Seeds of Wisdom

You can learn a lot about someone just by looking in their refrigerator. These days, the refrigerator at High Plains Environmental Center is crammed full of zip lock bags containing wildflower seeds in damp sand.

If you are seeding wildflowers outdoors it’s best to do it in November before the first snow, just as nature does. However, if you are growing them in trays indoors,  many types of seeds will need to have this cold period replicated in order to get them started.

From the bags in our refrigerator we are planning to grow 10,000 seedlings of native plants for restoration projects. Where some might just see bags of dirt with labels like “Verbena hastata”, “Asclepias incarnata” and “Helianthus nutallii”, my “plantish” friends and I get very excited looking through my refrigerator. We see the promise of purple, yellow and pinkish-orange flowers, soaring high above wetland meadows in summers yet to come.

At the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, MA, where I studied horticulture, I once saw a note pinned up on the wall that said “a seed is a baby plant, asleep in a box, with its lunch”. I don’t know who wrote this but it’s a good description of what a seed really is.  The “lunch” refers to the endosperm, stored starch that sustains the seed until its roots develop and can absorb nutrients. Some seeds can remain asleep in the box for years, even centuries, waiting for the right conditions to come along.

In the fall we go out and gather wildflower seeds. By gathering seeds locally we are preserving a distinct local genotype that has adapted to our specific conditions. The seeds gathered at another elevation, or in another state will not be quite the same. It’s a pleasant enough task to go seed gathering. Last fall on a golden afternoon of Indian summer, I was walking along scanning the ground for familiar friends, when a flock of sandhill cranes flew overhead, trumpeting their wild and ancient call tllrrr, tllrr, tllrr, a bit like running your finger down a comb, only much better.  

Identifying plants in their dried form requires an intimate familiarity with the plants and it helps to know the landscape well in order to know where to look for certain things.  Once you notice the pattern you can see a particular plant and know what else you can expect to find growing there. Cottonwood trees grow on creeks throughout the West; underneath them you’re likely to find chokecherries and golden currants grown from seeds dropped by birds that rested in the trees. Those who know the language of plant communities will unconsciously inventory the landscape as they drive down the highway.

One of my instructors at the Arboretum, Paul Martin Brown, taught a course called Flora of New England. I think he knew the name and address of every plant in the 6 state region. If you were talking about wild orchids, he would say “go to the Shaw’s parking lot in Nashua, New Hampshire and look north at the wetlands there, then come back and tell me what you saw.”

It is not necessary to know the name of every plant in order to enjoy them but I will offer a very brief taxonomy lesson here. Plants are categorized by the form of their flowers.  They are not categorized by the shapes of their leaves, the form of their growth, or where they grow.  Many plants within the same genus may look very different from each other. Plants, like other living things, are scientifically categorized by genus and species.  The genus, which is the first name refers to the larger group, like your family’s last name.  The second name is the species and often refers to some characteristic that distinguishes it from the others of its genus like “hirsutissima” meaning “hairy.” So, Clematis hirsutissima, is a hairy species of the genus, clematis.

There are other ways to know plants and many people who know plants intimately do not know the Latin names. Native people of the region know that chewing the seeds of the prairie coneflower, Echinacea anugustifolia, will make your mouth numb, so it makes a good toothache medicine.  Sweet flag, Acorus calamus, is good medicine for colds and stomach flu, if you can stomach the bitter taste that is.

When looking for a particular plant, traditionally native people will sit down and make an offering to the first one they find.  When you do this you slowly tune into the landscape and then you begin to see more and more.  I like to touch the plants and smell their leaves.  I find that the physical memory of them remains with me the longest but don’t do this with poison ivy, although if you do I’m certain you won’t forget it.

In the midst of a culture that marks changes of the year by the decorations and candy that appear in stores, these sleeping seeds help me remember where we really are. Over the course of my life I have repeatedly had a disturbing dream in which it is summer and I haven’t planted anything. I don’t think there’s anything psychological about it. The dream underscores for me the importance of connecting oneself to the rhythm of the seasons. I like knowing when the moon is full or new, when things will bloom or go to seed and my heart literally leaps when I hear the first peeping frogs emerge from the cold Spring mud.

You can learn a tremendous amount from a seed. Every seed contains within itself an ancestral memory of seasons past which it has never known.  It knows how to grow, how to bloom and exactly when to do so. 

 In the dark depths of winter the tiny seeds remain steadfast and resolute. They seem to know that sunlight, soil and water are the things that truly matter and that the glory of summer will inevitably return. In challenging times such as these we would do well to take a lesson from the seeds, to return to what truly sustains us and reflect on where we are in the cycle of seasons.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado. HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners, to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s unique native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. www.suburbitat.org

 For nearly half a century I have been walking in the woods. Since I was five years old, long before the days of computer games and “stranger danger,” I wandered fields and forests all alone. When I came home covered head to toe in mud I simply stripped down at the door and no questions were asked about my solo journeys into the wilds of my neighborhood. For the decade that spanned my teens I walked by Towner’s Pond not far from Thoreau’s Walden. 

Thoreau understood walking in its purest form. No world traveler himself, Thoreau claimed “I have traveled quite extensively, in Concord.” But it was not so much “where” he was walking but “how” that made the difference. In the final essay of his life, Walking, Thoreau reveals the secret of his life of wandering…I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works.              

If Thoreau’s simple, mid-nineteenth century life, lit by kerosene lamps, traveled on foot, communicated in face to face conversation or meticulously hand-written notes, left his mind reeling then woe to us of the 21st century! Our lightning speed communication, internet, facebook, twitter, wifi, TV and radio provides us with more information than we can process.  Surely the wild animal in each of our hearts is ready to run from this madness, at any moment, to take refuge in the wild. The cure for modern life, more than ever, is nature, where we can breathe freely and for a quiet hour rest our minds simple wonder.  I begin most days with a walk at daybreak, more often than not grinning like an idiot at something as simple as a familiar birds note and often (on a good day) end by staring at the sky like a child who has lost themselves at play. 

Those of us who live in Colorado are lucky to have access to open spaces like Rocky Mountain National Park and the 2 or 3 times a year that I get up there are great, but where do we experience nature every day? Where do children interact with the wild if they can’t connect with it in their neighborhood? I feel fortunate that my work frequently leads me outdoors and although I live in the city I can walk from my home and quickly reach the river and woods.     

My local forest has deer and mink, foxes and many birds. Last year a mountain lion and a bear were spotted nearby. On the occasions when I see a bald eagle flying along the river I ask myself “is that eagle in the wilderness?” From the eagles perspective fish in this river are no different than fish from the remotest mountain stream and the eagle is no more “civilized” by this environment than any other. Then I wonder about myself, when I walk in this urban forest am I wild, as I was as a child when a small wood lot was like Christopher Robin’s hundred acre wood?

Perhaps wildness is a state of mind that leaves enough room to recognize other beings as free and unfettered, a state where plants, animals and weather, appear as messages from a world shrouded in mystery whose patterns can only be perceived through the senses and intuited by the heart . 

In Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. . . .   Thoreau

I work at the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado but I live in neighboring Fort Collins, by banks of the Cache la Poudre River. In both of these two places I manage (thankfully) to spend a lot of time walking outdoors. Near my home beavers took up residence this winter in a pond that was previously a gravel mine. At first I saw only the gnawed trees, evidence of the beavers presence but lately the beavers themselves have been quite visible.   

The Lewis and Clark expedition did not go through Colorado but it did cross a similar, short grass prairie landscape to the north. They believed this area to be entirely uninhabitable. On May 27, 1805 a letter from the expedition described the region as follows “these mountains appear to be a desert part of the country…barron broken rich soil but too much of a desert to be inhabited, or cultivated….We have now got into a country which presents little to our view, but scenes of barrenness and desolation; and see no encouraging prospects that it will terminate.” This area is also the “Sterile desert” we lately entered”.

The first White Men to remain in the West for any length of time were traders and fur trappers in search of beaver pelts. In the growing cities of the East, as well as Europe a gentleman wasn’t properly dressed unless he wore a top hat made of shaved beaver fur. Since the 15th century vast sums of money were accumulated all on the pelts of this semi-aquatic mammal.  Many of these early trapper were of French origin and seemed to be less interesting in “winning the West than we were in winning the heart s of the Indian maidens that they met here. In fact, many of these men became part of the tribes, interpreters for those who came later. They left their names, Baptise, Janis on modern day Indian reservations.,

Exploring my local beaver habitat I found more damaged trees in amongst a clump of red-twid dogwood (cornus stolenifera).

Red Osier Dogwood, or Red Willow as it is often called, is considered sacred to many Indian tribes as referenced in the Longfellow poem The Song of Hiawatha…




Filled the pipe with bark of willow,
With the bark of the red willow;
Breathed upon the neighboring forest,
Made its great boughs chafe together,
Till in flame they burst and kindled;
And erect upon the mountains,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
Smoked the calumet, the Peace-Pipe,
As a signal to the nations.

The Lakota people historically inhabited the region from the Colorado Rockies, east to the Missouri river and north into Canada. Since times too ancient to remember the Lakota watched the sky in early spring as the constellation Aries moved closer and closer to the sun until it could no longer be seen. To the Lakota Aries and Triangulum represented Cansasa (chan-sha-sha) red willow, the bark of which is used in a ceremonial smoking mixture. When the sun lit the red willow it represented a pipe ceremony in the heavens.

The beaver is a “keystone” species, a species that plays a critical role in shaping the environment on which many other species depend and over hunting them radically changed Western eco-systems. Beavers are capable of taking down large trees which they use to build their dams and lodges.

By damming rivers and streams the beaver creates its own environment, ponds that allow the beaver to escape from predators, as well as providing habitat opportunities for numerous other species.

However, the destruction of trees has also made the beaver very unpopular with land owner and managers and has often become a reason for destroying or relocating the beavers.

The Indians participated in trapping and trading of beaver pelts but also appreciated the beaver’s inherent value. Native people refer to the “medicine” of each animal, unique attributes, verging on the supernatural, that can be obtained and emulated by human beings.

According to author, Jamie Sam’s in The Sacred Path Cards:

“Beaver is the doer in the animal kingdom. Beaver medicine is akin to water and earth energy and incorporates a strong sense of family and home. If you were to look at the dams that block woodland streams, you would find several entrances and exits. In building its home, Beaver always leaves itself many alternative escape routes. This practice is a lesson to all of us not to paint ourselves into corners. If we eliminate our alternatives, we dam the flow of experience in our lives.”

 National Geographic offers the following information about beavers…

Beavers are famously busy, and they turn their talents to re-engineering the landscape as few other animals can. When sites are available, beavers burrow in the banks of rivers and lakes. But they also transform less suitable habitats by building dams. Felling and gnawing trees with their strong teeth and powerful jaws, they create massive log, branch, and mud structures to block streams and turn fields and forests into the large ponds that beavers love.

Dome-like beaver homes, called lodges, are also constructed of branches and mud. They are often strategically located in the middle of ponds and can only be reached by underwater entrances. These dwellings are home to extended families of monogamous parents, young kits, and the yearlings born the previous spring.

Beavers are among the largest of rodents. They are herbivores and prefer to eat leaves, bark, twigs, roots, and aquatic plants.

These large rodents move with an ungainly waddle on land but are graceful in the water, where they use their large, webbed rear feet like swimming fins, and their paddle-shaped tails like rudders. These attributes allow beavers to swim at speeds of up to five miles (eight kilometers) an hour. They can remain underwater for 15 minutes without surfacing, and have a set of transparent eyelids that function much like goggles. Their fur is naturally oily and waterproof.


 In honor of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the High Plains Environmental Center (of which I am director) I am launching this blog. The entries that will follow in this Suburbitat series will be a Suburban Naturalist’s Journal, exploring ways of attuning our senses to the natural world, rediscovering our relationship with plants and animals that share suburbitat, developing environmental ethics and re-visioning our culture, all from the point of view of the suburban householder.

The High Plains Environmental Center, was founded by a developer, Tom Hoyt of McStain Neighborhoods. The center is comprised of 100 acres of open space, surrounding two lakes. The center also leases the surface rights of the lakes, 175 acres of open water, which is reserved for migratory waterfowl. We also manage another 135 acres of open space belonging to other landowners in Centerra, a 3500 acre mixed use development in Loveland, CO.

The project from its conception was intended to be a symbiotic relationship between a developer, an environmental center and a vital business and residential community. The first executive director of HPEC, Ripley Heinz, coined the term “Suburbitat” by combining the words suburban and habitat. The term refers to the relationship between the built and the natural in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. The concept of suburbitat also points to the possibilities for planning and building environments that restore and conserve our native biodiversity.

HPEC is funded by a percentage of permit fees collected by the city of Loveland for building within Centerra. HPEC in turn maintains trails and open spaces that are a source of pride for the community, as well as a tangible example of the commitment to environmental stewardship and corporate social responsibility on the part of McWhinney, the developer. Most importantly, this concept breaks the traditional stalemate between developers and environmentalists and facilites a constructive dialog about land use between various stakeholders.

Like many conservation areas, HPEC is constantly trying to strike a balance between recreation, conservation and education. We don’t want to put a chain link fence around the lakes with a sign that says “This is Nature – Keep Out!” People need to spend time in nature in order to be healthy and whole. Studies have shown that spending time in nature has immediate, measurable impact on our physical and emotional health. 

It is also essential to allow children to have access to nature. Since Richard Louve’s, Last Child in the Woods, which links what the author calls nature deficit disorder with ADD/ADHD, parents and educators have focused on the necessity of allowing children unstructured time in nature, as well as the need to promote eco-literacy.     

As one who is eager to pass my own life-long love of nature on to younger people, this is all extremely good news. If children don’t know that nature is out there they are not going to miss it when it disappears. After all, you don’t become an advocate for something that you never knew existed. We must begin training the land stewards of the next generation now. 

On the other hand jogging, boating, pets off leash and other impacts from human activities put a lot of pressure on wildlife and many wildlife populations are already near the breaking point. Bird populations in Colorado, similar to those in other states across the country, have crashed in the last forty years, many bird species declining by sixty percent or more.

Obviously we need to do all we can for birds and other wildlife populations if they are to survive the next forty years. We need to create a culture where conserving nature is a deeply held value and maintaining wildlife is considered an important goal. We need to learn about the wildlife species around us in order to understand what they need to thrive. Then we need to actively design a world that has benefit for wildlife built into it and like so many other things we need to do it right away.

Fortunately this project is going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to make us healthier, livelier and more aware human beings. Sustainability is about much more than the things that we build, what we drive or what we eat, it is a transformational journey that we  are making toward personal and planetary wholeness. Exploring the world around us and attuning ourselves to the rhythms of nature is part of that process.

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, CO.  HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. http://www.suburbitat.org