Tree Pittsburgh visits Fallingwater to collect seeds for heritage tree nursery
Megan Palomo walks down a gravel path along with four eager volunteers on the way to the historic Fallingwater home in Fayette County. They listen intently to her three basic rules for saving seeds.
“Always get permission from the property owner, never collect more than 10 percent of the seeds, and we always collect with safety in mind,” she tells them.
Palomo is the nursery manager for Tree Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization working to protect and restore Pittsburgh’s urban forests. There’s a good reason the volunteers at Fallingwater are taking only a fraction of the seeds hanging from the trees.
“That’s so the tree can continue its own genetics and also support the wildlife that’s relying on the seeds,” she says.
The native seeds collected here will be taken back to Tree Pittsburgh’s Heritage Nursery in Lawrenceville to be prepared for sowing. Most of the resulting seedlings will be used in forest restoration, including a portion sent back to Fallingwater. Some also will be sold at a handful of Tree Pittsburgh public sales. That doesn’t mean you’re getting a plant from Fallingwater. The seeds are collected from a variety of areas, but Palomo did come to the historic landscape for an important reason.
“Fallingwater has a lot of really large and healthy trees,” she says while sitting in the visitors center. “Those are the kind that we really try to collect from to make sure that their genetics live on and our crops have healthy genetics, as well.”
Behind the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, the group walks up a gentle slope. To the right are some of the famed native rhododendrons, many ready to give up their seed. Of all the seeds being collected today, Fallingwater horticulturalist Ann Talarek might be most excited about these.
“Rhododendron maximum is definitely our most dominant understory evergreen,” she says. “It is very aesthetically important to our landscape and virtually impossible to find in nursery stock. If we could get that started from seed, that would be tremendous.”
Transplanting the existing plants has been done with mixed results. Starting with strong seedlings with a thriving, well-established root system will be perfect for adding more of the shrubs to the forest’s diversity, she says.
Talarek joins Palomo and the group under some chestnut trees planted in the era of the Kaufmanns who had the home built in the late 1930s. The ground is littered with thorny husks, most of which have opened to reveal the shiny brown nuts that act as the tree’s seeds.
“It’s a neat partnership,” Talarek says of working with Tree Pittsburgh. “Our volunteers are really excited about seed collection and native plant propagation.”
Near the guest house, Palomo pulls some seeds off a large, old redbud tree. Redbuds are notorious for being short-lived, and she hopes to perpetuate this tree’s longevity trait.
“When we are collecting seed, we are trying to collect from trees that are exceptionally old and healthy,” she says. “That means they have done really well in our climate and are resistant to the local pest and diseases that can impact our region.”
Besides the redbud, there have been many other varieties of seed collected, including witch hazel, black gum, hemlock, flowering dogwood, sassafras, hickory and white oak.
“White oak are more resistant to oak wilt,” she says.
The disease is devastating to the species and has become a more serious problem over the past decade. She’s saving seeds from types that have been least affected by oak wilt — such as bur, chestnut, swamp white and chinkapin oaks.
“I personally really love the oaks,” Palomo says. “They support over 200 different kinds of native insects, which then support our bird population, so they keep our forest healthy and also provide shade. If you have the space for an oak in your yard, I always recommend planting it because they are such a majestic tree.”
Tree Pittsburgh is working to perpetuate varieties that have grown in Western Pennsylvania for as long as anyone can remember.
“These locally adapted natives thrive in our climate and are more resistant to diseases or pests,” Palomo says. “They just are more resilient plants and grow better in our forests.”
The organization uses their seedlings in forest restoration, which could mean reforesting clearcut areas, replacing invasives and revitalizing eroded areas and stream banks.
The group looks over a cucumber magnolia, but the birds have beaten them to the seeds. “The nice thing about the native magnolias,” Palomo says, “is that they don’t flower until after the leaves have come out. The native magnolias do not get frosted.”
When the seeds go back to the Tree Pittsburgh nursery, each one needs to be handled differently for sprouting. Some will go through a process called stratification, mimicking the freeze and thaw cycle in the wild. When they are ready, the seeds will be sowed in a greenhouse. Growing from seed can be a bit of a mystery, Palomo says.
“To find how you process a certain seed, you need to sift through all these books and find out what the old nurserymen used to do,” she says. “It just continues to amaze me that this giant tree can be grown from this tiny seed.”
Palomo has loved the forest since childhood when she would explore the woods, climbing the trees. That passion has persisted for a lifetime as she wants everyone to know what trees can do for homeowners.
“They clean our air, clean our water, prevent erosion and flooding,” she says with a smile. “They cool our air, and then trees also bring us so much joy. They reduce stress and make you happier. There (are) endless benefits that trees have. Educating people about those benefits and protecting trees is what Tree Pittsburgh is all about.”
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at triblive.com/lifestyles/dougoster.