How to collect seeds: A guide to tree seed collection on the UK National Tree Seed Project

Seed collection methods

The top four methods for seed collection used on the UK National Tree Seed Project (UKNTSP) are easily remembered through the acronym SEED:

  • Shake tree over a large laid out tarpaulin
  • Extra-long pole to prune of seeds clusters
  • Encase branch ends in a cotton fine meshed bag to collect small wind dispersed seed
  • Delicately hand pick fleshy berries

When collecting seeds it is better not to collect from the ground, to avoid collecting old seeds from previous years. It is also a bad idea to fell a tree in order to collect its seeds. However, if trees are being felled anyway this does provide an opportunity to collect seeds.

How many seeds to collect from each tree and why?

Never take more than 20% of the seed crop, remember seeds create the next generation of plants and sustain wildlife. An excessively large harvest will impact on one or both of these factors. It is also best not to collect any from trees with a poor or small yield.

Where do the collected seeds go?

Kew Royal Botanical Gardens set up the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), a partnership project of which the UKNTSP is a subsection. It’s at the MSB where the UKNTSP seeds are stored. On arrival, seeds are cleaned and sorted to remove infested and non-viable seeds. The quantity of seeds is estimated then the seeds are dried out and stored in airtight containers at -20°C until they are needed.

Why collect tree seeds?

The UKNTSP is collecting seeds to safeguard the genetic diversity of native trees in the UK for future generations. The work of this project is generously funded through the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery and made possible our volunteers.

Once collected the seeds stored at the MSB are used in three main ways:

1) Restoring environments

Seeds stored in seed banks are being used around the world to restore habitats and safeguard species that are under threat. Read about how seed banks are being used in restoring environments.

2) Benefiting Communities

Through working with, and empowering, deprived communities seed banks can improve natural conditions not just for plants but also for people. Read more about the work being done.

3) Research

Since setting up the Millennium Seed Bank 3,000 samples have been sent to researchers to address a whole range of questions like:

Why and how do seeds die in storage? What factors do seeds use to overcome the stresses of storage?

Finding answers to these questions will help to increase the life span for stored seeds. 

What part does seed quality play in the species’ resilience? Understanding issues like this can help lead to ways to improve species’ natural resilience to a changing environment.

Read more about seed use in research.

Collecting your own seeds

The next time you’re out collecting seeds or growing them in your garden, just think of the extraordinary journey their counterparts are on. Heading towards the ultimate goal of ensuring your great great grandchildren can have the very same experience you’re having right now. The simple yet irreplaceable delights of planting and watching your own seed grow from a tiny speck into a monumental tree.

We are looking for volunteers in the south of Cumbria, Plymouth and Exeter area, to help us meet our collection targets on the UKNTSP.  If you'd be interested in getting involved in one of these areas please send us an email.