Planting the seeds for success

Story by Kate Miyamoto, Public Affairs Specialist, California Desert District. Photos by BLM.

Seeds are vital to life on earth. Much of the food humans and animals eat, the fabric we wear and use daily, and the plants that keep our landscapes beautiful and healthy, are created from seeds.

Seeds are also the foundation for restoring plant communities and habitat. In California’s Mojave Desert region, invasive species, wildfire, and drought are negatively affecting native plant communities and the species that depend on them, such as the federally threatened desert tortoise. Habitat restoration is critical for the desert tortoise who need specific annual and perennial native flowers for food, and native shrubs for cover. The same flowers and shrubs important for desert tortoises are important for pollinators and other desert species.

Chinchweed growing at the Mojave Desert Land Trust by the BLM.

In 2016, the BLM created the Mojave Desert Native Plant Program to help increase native seed supplies to restore habitat in the Mojave Desert region. The Mojave Desert Native Plant Program created a step-down strategy from the National Seed Strategy to increase native seeds, guide desert restoration, and support wildlife habitat and restoration across the Mojave Desert region. The program identified the need for additional commercial growers of Mojave Desert native seed, and development of protocols for growers to increase and harvest seed.

“Mojave Desert restoration projects have relied largely on wildland native seed collections, but with climate change, increased severe drought conditions, and increased restoration needs, the BLM can’t just depend on wildland collections to meet seed needs,” stated Judy Perkins, BLM Mojave Desert Native Plant Coordinator.

In 2020, the BLM partnered with the Mojave Desert Land Trust on a three-year pilot seed increase project to test growing and seed harvest techniques for native Mojave Desert annual plants on a small scale. The Mojave Desert Land Trust planted three important food plants for desert tortoise at their nursery: fringed amaranth (Amaranthus fimbriatus), Sonoran sandmat (Euphorbia micromera), and chinchweed (Pectis papposa). Seeds were harvested, cleaned and provided to the Bureau of Land Management. Produced seed will be used as starter seed for larger-scale commercial seed increase and ultimately for desert tortoise habitat restoration.

Fringed amaranth growing at the Mojave Desert Land Trust by the BLM.

“Many of the plants needed for desert tortoise habitat restoration have never been grown commercially for seed increase,” said Perkins. “Projects like the Mojave Desert Land Trust partnership help develop protocols for how to grow and harvest seed in agricultural settings, while also increasing wild collected native seed.”

The pilot seed increase project is in its second year and growing strong. In 2021, the Mojave Desert Land Trust harvested about 40 pounds of seeds of fringed amaranth and chinchweed and in 2022, planted desert dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata) and Fremont pincushion (Chaenactis fremontii) with plans to harvest seed. Techniques used to grow these species and harvest their seeds will be added to a Mojave Desert Native Plant Growing Guide, currently under development for publication.

Chinchweed growing at the Mojave Desert Land Trust by the BLM.

The BLM’s partnership with Mojave Desert Land Trust started small but could grow  – just like a seed! The seeds produced from this partnership will be used to restore Mojave Desert habitat, provide food and cover for the desert tortoise and other desert species, increase seed supply of important native plant species, and develop methods and protocols for growing plants and harvesting seeds to establish new commercial growers for Mojave Desert native seed.