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Susan Sampson | Seeds to save the Coulee

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Provided photo A close-up of wild grasses growing.

It takes 30,000 jasmine flowers to make an ounce of “Joy” perfume. It takes 4,500 crocus flowers to make an ounce of saffron. I thought of those numbers as I stripped stalks of needle grass of their seeds, collecting them for a Nature Conservancy (TNC) project.

Six of us, TNC’s Arid Lands Director Chuck Warner, the steward of TNC’s Beezley Hills and McCartney Reserve project John Foster, TNC Volunteer Coordinator Lauren Meheli, a father and son from Stanwood and I, picked the seeds and stuffed them into apple-picker’s bags hung around our necks.

We were picking in the Moses Coulee near Dutch Henry Falls. The day was hot and we were cautioned to watch for snakes, inspect for ticks, stay hydrated, use sun hats, sun glasses and sun screen, Still, I was glad for work that I could actually perform. Often a conservation project means digging post holes, stretching fence wire or driving a tractor. Being smallish, oldish and awkward around machines, I’m not a crew chief’s favorite volunteer.

Picking seed requires no special technique. We did have to learn how to identify the wild western needle grasses we were after. They are perennials that grow in bunches. Our particular quarry was needle-and-thread grass. It throws up a two-foot tall stem that sets needle-sharp seeds with 4-inch tails on them called “awns,” the “thread” of the “needle and thread” grass. We avoided the low, reddish cheat grass, a non-native annual that carpets the prairie floor, cheating native plants of any share of water.

When the seed of a needle grass falls, the awn draws moisture, twists into a drill and drives the seed into the ground. When a seed pierces my sleeve or pant-leg, I feel exactly how it works.

Our plan was to collect seeds that TNC would deliver to a farmer who would cultivate a seed crop. That crop of seeds would be used to restore prairies on TNC land in the Moses Coulee and on BLM and Forest Service lands. Most farmers wouldn’t be interested in cultivating the crop — that would require their modifying their equipment to handle the seeds.

The six of us picked for nearly six hours. At day’s end, we pressed all the seed into a single five-gallon paint bucket. Our crop weighed almost nothing, but I’m sure it was just as precious as the flowers for saffron or “Joy.”

Susan Sampson writes about the joys of being a newcomer in North Central Washington. She can be reached at alienfiction@yahoo.com.

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