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Caring For Plants As We Do Our Children

Sophie Heimerdinger, Pie Ranch

Pie Ranch and Cascade Ranch are committed to tending the land in a way that is conducive to its natural ecology, through climate resilient farming practices and integrated traditional ecological knowledge. Through their close partnership and collaboration with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and Land Trust (AMLT), they have together been able to steward the land in more ways than one. 

Collecting wax myrtle seeds (Myrica californica) near Cascade Ranch.

Throughout my service term here, I am grateful to have been involved in some of these conservation projects, often pertaining to riparian restoration and eucalyptus removal along Cascade Creek, but primarily with native plant propagation. We are currently growing native plants for an Integrated Aquaculture Agriculture research project in collaboration with UC Santa Cruz, in which the plants will also be used for a native pollinator hedgerow and continued creek habitat restoration. Over the course of the year, my colleague and I have been slowly developing a small nursery operation on site for us to be able to produce our own plants and care for others received from AMLT’s Native Plant program, or other nurseries for these projects.

This process has been one of much trial and error, as native plants are finicky, particular, and require specific treatment depending on the species. We have had several disappointments in our propagation: Red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) dying off because they were not placed on heat mats throughout their early development, California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) seed not being viable because the birds got there faster, and several species, such as Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), having stunted or disturbed growth due to being in a hot and humid greenhouse.

Unviable California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) seeds due to bird activity and late harvest.

The lessons I have received through native plant propagation have surprised me. Nursery work can be routine and rudimentary at times — spending hours transplanting, sanitizing pots, or sowing seeds. But beneath this there is a deeper component that has taught me new ways to nurture and pay attention. 

The act of collecting seed alone has forced me to engage with the land with a level of intimacy that I have not yet experienced. Searching for viable seeds requires understanding growth patterns of various species across the landscape so that I know where to look, knowing blooming and fruiting times so that I know when to look, and committing to conserving local ecosystems by acquiring seeds within a regional gene pool. This requires slowing down and getting close enough to notice my surroundings, and creating mental maps that change throughout the seasons. 

Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) beginning to sprout.

I feel as though I have been cultivating personal relationships with each species, getting to know more of their intricacies through handling them and facilitating their development, such as sifting through the duff underneath a redwood stand, focusing on the debris in my palm to identify what of the handful look like they could be fallen seeds. Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) seeds are small, paper thin, brown triangles with rounded edges and a lightened stripe drawn down the middle. They are released from a small cone from late summer to early winter, once the tightly fused sheaths begin to open. Redwood seeds have a very low germination rate, but they are often more successful when seeds are taken from their cones rather than the duff. Without having pried open each collected cone and pulled out the seeds manually, I would not have known that they extract a deep reddish brown, highly tannic liquid that is sticky to the touch. I would not have known that the seeds stack on top of one another, creating tightly layered plates inside of their chambers. And, I would not know that each cone could contain up to about 250 seeds, many not even being viable. Yes, these facts could be researched, but learning this through interacting with the species itself humanizes them in a way that is comparable to getting to know a new friend — I feel a closeness that could never be achieved online.

"Learning ... through interacting with the species itself humanizes them in a way that is comparable to getting to know a new friend — I feel a closeness that could never be achieved online."

Greeting the mother plants at their time of reproduction and then caring for their shed seed from their birth to maturity inspired maternal instincts in me that I did not expect could be triggered by species not in the animal kingdom. But there is a relationality there, between us [humans] and other natural phenomena — a reminder that nature is not simply a resource but an ancestor, parent, or sibling. Taking seeds or cuttings away from the land and their mother plant(s) always leaves me with a sense of responsibility that I must now care for these plants as I would my children — I must keep them comfortable, safe, fed, listened to, and loved. And once they are ready, I must return them to the soil in a home where they can thrive and continue to grow on their own, adapting to the world around them, being there if they need.

Coast redwood stand at Henry Cowell State Park (*Seeds were not collected here as it is State Park land).

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