Prairie Seed Harvesting

Prairie Seed Harvesting

Designed By: Courtney Lopez, Ben White, Dan Sedlacek, Abiola Lawal

Grades: 3

Age Level: 7-9

Performance Objectives

    • Suggest, investigate, & answer questions about prairie plants
    • Name at least one prairie plant species.
    • Harvest prairie seeds.
    • Locate the true seed of a prairie plant.
    • Recognize basic parts of prairie seeds (seed, seed coat, seed pod, seed head).
    • List two adaptations of prairie seeds.
    • Explain one way prairie restoration happens and why people restore prairie.
    • Enjoy restoring the prairie

Ohio Science Standards

Life Science

Topic: Behavior, Growth, and Changes

3.LS.1: Offspring resemble their parents and each other.

3.LS.2: Individuals of the same kind of organism differ in their inherited traits. These differences give some individuals an advantage in surviving and/or reproducing.

3.LS.3: Plants and animals have life cycles that are part of their adaptations for survival in their natural environments.

Materials Needed

● Wildflower brochures (On pages 9-11)

● Multiple seed collecting bags (reusable or paper, but you will have many species of plants you are collecting from and will want to keep species separate).

● Tubs/plates/something to observe the prairie seed in

● Loupes or magnifying glasses

● Student science notebooks or paper

● Clipboards

● Pencils

● Rulers

● Scotch tape

Background Information

In this lesson, students will use the prairie as their outdoor classroom to investigate prairie seeds, collect seeds, and then disperse them to help restore the prairie. Putting prairie seeds in the hands of students allows them to apply what they have learned in the traditional school classroom about plant parts and life cycles.

Although it was once the most widespread ecosystem in North America, the tallgrass prairie today is in danger of extinction. Less than 1% of the estimated 142 million acres of original prairie in the U.S. still exists today. One way to help the prairie is to increase the biological diversity of the restored prairie. In this lesson, seeds harvested by students are planted later. By participating in this field investigation, students are also helping to re-establish part of our natural, national, and agricultural heritage.

Prairie seeds are surprisingly tiny and well hidden within protective coverings. In the grasses seed coverings are papery and best removed by rolling the floret firmly in your palm. A shiny, round, hard seed will eventually appear. Pods, hairs, tufts, and tougher coverings (sometimes thin, sometimes thick) protect various forb seeds. It takes effort and persistence to find what is truly the seed of a prairie plant.

Prairie seeds travel in much the same ways as plants of other ecosystems: mechanically and with the help of gravity, wind, and animals. For example, Common milkweed seeds are carried on the wind aided by their fluffy parachutes. Relatively heavy false gromwell seeds drop directly below the parent plant. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels collect and store grass seeds underground in a food cache. Passing animals must bump into goldenrods to mechanically release their seeds which then may float on the wind with parachute plumes. The only dispersal method not directly used by prairie seeds is water.

Prairie seeds have numerous other interesting, useful adaptations to help them survive and germinate in extreme conditions or with minimal competition with parent plants.

Members of the familiar sunflower family have seeds with waxy, corky, husk-like coverings presumably to protect them from drought and mold. These coverings must be removed for germination, often by rodents or songbirds.

The aerodynamic shape of grass seeds with long awns, along with their relative light weight, controls how far away they can travel in the wind from the parent plant.

The hard, dense seed coats of false gromwell (marble seed), New Jersey tea, and narrow-leaved puccoon must be steamed by heat and moisture in prairie fire in order to germinate.

Studying prairie seeds is not only an opportunity to discover more facts about North America’s grasslands, our home biome. It is also a chance wonder about the miracle of growth that starts with a tiny seed in the dry, windy, hot-and-cold prairie and culminates in a sea of grass up to 10 feet high, speckled with brilliantly colored blossoms. It is a chance to celebrate beauty and participate in beauty-making as we strive to restore this almost lost landscape.

Teacher Preparation

Before heading to the Natural Areas:

● With your students, practice thinking of appropriate questions that can be investigated outdoors. For example, which of these two questions can they best answer today by going outdoors? How many flowers are there in the whole world? -OR-- How many kinds of flowers are blooming in our school yard right now?

● Being as specific as possible helps make the questions more realistic. Appropriate questions are key to developing an effective investigation and help develop critical thinking skills.

● Organize students into small groups, each group led by a chaperone.

Engagement – in the classroom before the field trip

 1. In a classroom, introduce students, teachers, and chaperones to the Miami University Natural Areas. (Link & Map of Miami Natural Areas attached on page 13)

2. Distribute clipboards, paper, and pencils to each student or ask them to open their science notebooks.

3. Know: To begin the investigation, start a KWHL chart and ask students what they Know about prairie seeds.

a. Record their responses on the white board or poster paper. Give them plenty of time to think and respond, guiding where needed, but not answering for them. At this point, and from their perspective, there is no right or wrong answer in asking them what they know.

b. Even if the information they give is incorrect, resist the temptation to correct them at this point if possible. Doing so will allow for open sharing and for you to gauge where they may need help with this topic during their visit.

c. However, you may prompt students for specifics by asking them such things as, “What do you know about the parts of a seed? The adaptations of prairie seeds? How seeds travel? What do you know about the life cycle of a prairie plant?”

4. Wonder: Next, ask students what they Wonder about prairie seeds. What questions do they have about them? They should think about questions that can be answered by going outside today and exploring.

a. Each question should also be recorded in the column next to what they know.

5. Again, give them ample time to think and respond. Try not to provide them with questions to investigate. Coming up with their own questions will give them more ownership in the investigation.

a. If necessary, prompt them with questions like: “Is there something you would like to find out today about the parts of a prairie seed? About prairie seed adaptations?

b. Some of the typical question’s students generate are: What are the different sizes of seeds? What colors are they? What shapes are they? How do they travel? What adaptations do they have? What do they look like up close? What do they feel like? What kinds and how many different kinds can we find? What are their names? Where will we look for them outside? Which one will be my favorite?

6. Depending upon the depth of the questions generated, ask each student to choose one or more questions that they would like to investigate and write the question down on their own paper. a. As an option, they may even choose a question that was not listed on the board. Ask for a show of hands for each question – who chose it? This helps ensure that all questions are covered. If not, you as the field leader can take any strays or cross them out.

7. How: For the third KWHL column, ask students How we will find the answer to each question. Will we stay on the trails or go off-trail? What kinds of rules or tools will we need to use? Match the tools with the appropriate questions on the chart, creating the third column, “H,” how we will find out?

Exploration – in the field

8. Demonstrate one possible way of organizing their data sheet but if possible allow them to decide for themselves how to set up the details on their own. Another option is to choose four questions for the students to answer and set up data sheets in quadrants.

9. Give any brief instruction on how to harvest seeds, such as: a. Each student, pair, or small group collects one species of seed to start as depicted on their collecting bag.

b. Try your best to identify the plant you are seeking and place only that species’ seed in the bag (if you cannot identify plants, have students compare seed or seed casing differences).

c. Collect just the seeds, no stems.

d. Collect only ripe seeds that fall off easily.

e. If you are unfamiliar with harvesting seed or plant identification, see references and resources for more information (On pages 8-11)

10. Review rules for the trail. Mention that we will not be picking flowers or breaking plants when not collecting seed.

11. Remind students that they are scientists conducting a real scientific investigation just like adult scientists do. Scientists are quiet and respectful outdoors. They have a purpose in the field to complete their mission (in this case, collecting seeds).

12. Travel to the area you will collect seeds and give space boundaries including if everyone will be staying on the trail or going off trail. In their small groups, pass out seed collection bags for students to collect their seeds. Move from group to group to assist and check that chaperones and students are correctly identifying their plants. Have chaperones label the species of plant seed that the students are putting in their bags. Try to keep each species to their own bag if possible. Swap bags as needed if species are difficult to find or if bags fill up.

13. Once the students are done collecting their seeds, take a pinch of each species to take back to the classroom with you (keeping them separate for observations later.) Once those seeds are set to the side, allow the kids to dump the remaining seeds all into one bag and mix them thoroughly. Give each student a handful of seed and allow them to go into the prairie and spread the seed that they just collected.

a. This is a good time to remind students that they are helping the prairie grow and be restored by collecting and spreading different seeds.

b. Thank students for their help with the investigation and the chaperones for their leadership. Thank everyone for helping to collect the seeds and restore the prairie. Invite them to come back again to visit.

Explanation– back in the classroom

 14. Back in the classroom, place the seed you set off to the side into tubs for observation. Again, try to keep species of seeds separate to make identification easier. They can take a minute to walk around to the different tubs and casually observe the diversity of seeds collected and the corresponding photos of each species in bloom using their wildflower brochures.

15. Using a poster or presentation, share the parts of prairie seeds and demonstrate techniques helpful in finding the actual seeds such as cracking open pods, peeling back seed coats/outer coverings.

16. Provide students with the tools they need to closely examine their seeds including loupes, rulers, tweezers, and tape. They should remove one seed to tape into their journal or notebook, making sure that what they actually have is the true seed and not a pinch of seeds in pods or coverings. a. Remind them to record their data in the science notebooks. Allow small groups to work together on answering their chosen questions.

Elaboration – back in the classroom

17. Allow for time to share results and draw conclusions. As a whole group, discuss the answers to their questions, one question at a time. Write the answers to their questions near the questions on the white board or poster paper.

18. Explain that adult scientists conduct investigations this same way, starting with what they already know about something, what questions they wish to investigate, how they will investigate them, field work, results, discoveries, conclusions, new questions, recommendations, etc.

19. Ultimately they would share their results with other scientists and people so we can all learn from them about our world. Challenge them as scientists to go home and find at least one other person they can share today’s discoveries with in person, via email, on the phone, in a letter, etc. They should briefly and quietly share who they will share their discovery with a classmate.

Evaluation – back in the classroom

20. Learned: For the fourth column (L for what they Learned), ask each small group to share one new discovery they made about the prairie and write those on the chart. In their science notebooks, ask them to write one complete and properly punctuated concluding sentence about the investigation. Then ask the students to share their conclusions with one another. a. What did they discover about prairie seeds today? Ask students to share any new questions they have about prairie seeds. Are prairie plants important? Why/why not?

Weather Alternatives

If you encounter unsafe weather and cannot travel to the Natural Areas:

● Demonstrate the length of prairie plant root systems using twine, a measuring tape, and a prairie root depths diagram. Draw an example of each life cycle on the white board for them to copy into their science notebooks. Erase the white board and close notebooks. Provide photos of the big bluestem and common milkweed life cycles.

● Challenge small groups of students to arrange the photos in the correct order and correctly label each stage of the life cycle.

● Read a book about plant parts or seeds. Two suggested titles include A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long; and How a Plant Grows by Bobbie Kalman.

● Show examples of seeds such as coconut, milkweed pods, pine cones, maple seeds, wild licorice, bur-reed, sunflower. Students may examine and sketch these seeds.

Teacher-Led Extensions/Adaptations/Assessment Ideas

Extension 1:

● Make a giant prairie seed out of paper mache with the various parts labeled. Study plant parts such as roots, stems, leaves, seeds, flowers. Study the parts of a seed and the parts of a flower. Use coloring sheets, 3-D plastic models, puzzles, or real plants on your school grounds.

Extension 2:

● Use art materials to make the life cycle of a plant (such as seed, stems/leaves, and flowers). Or collect weed plants from your school yard and use them to make life cycle diagrams. How does a seed come to be? Study the process of pollination, the parts of a plant involved in creating seeds, and pollinators who assist.

Extension 3:

● Read A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet by Claudia McGehee. Make a similar class book based on your visit to Miami University Natural Areas and the species the students collected on their trip.

Extension 4:

● Research the ways Native Americans and pioneers used prairie plants for food, medicine, dye, rope, and other purposes. Are some prairie plants used by some Native people today? How do people use purple coneflower (Echinacea) in natural medicine today?

Common Name

Seed Harvesting Description

Common Milkweed

After the plant finishes flowering, 3-4" narrow pods will form. Be sure to harvest the pods before they split and the silky fluff carries the seeds away on the wind. As soon as the seeds inside the pod ripen to their mature brown color, remove the pods and spread them out to dry. Split open the pods and take out the silky seed material.

Remove the fluff from the seeds. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place.

Butterfly Weed

After the plant finishes flowering, 3-4" narrow pods will form. Be sure to harvest butterfly milkweed pods before they split and the silky fluff carries the seeds away on the wind. As soon as the seeds inside the pod ripen to their mature brown color, remove the pods and spread them out to dry. Split open the pods and take out the silky seed material. Remove the fluff from the seeds. Store the seeds in a cool, dry place.


As the blooming fades, the flowers will turn from yellow to white as they develop the seed. The seed can easily fly away on the wind because of its white fluff, and should be gathered as soon as possible. Strip the seed from the stems, and remove as much plant material as possible. Store

the seed in a cool, dry place.

Black Eyed Susan

After the flower petals fall from the head, the

center cone will begin to develop seed. Remove the seed heads as soon as the stem beneath the cone begins to turn dry and brown. Spread the seed heads out to dry away from direct sunlight, then separate the small Rudbeckia Hirta seeds from the stems by rubbing them lightly. Store the cleaned Black Eyed Susan seeds in a dry, cool place.

Purple Coneflower

After flowering, the central cones of the flowers will develop into a spiky seed head. Since songbirds such as goldfinches love to eat Purple Coneflower seeds, they should be harvested as soon as possible to avoid loss. As soon as the seeds easily come loose from the head, cut off the seed heads. Rub them lightly to remove the seed, and store the Purple Coneflower seed in a cool, dry place.

Big Bluestem

Collect the seed as soon as the seed heads turn color and begin to dry; the seed should strip easily from the stem. Spread the seed out in a protected location until it has dried completely.

Store the seed in a cool, dry place.



Conservation Biology

Said to be a multidisciplinary science that has developed to address the loss of biological diversity. Conservation biology has two central goals: 1. to evaluate human impacts on biological diversity and 2. to develop practical approaches to prevent the extinction of species.


Prairie, level or rolling grassland, especially that found in central North America. The vegetation is composed primarily of perennial grasses, with many species of flowering plants of the pea and composite families.

Life cycle

Life cycle entails the course of development of an organism, i.e. from the time of inception to growth to finally maturity when an organism can viably produce another of its kind.


Field investigations of the environment involve the systematic collection of data for the purposes of scientific understanding. They are designed to answer an investigative question through the collection of evidence and the communication of results.


A collection of facts from which conclusions may be drawn; statistical data.Factual information in which decision making can be based upon. Data can be collected and be translated to have an informational value.


Forbes (sometimes referred to as herbs) are herbaceous (not woody), broadleaf plants that are not grass-like. Rangeland forbs are usually perennial and may be poisonous, but seldom dominate a stand unless there has been serious overgrazing.


Evolutionary adaptation, or simply adaptation, is the adjustment of organisms to their environment in order to improve their chances at survival in that environment.


Grasses, also called the graminoids, are monocotyledonous plants belonging to the family Poaceae (also called Gramineae). The family Cyperaceae includes the sedges which are also commonly called grasses, such as the many wild marsh and grassland plants. The rushes plants belonging to the family Juncaceae are also called as grasses.

Restoration (Ecology)

Ecological restoration, the process of repairing sites in nature whose biological communities (that is, interacting groups of various species in a common location) and ecosystems have been degraded or destroyed.

References and Resources

Check out these books/websites for supplementary materials for Children:

● A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long

● A Tallgrass Prairie Alphabet by Claudia McGehee

● A Walk in the Prairie by Rebecca L. Johnson

● How a Plant Grows by Bobbie Kalman

● How a Seed Grows by Helene J. Jordan

● Plant Secrets by Emily Goodman

● Biology of Plants, Missouri Botanical Gardens,


Check out these books/websites for supplementary materials for Adults:

● Prairie, A Natural History by Candace Savage

● Prairie Seedling and Seeding Evaluation Guide by Paul J. Bockenstedt/Bonestroo, Rosene, Anderlik and Associates

● Tallgrass Prairie by John Madson

● Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers, a Field Guide by Doug Ladd

● Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie, the Upper Midwest by Sylvan T. Runkel and Dean M. Roosa

● A Digital Aid Featuring Seeds, Seedlings, and Fruits, Eastern Illinois University,

● Biology of Plants, How Plants Grow,

● Earth Partnership for Schools K-12 Curriculum Guide, University of WisconsinMadison Arboretum, or call 608-262-9925

● Native Plant List, Prairie Resource Center,

● Project Bluestem, a Curriculum on Prairies and Savannas, Neal Smith National Wildlife, Refuge,


Prairie Seed Collection Videos:

● Prairie Reconstruction How-To Videos

● Natural Resource Management: Prairie Seed Collecting

● Prairie Seed Collection

● Hand Harvesting Wildflower Seeds Habitat Tips


Some common wildflowers found in the southwest region of Ohio: