Stewardship At Home: Harvesting and Starting the Seeds of Life

As a direct impact of post-tropical storm Fiona, many of Prince Edward Island’s seed-bearing trees are laying horizontally; fortunately, word is spreading about the benefits of natural decomposition of those trees. Although it will take time for the trees to decompose and make room for new growth, this process will increase the quality of nutrients that are available in the soil. However, for the time being it seems as though many of the trees that have fallen are still rooted to some degree and they are not ready to stop providing. As you walk through the woods you may notice that the downed trees are persisting and continuing to bear flowers that will later become seeds. This makes the seeds of the larger, mature trees more accessible and gives landowners the opportunity to try their hand at harvesting and starting their own native species seed bank.

Here are a few quick tips, tricks, and notes to keep in mind if you wish to start growing your own native trees:

Here is a quick ID, harvest, and seed starting guide for some key native deciduous species:

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)

Sugar maple leaves are lobed and resemble the maple leaf on the Canadian flag, the margins are smooth, but the lobes come to a point. Be careful not to confuse it with the invasive Norway maple. The fruit, or seed of maple trees are referred to as “samara” and contain two seeds with “wings” that make them resemble helicopters when they fall from the tree and drift to the ground.

The fastest way to distinguish between the non-native Norway maple and the native sugar maple is to check the color of the sap that is released from the base of the petiole. If the sap is white then the tree is a Norway maple, but if it runs clear, it is a sugar maple, and you are good to collect the samaras.


Late September to October when the samaras (winged fruit) become brown in color


  • Short term: spread out on a tray in a cool, dry location
  • Can be stored for up to 5 years, though viability decreases after the first year
  • Germination: cold stratify in the refrigerator around 34°F in starting medium for 35-90 days and plant in the spring


  • Can be planted in the fall following harvest, apply mulch after planting and remove mulch the following spring
  • Plant in an area that will have light shade during growing season
  • Plant in well drained soil

Red maple (Acer rubrum)

Red maple resembles a sugar maple; however the margins of the leaves are serrated rather than smooth.


May to June when the samaras become reddish tan in color


  • Do not require a dormancy period
  • Can be stored in the refrigerator if they are not allowed to dry out
  • For longer storage periods, moisten starting medium in a sealable bag and store between 33-41°F for 60-90 days and plant in the fall


  • Can be planted immediately after harvest or after stratification in the fall
  • Moist areas, typically near streams or wetlands

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra)

Northern red oak is Prince Edward Island’s provincial tree, readily identified by its smooth, round fruit that sprouts from the tree with a beret style attachment. The lobes of the northern red oak leaves come to a sharp point and are not to be confused with the non-native English oak which are rounded at the lobe margins.


  • Mid-September to October when they start to drop to the ground
  • Inspect and discard acorns with holes


  • Require a dormancy period prior to planting
  • Store in a sealable bag with moist starting medium in the refrigerator around 40°F for 42 days


  • Can be planted in the fall to be dormant and naturally germinate through the winter months
  • Germination is most successful when covered by a soil or leaf litter layer
  • Not tolerant of overly wet areas

Yellow birch (Betula alleganiensis)

The yellow birch is the longest living of the birches on the island and is readily identified when comparing the bark. The bark of the yellow birch separates in thinner strips and has a golden hue rather than white like paper birch and gray birch.


  • Often too high to harvest by hand, so they can be collected by laying a sheet out below mature tree -seeds fall from trees naturally in October
  • Seeds are incased in bracts and can be processed easily by running the bracts over a strainer, allowing the smaller seeds to fall through the strainer


  • Seeds can be stored in a refrigerator in tightly sealed containers for up to 4 years
  • Requires a stratification period to germinate before planting, store in sealable bag with moistened starting medium in the refrigerator between 32.5°F and 39°F for 30 to 60 days


  • In the spring, sprinkle seeds on top of soil without covering.
  • Requires sunlight to germinate but loses viability when they become too dry, so plant in a moist area or somewhere that is accessible to water them

Ensure you know the species you are collecting seeds from before planting.

Learn more about potential invasive species from the Invasive Species Council, as well as the native, Wabinaki – Acadian forest species and the conditions in which they thrive from the MacPhail Woods Ecological Forestry Project

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