perky seedling with two serrated arrow-shaped leaves and two smooth narrow leaves that curl over
Seedling of big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) has emerged from seed mixture, formed seed leaves, and has its first true leaves.

Something special fills the heart when you see little green wisps sprout up where you planted native seeds, or when you see roots growing out from the bottom of a slender branch you’ve stuck in water or potting soil. That’s new plant life, new native plant life, that you helped create. Your efforts are working!

Whether you want to try propagating wildflowers by tossing out seeds or grow new herbaceous species from cuttings, knowing what has worked for others will help you succeed. We’ve gathered together resources on many different aspects of propagation, from how to collect and clean seed, to how to keep all your materials clean in order to avoid spreading plant diseases.

Resources About Propagating Native Plants

Whether you want to try propagating wildflowers by tossing out seeds, or you want to grow new herbaceous species from cuttings, knowing what has worked for others will help you succeed. We’ve gathered together resources on many different aspects of propagation, from how to collect and clean seed, to how to keep all your materials clean in order to avoid spreading plant diseases.

Redbud Info About Propagation

Resources for Native Plant Seed Collecting, Cleaning and Storage. A list by Nancy Gilbert, long-time Redbud Horticulture Chair.

Forays into Propagating Native Plants — from Seed. This blogpost provides guidance and tips in all the phases of getting started with propagating native plants from seed.

How to Help Seeds Break Dormancy. Jeanne Wilson, long-time Redbud propagator (and former chapter president) discusses the major methods of seed treatment — hot water, cold stratification, and scarification.

Seed Cleaning Techniques. Redbud video in which Shane Hanofee shows how to clean a variety of native-plant seeds.

Seed Treatments and Planting. Redbud video in which Shane Hanofee demonstrates and explains common seed treatments, such as hot-water treatment and cold stratification, as well as less common ones, such as scarification (roughing up the seed coat). He also shares how to do direct seeding.

Cultivating Humboldt Lily Seeds and Bulbs. Native-bulb expert Nancy Gilbert provides detailed information on how to grow these magnificent, locally-native flowering geophytes.

Other Useful Propagation Resources

Seed Propagation of California Native Plants. Dara Emery. Free downloadable version of the material in Dara Emery’s classic short useful book, provided by CNPS (Calscape). In 2021, this book was re-issued by the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden; available through the usual online retailers or by order via local bookstores.

A helpful guide to propagation techniques for native plants, from CNPS.

A propagation handbook developed and hosted by the Santa Cruz Chapter of CNPS.

NEW! Propagating Native Plants from Seeds. A free class on YouTube by Suzie Savoie, co-owner of Siskiyou Ecological Services and Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds. Covers ethical native-seed collection techniques, seed cleaning with basic home supplies, seed-germination requirements for specific species, growing natives in nursery containers, and direct-seeding techniques. Recording of a community education class offered by the FNR Land Steward Program of Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center.

Propagation Class: Seeds, Cuttings and Divisions. YouTube video by California Botanic Garden, with Steven Valdez, their Lead Nursery Technician. Detailed coverage of types of propagation and their characteristics, propagation materials, seed propagation, propagation by cutting, by division (corms), and by layering (appropriate only for propagation for private use, not for Redbud sale).

Seed Propagation. Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds provides detailed resources on everything from selecting containers for seeding to site preparation for seeding, including a chart on recommended seed preparation for many of our local species.

 Seed Germination & Propagation Technique Overview.  From CNPS San Diego Chapter. Nice introduction to methods of seed preparation methods.

General Seed Collection Guidelines for California Native Plant Species. From California Botanic Garden (formerly Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden).

Online Resources For Propagating Native Plants. A list of practical information sources about propagating natives, including sources of protocols for specific species.

Wild Things: Propagating Lesser-Known California Natives. Download an article by Nevin Smith (who founded Suncrest Nursery) that covers some increasingly popular California native plants: Artemesia spp. (sagebrushes), Carpenteria californica (California bush anemone), Cercis occidentalis (Western redbud), Chrysothamnus nauseosus ssp. albicaulis (rabbitbrush), Dendromecon rigida and D. harfordii, Eriogonum spp. (buckwheats), Heteromeles arbutifolia (toyon), Lupinus spp. (lupines), Malacothamnes spp. (bush mallows), Ribes spp. (flower currants and gooseberries), Salvia spp. (sages), Styrax officinalis var. redivivus (CA. snowdrop), Trichostema lanatum (wooly blue curls).

Seed Saving. Though the examples in this Master Gardener presentation are vegetable plants, its introduction mentions the value of saving seeds of locally native plants, and the techniques described for how to harvest and save seed apply equally well to native plants.

Native Pollinator Plants for Southern Oregon. This free downloadable book focuses on the plants of the Siskiyou range. The Siskiyou mountains share many, many plants with the Sierra Nevada; some consider them an extension of the Sierra. This company, Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds, is also a good source of seeds.

Establishing Pollinator Meadows From Seed. Xerces Society’s guidance on site selection and preparation for pollinator meadows, plant selection, planting techniques, and ongoing maintenance.

Propagation Cleanliness

Why Propagation Cleanliness Matters

When growing native plants, maintaining certain “best practices” to keep any soil from contacting the plants or the medium in which they are growing is critically important. The microscopic organism, called Phytophthora, once inadvertently spread from native-plant nurseries to wildlands via restoration projects, can lead to death of numerous species of natives. Phytophthora is invisible to the eye, and its damage is not visible until too late. So native-plant nurseries take special steps to make sure they do not spread it. All propagators who grow for our Redbud native plant sales take these steps, and we recommend that you do, too.

Best Practices and How to Achieve Them

Native plant nurseries and CNPS have developed a set of “Best Management Practices” (BMP) which, when followed, will keep phytophera from spreading to new plants. Good places to start are:

Keep Records of Propagation Activities

Keep Records of Your Propagation Activities

The best way to improve your success in propagation is to keep records of what you do. To make this easy, Redbud offers these record sheets:

Propagating Native Plants from Seed

Redbud’s Tips for Seed Propagation

Set Up for Successful Propagation

For several years, I’d been intrigued by the possibility of learning to propagate native plants, but lack of a good place to grow them always stopped me from taking action. Under the tutelage of Ames Gilbert, I learned how to construct propagation tables. Like the ones at Redbud Nursery, they’re sturdy, waterproof, and self-draining. They’re also high enough that no rain splashes on the ground can reach the little plants; this helps protect plants from soil-borne pathogens. (That protection was important to me because I wanted to propagate plants for Redbud plant sales.)

I love to automate watering tasks whenever I can. Above the prop tables, I installed overhead misters connected to a hose-end timer. If you prefer, simply use a gentle hose-end spray nozzle. Set up a watering method that works for you, so everything on the prop table gets watered daily.

Taking an inspiration from Ames and Nancy’s home propagation set-up, I installed shade cloth over the propagation table. I used bungee cords and clothes pins to fasten it around the tables, to protect seeds and seedlings from birds, as well as from hot direct sun in early months.

Other Redbud propagators have different propagation set-ups, such as in a sunny room indoors, or in a modest greenhouse assembled with plastic sheeting as side walls.

Locally native seeds need no heat; they can sprout and grow outdoors as in nature!

Find Seeds

Start with some easy species. For me, this has included common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), both narrow-leafed milkweed (Asclepias fasciculatum) and showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), hummingbird fuchsia (Epilobium canum), and several native grasses.

Harvest seeds from your own plants and those of friends, exchange seeds with other folks, or buy certain species from native seed sources, listed on Redbud’s website. (Collecting seed on public lands is illegal.) When shopping for seed online, I’ve found availability best in late summer.

Collect seeds only from straight species; seeds of cultivars won’t breed true.

Clean Seeds

Cleaning seeds is important, separating seeds from petals, tiny twigs, and other non-seed material that would otherwise decay in moist conditions, possibly endangering all your efforts. Simple kitchen equipment works fine — pie pans, white plates, rolling pin, and sieves of various sizes. Keep a magnifying glass or loop nearby, for species whose seed you can’t differentiate from chaff by eye alone. CNPS has a great post on gathering and cleaning seed, including how to clean seed from berries and from capsules.

Pre-Treat Seeds That Need It

In nature, seed coatings remain remain intact until conditions favor reproductive success. Though many species don’t need help to break that dormancy, others require an extended stratification period of cold (like winter). Some need heat or fire. To find out what specific species need, I use arguably the most popular information source on the topic, Dara Emery’s, Seed Propagation of California Native Plants (available at Amazon, Abe Books, or by order from a local bookseller). CNPS offers a free downloadable version. You can also learn from  Propagation Resources listed on our website.

For cold stratification, I often place seeds on a slightly damp paper towel, fold it over on all sides, then store it in a zipper plastic bag in the veg bin of the refrigerator. The smallest seeds I place in moist vermiculite, coir, or peat moss in a bag. Label each bag with species, date, and recommended length of stratification. Nancy recommends opening up each bag occasionally. I haven’t tried this, but I’m sure going to this winter, in hopes of avoiding the occasional batch of moldy seed.

Prepare to Plant Seeds

To start seed, I was fortunate in getting some 17-inch square seed trays from a friend, who recommended lining them with squares of landscape cloth. This provides a great balance of drainage and retention of seed-starting mix. You can line the bottom of any open, waterproof container with holes on the bottom; shallow containers need less seed-starting mix. (I’ve never had much success starting in 6-paks, I suspect because they dry out much faster.)

Your seed-starting mix should be a light, sterile, moisture-retentive medium made of tiny particles, that both drains well and holds moisture. Use it to maximize success in seed germination and in seedlings establishing their first tiny roots. During these stages, the plant gets all its nutrients from the seed itself; to reduce disease and other problems, seed-starting mix should be “soilless.” So far, I’ve used:

  • 1 part perlite
  • 1 part vermiculite
  • 1 part coconut coir (or peat moss)

I mix up a big batch in a clean wheelbarrow (first rinsed, santized with isopropyl alcohol, and sprayed with water). I moisten it and fill trays. I store any leftover in a large plastic box with good-fitting lid.

Plant Seeds

Distribute seeds onto the seed-starting mixture. If seeds are very tiny, you may want to mix with builder’s sand first. Cover seeds twice as deep as seed width — except avoid covering dust-like tiny seeds and seeds that need light to germinate.

Those 17-inch seed trays are big so I often use wooden barbeque skewers to divide them into two sections and plant two species. To minimize confusion, avoid planting two species of the same genus in the same tray!

Use at least one label for each species. (Ideally, include both botanical and common names, plus planting date and any treatment info.) I was sure those little long-leafed (lanceolate) sprouts had to be grand hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande), until not one but two Redbud propagators corrected me. Turned out they were evening primrose (Oenothera elata), which have completely different cultural needs, adult appearance, and plant communities! And despite my best efforts to label and keep them separate, I had some confusion around seedlings of foothill penstemon and azure penstemon! One side benefit of propagation: I’m getting a bit better at recognizing what certain species look like as new plants!

Water in well but gently.

Observe, Enjoy, Learn

Monitor soil moisture daily. Seed mixture should never dry out! Be patient; each species has its own pace. First to come up for me were probably common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), like a tiny forest of ferny sprouts. Then came coyote mint (Monardella villosa), with much flatter, rounded leaves. They seemed quite spindly; their seeds are so tiny that I suspect they ran out of seed-based nutrients relatively quickly; next time, I’ll pot this species up earlier than I did.

I was surprised that the delicate crevice alumroot (Heuchera micrantha) sprouted up so nicely, with almost round little leaves.

Once plants develop their first true leaves (not the initial “leaves”), you can pot them up into individual pots. Woo hoo!

Expect failures….and do your best to learn from them. Three times I tried to hot-water and then cold stratify seeds of Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), and they got mold every time! This winter, I’ll use very little moisture around the seeds during stratification.

I also tried canyon dudleya (Dudleya cymosa), which have microscopic seeds. Eventually, a few seemed to sprout, but even those few didn’t survive after being potted up. I can’t even say if those tiny sprouts truly were dudleya. This coming season, I may try these again but inside, to give them a bit more protection from cold. I know growing these from seed is possible, as Jeanne Wilson has been growing some. Hope springs eternal.

And that’s the whole point of seeds. They represent hope, potential, the future, and the miracle of plants in our world.

  • Foray in Propagating Native Plants — from Seed

    Redbud’s Tips for Seed Propagation
    by Chrissy Freeman

    Set Up for Successful Propagation

    For several years, I’d been intrigued by the possibility of learning to propagate native plants, but lack of a good place to grow them always stopped me from taking action. Under the tutelage of Ames Gilbert, I learned how to construct propagation tables. Like the ones at Redbud Nursery, they’re sturdy, waterproof, and self-draining. They’re also high enough that no rain splashes on the ground can reach the little plants; this helps protect plants from soil-borne pathogens. (That protection was important to me because I wanted to propagate plants for…

  • Forays in Propagating Native Bulbs and Corms from Seed

    By Nancy Gilbert, Redbud Horticulture Co-Chair

    To propagate any native geophyte from seed, you first need a good source of viable seeds. Collecting native bulbs and corms from the wild is illegal, as bulb poaching poses a serious threat to our native bulb populations.

    You can order native bulb and corm seed from online suppliers, but, if you want to grow a local ecotype, you’ll have to collect from local seed sources. You can collect seed on your own property. To collect on public lands, you need a permit; for private lands, you need landowner permission. You can also collect along county…

  • How to Help Seeds Break Dormancy

    by Jeanne Wilson

    Many California native plants have evolved special “triggers” to help them germinate at the best time and in the optimum conditions to

    promote their growth — when moisture, temperature, light, and/or soil chemistry are at or above the threshold for success. Fortunately, horticulturists have figured out ways we can mimic such natural conditions.

    Seed coat dormancy treatments include hot water or dry heat treatment (even fire); cold stratification; scarification (scraping or breaking the seed coat); and treating seeds with acid or other chemicals, charred wood, or mulch. Some species may have multiple types of dormancy and may require a year…

  • Cultivating Humboldt Lily Seeds and Bulbs

    By Nancy Gilbert

    People go nuts over the jaw-dropping beauty of Humboldt lilies (Lilium humboldtii) in bloom! The flowers themselves go nuts, too — in terms of seed production. So you may someday be fortunate enough to receive a batch of Humboldt lily seeds, or even bulbs. Follow along here to learn how to select planting conditions that duplicate the habitats favored by dry-land lily bulb. (These differ from those for riparian-growing lily species.)

    Balance Shade and Sun

    Most native lilies like their feet in the shade and their heads in full to part sun. Plant or seed out dry land lilies where…