[TEXT ARCHIVE WEB-PUBLISHED
ORIGINAL PRINT PUBLICATION DATE: FALL 1998.]
Meersman: Collector of Seeds
Andrea Friederici Ross
it's Wednesday and it's fall, chances are Joan Meersman
is off seed collecting. Meersman and her able troop of volunteers
collect seeds from rare or important plants along the North
Branch of the Chicago River for ultimate dispersal in appropriate
forest preserve areas to restore precious remnants of native
habitat in the region. It's all part of an imaginative partnership
involving the Chicago Botanic Garden, Forest Preserve District
of Cook County, and a volunteer group, the North Branch
Restoration Project. Experts supply lists of needed seeds such
as dropseed grass, wood anemone, meadow rue, and toothwort and
Meersman's devoted group goes off in search of them. Early
in the season, the volunteers work in the woods. As the
season progresses, they spread out to the woods' edge, and
finally into the prairie following the ripening seed.
seeds of some plants are trickier to find and collect than
others. Wild geranium, for instance, has a trigger mechanism;
its seeds literally explode off the plant when they're ripe.
Meersman says they watch plants "week by week so we're sure
to be there when they're ready." Or, if less confident they'll
be in the right place at the right time, they have been
known to ripen the seed in a paper bag, "just close the
top and catch the seed!"
not all work. There are parties, too. Processing parties.
Several times in the summer, and once in the fall, the volunteers
assemble to help prepare the seeds for planting. Then the
seeds are exchanged with other FPD volunteers for inclusion
in the planting mixes. Meersman notes that the rest of the
plant material seed hulls, husks, grass stems, and branches is
returned to the forest preserve ecosystem, too. It's a neat
process, and clearly a labor of love.
says there are always surprises assorted insects, mammals,
and birds that enliven the collecting trips. One time at
Wayside Prairie in Morton Grove, she and another volunteer
were looking for a particular plant when they noticed what
looked like a large cocoon. As they edged closer, the "cocoon"
revealed itself to be a little brown bat, which, frightened,
flew away right over their heads. Another time, the volunteers
flushed out three young woodcocks, which scampered out around
also helps coordinate a sort of foster parent program for
seedlings. She obtains young plants, grown at the Botanic
Garden from the rare seed she's collected, and distributes
them among a list of volunteers who adopt the plants into
their own yards. Ultimately, the volunteers harvest the
seeds, return those to Meersman, and she incorporates them
into the North Branch restoration seed mixes.
did this remarkable woman, now 68 and grandmother of 17,
learn all this? "I'm strictly a rank amateur who loves getting
more knowledge," she explains. Meersman calls the outdoors
her classroom, and credits various enthusiastic naturalists
who took the time to teach her some of what they knew. Roughly
10 years ago, with no particular plant background of her
own, she met Laurel Ross while on a bird walk at Chicago's
North Park Village Nature Center. This led to volunteering
at the Nature Center and to accompanying Ross (who then
had the North Branch volunteer responsibilities Meersman
has today) on seed collecting trips. In this way Meersman
came to know native plants learning them "backwards," as
she says, first recognizing plants when they had already
flowered and were in seed. When Ross was unable to continue
the seed collecting due to professional commitments, Meersman
notes that the seed collecting projects have sharpened her
senses. She says that the more time she spends in the wild,
the more she notices details she never would have seen before.
An inspiration for all who want to get involved but are
reluctant due to lack of technical knowledge, she enthuses,
"you have got to just walk out, get in the middle of it,
open your eyes, and you see marvelous things."