SAGAMORE HILLS TWP.: The volunteers were outfitted with bags that attached to their waists, gloves and clippers or small hand-held sickles.
They wandered across the 15-acre grassy hillside off West Highland Road in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and collected super-tiny seeds from the waist-high switchgrass, a perennial grass that is native to the park.
The seed collection, conducted last month, produced 25 pounds of switchgrass tops from which perhaps 6 pounds of seeds will be extracted for planting next spring, said exotic plant coordinator Andrew Bishop, who led the team that included six volunteers and two park interns.
The switchgrass seeds are so tiny, it takes about 389,000 to make 1 pound.
Collecting native seeds is not glamorous. It is labor intensive and hard work. But the volunteers were undaunted by the task.
“We want to get the bad stuff out and the good stuff in,” said volunteer Mark Pierce, 35, of Fairview Park, a Bank of America account manager. “It’s a beautiful, sunny day in a national park, and we’re helping to make a difference. What’s not to like about this project?”
Native-seed collection is part of the park’s strategy to fight invasive species and another tool in that battle, Bishop said. Getting rid of invasive species leaves the door open for the unwanted plants to return unless desirable native plants are returned to the ecosystem, he said.
Collecting native seeds is a means to return native vegetation to disturbed land and to help native wildlife, Bishop said.
The park has been collecting seeds from 70 species since late 2009, mostly to support its native-plant nursery and greenhouse off state Route 303 in Boston Heights. Last year, the park collected 440 pounds of bulk material that was cleaned down to 100 pounds of seed, Bishop said. It takes about 15 pounds of mixed seed to cover an acre.
The park has enlisted the public to pull invasive plants on Thursdays and Saturdays from May through November and, for the first time, to collect native seeds on Tuesdays from August through mid-November.
The most-collected seed in 2012 is the black-eyed Susan, Bishop said.
Two techniques can be used to harvest switchgrass seeds. Some grab the tops of several switchgrass stalks and use the sickle or clippers to cut off the tops. It is easy but results in more stems that must be removed later. The alternative method is to grab individual stalks and strip off the seeds with a pulling motion.
Bishop’s advice to the volunteers: Stay focused and make sure you get the right seeds. If you lose focus, you might end up pinching a finger with the clippers, he warned. He also advised the volunteers to move around to avoid taking too many seeds from one spot.
Getting involved in the project “has been a lot of fun,” said Linda Curtiss, 63, of Macedonia.
“You don’t realize what’s out here until you do something like this. We haven’t collected seeds from the same plant once all year. It’s neat to be involved, to be part of something worthwhile, to just be outdoors and meet other people,” she said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Said volunteer Rich Kroczynski, 72, of Medina: “It’s fun. I absolutely love it.”
He has logged 450 hours as a habitat restoration and trail volunteer. His wife, Marilyn, has 300 hours. They typically have been in the park helping out three days a week for the past three years, he said.
Dan Krieger, 38, of Northfield Center Township and a junior at Kent State University who is interning in the park, said, “It’s great. I’m working where I like to play. I work with people who are passionate about the park and passionate about this project. ... What we’re doing can, and will, have a big impact on the park.”
The switchgrass is thriving on the tract near the Brandywine ski area, a spot once viewed as a major eyesore in the park. In the late 1980s, the former ski-area owner cut trees and removed the topsoil to increase the height on his ski hill and to fill a ravine. The result was bare-brown clay and no vegetation.
The park service bought the property in 1991. The reclamation is progressing slowly because of poor soil conditions, Bishop said.
Fourteen months ago, the park planted about 1,500 trees and covered them with plastic tubes to protect them from hungry white-tailed deer. The drought hit those trees hard, he said.
For information, go to www.nps.gov/cuva/supportyourpark/habitat-restoration.htm or call 330-657-2299.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.