretching back to the last Ice Age and forward into the future.
Mr. Toth, a botanist who has worked with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation for a quarter-century, is an updated, urbanized Johnny Appleseed, fired by the same spirit as those who champion locally grown food. He zealously advocates the use of not only native plants, but those propagated from seeds that were harvested as close to New York as possible.
Under Mr. Toth, who arrived at the center in 1998, the center’s focus has broadened to include the harvesting and banking of seeds for native species, which he says are increasingly threatened by urban development, invasive insects and climate change.
Collecting seeds is time-consuming. But Mr. Toth said it was necessary since there are virtually no commercial suppliers of locally sourced seeds. So two staff members make field trips to far-flung parts of the city, as well as to nearby places like Sandy Hook, N.J., where they have permission to harvest seeds from plants in the wild.
The collectors follow internationally recognized protocols for gathering a genetically diverse sample of seeds within each species. That process includes visiting a site more than once, using a randomized search pattern and taking limited amounts of seed from each plant.
The seeds are then brought to the center, where workers use mesh screens and simple machines to sort and clean them for storage. “It’s pretty primitive,” he said, demonstrating the technique of rubbing a seed head. “It’s the biblical ‘separating the wheat from the chaff.’ ”