May 27, 2024 1:01 pm
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It Smells like Seed Collection Season at the NH State Forest Nursery

Credit: iStock

by Hadley Barndollar, New Hampshire Bulletin

On a late August morning, the sky gray and spitting, thousands of balsam fir and white pine cones are spread across wooden trays in the “drying hut” at the New Hampshire State Forest Nursery in Boscawen. 

The smell is that of being inside an L.L. Bean balsam pillow. An aroma that’s sharp, invigorating, and serotonin-producing. Memory-evoking terpenes hitting from every direction. 

Inside the small greenhouse, the heat causes the cones’ wings to open. In the case of fir cones, they don’t just open. They fall apart, leaving only the cone core. Those cones go through a shaker machine that separates the seed from the “wings” via a wire screen. The unprocessed seed is put into a many-gallon drum. 

Across the dirt driveway inside an old barn, Billy Kunelius, the nursery manager, picks up a handful of the brown specks that sift through his fingers. 

Nearby in the barn are white pine cones – green and taut – that are oozing with translucent amber sap. They were collected more recently, as trees shed them, and eventually will enter the drying hut.

“Don’t touch ‘em because they’re really pitchy,” Kunelius warned. 

The nursery was in the throes of its seed collection, the first step in the “seed to seedling” process. August and September are the busiest months for collecting seeds and berries that will ultimately be replanted across 16 acres, continuing the life cycle of important native plants – in this case, more than four dozen species of conifers, hardwoods, and shrubs. When they’re ready, they’re sold to customers of all kinds as bare-root seedlings – a traditional way to do reforestation-type planting. 

Every year, the nursery grows 3 million seedlings, the majority of which come directly from trees and plants already on the property or on other state forest properties. For the two-month period, staff and volunteers collect and process cones and berries from white cedar, Douglas and Fraser firs, larch, beach plum, spicebush, and countless other native species.

“It’s important to maintain the genetic diversity of our area,” Kunelius said. “White pine grows over a very broad area, but New Hampshire white pine has different genetic traits than white pine in Virginia or Ohio.”

Any conifer seed dried to the correct moisture content can be packaged and stored. From a freezer inside the barn, Kunelius brought out plastic bags stuffed with seed, each one labeled with the year it was collected. There was a 3-pound bag of balsam fir seed from 1994. White pine from 1987.

They’re still good to be planted today. 

A unique service in high demand

The New Hampshire State Forest Nursery is fortifying the longevity of the native species that make the state what it is. 

“An adage in forestry is you grow what the site grows best,” said Patrick Hackley, director of the Division of Forests and Lands at the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “That’s why we stick with native species. We want these seedlings to be successful, we want the landowners to have trees that mature. Perpetuating native species is always a good thing.”

In 1910, the operation opened with the purpose of helping to reforest New Hampshire after the major logging era by providing quality seedlings to the public, businesses, and commercial growers.

Last year was the first time the nursery offered online ordering for seedlings. It’s a largely old school, no frills operation. People like it that way. Though Hackley did note the nursery is currently “enjoying a renaissance” thanks to funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Over the last four years, Kunelius said, “we’ve sold out every seedling we could sell.”

In 2022, the number of seedlings lifted, sorted for quality, packaged, and sold increased 50.8 percent from 2021, a 135.2 percent jump from 2018.

Demand first spiked with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. People were outdoors in nature, distancing themselves from others, and needed something to do. Then, said Kunelius, came a lot of publicity around planting trees to combat climate change. The nursery has also seen increased interest from entities doing wetland restoration, or projects that are fighting back against invasive species. 

The nursery, which is the last remaining state-run nursery in New England, is located on 887 acres of state forest land in Boscawen. Sixteen acres are irrigated outdoor seedbeds, while 20 acres are dedicated to seed orchards and testing areas. 

Every season is different and hugely dependent on weather trends. This year, oak seedlings were hurt by the late frost part way through May. It stunted their growth. The nursery ran into other issues like fungal root infections due to all of the summer rain and not a lot of sunlight. Other years the land has been drought-stricken.

There are pleasant surprises, though, despite obstacles each season. Kunelius said with a laugh that the pussy willow did very well this year.

Seed collection is the first step in the ongoing life cycle that takes place on the nursery’s property.

At the seed orchard section of the property, staff graft the tops of trees. More tops means more seeds. With pine trees, it speeds up the process of cone production.

“When you’re collecting cones, you have such a short window,” Kunelius said. “We’re collecting the cones when they’re green, when they’re still closed. So we have to find that right time when the seed is ripe but the cones haven’t opened yet.”

Up a steep hill where the seedlings grow, deer and turkey prints can be spotted all over among thick ground vegetation. There’s nannyberry, raisin tree, American mountain ash, crab apple, the hazelnut shrub, and elderberry. Rows and rows of seedlings are labeled as red dogwood, white spruce, balsam fir, black walnut, hemlock, and more.

While only 20 percent of what the nursery sells, Christmas tree species make up about 50 percent of its sales, the buyers being both large commercial growers and backyard farmers. 

Tree seedlings at the nursery are not an annual crop. Most of the seedlings that will sell to customers next spring are anywhere between 1 and 4 years old. That makes the operation unique, Kunelius said, “an interesting farming process.” The seeds they collected this August and September likely won’t be purchased as seedlings for another few years. 

“It’s a very interesting dynamic when you’re working your fields and planning,” he said. 

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.