At least 1 million future seedlings recently made their way to state nurseries in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia through “Growing Native,” an increasingly popular seed collection program.

Volunteers collected 15,000 pounds of native hardwood seeds, such as acorns, persimmons and a bumper crop of black walnuts, from locations throughout the Potomac River watershed. The seeds will sprout trees used to create streamside forest buffers throughout the Potomac River watershed.

Streamside forest buffers are an important element in the fight to save the Chesapeake Bay because they deliver benefits to water quality, air quality and wildlife habitat. Forest buffers planted with Growing Native seedlings will contribute to the regional goal of restoring 10,000 miles of streamside forest buffers to the watershed by 2010.

“There really is a need to create more streamside forests, greenways and urban canopies—but that puts increasing demands on state nurseries to provide seedlings. Our volunteers really do an important job by helping to meet that demand,” said Colleen Langan, who coordinates Growing Native at the Potomac Conservancy.

Growing Native was created by the Potomac Watershed Partnership in 2001. Each year, thousands of volunteers collect and sort the seeds, delivering them to drop-off locations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

“We have a lot of repeat volunteers. Everyone loves it. They get to be outside, have fun and learn about trees in their own neighborhood. It’s something that just about anyone can do and really make a difference,” Langan said.

Many volunteers work in groups, such as schools, religious organizations, Master Gardeners clubs and scouting organizations. Each group typically brings in hundreds of pounds of seeds each year. Individuals make significant contributions, too, and often bag hundreds of pounds single-handedly. An 80-year old man from Cabin John, MD, gathered more than 400 pounds of black walnuts and acorns from his property.

Seed totals have ranged from 6,320 pounds in 2004, when there was a natural decline in the seed production cycle, to a record 19,000 pounds of seed in 2003. To date, approximately 25,000 volunteers have collected more than 66,000 pounds of seeds—enough to generate roughly 5 million trees.

Most of the seeds are nurtured in the area where they were collected. Virginia’s Augusta Forestry Center, Maryland’s John S. Ayton State Forest Tree Nursery and Pennsylvania’s Penn Nursery serve as the main locations.

Schools are getting in on the action, too, by establishing their own grow-out stations for local planting projects. Sandi Geddes of Westbrook Elementary in Bethesda, MD, is creating a grow-out station with her fifth grade students to maximize the learning experience with Growing Native.

“The grow-out stations at schools are fairly new. But we’ve had lots of interest in them this year, and it looks like we’ll be creating many more,” Langan said.

A classroom curriculum, designed to make the process even more meaningful and work in tandem with state learning standards, is also in the works.

In the meantime, teachers are devising creative supplements to the seed collection. This year, Geddes not only taught her students about native trees and seed collection, but charged them with going into each of the school’s other classes and teaching the same materials to those students.

Pamela Fields, at Rock Creek Forest Elementary in Chevy Chase, MD, combines the seed collection with lessons about water quality in the Potomac watershed. She also stages collection contests between classes and guides them through calculations of pounds per species to determine the winners.

Growing Native extended its reach into Pennsylvania more fully this year, and word about the program continues to spread. Langan fields calls from people as far away as Minnesota asking if they can participate—but, for now, Growing Native is focused on collecting and nurturing seeds within the Potomac watershed.

Langan said that the program might possibly be extended Baywide in the future.

“People who participate in Growing Native are engaging in a simple and concrete activity that makes a big difference for water quality far into the future,” she said. “If we really want to make a difference, we have to think long term, and this project does that.”

For information about Growing Native, visit www.growingnative.org.