VNS Seed Sources – A Poor Choice

In the commercial seed market, there are many options available for purchase. There are named varieties (i.e. ‘Woodward’ sand bluestem–now an extinct variety), selected native germplasms (i.e. Cottle County Germplasm sand bluestem), and then, from seemingly out of left field, obscure seed products listed as “Native” (native to where?) or “VNS” (Variety Not Stated), or no name listed (i.e. seed for little bluestem sold as “Little Bluestem.” (Seed listed without any commercial or varietal name is considered VNS).

Purchasing unnamed or VNS on the other hand, is a risky gamble, both for your money and for the planting site. VNS seed has no known origin(s), no known traits or performance values in field plantings, and has not been tested in seeding trials. VNS can be from anywhere, is often the result of a “wild harvest,” and is often contaminated with weed seed. (In Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, and Texas, this weed seed is often old world bluestem or other exotic grass species.) You might think you are saving money in purchasing unnamed or VNS seed sources, but such material often invites expensive control inputs sooner (and later) down the road.

For example, the photo below shows two seed sources of cowpen daisy (Verbesina encelioides) planted side by side in equal amounts of seed (150) in a greenhouse trial. (See Figure 1.) Both trays were planted at the same date and time and given equal amounts of water, air, and light. The visual example of why VNS is a poor choice is striking, and ought to be sufficient proof of concept that the development of native plant materials with known origin(s) and known performance values is a worthwhile and beneficial endeavor to both the commercial seed producer and customer.

Two different sources of Cowpen daisy were seeded (3 seeds per cell) into these 50-cell trays at the same time, same date, and given equal amounts of air, water, light, and temperature regime. Each 50-cell tray occupies about 1.6 square feet of area. Another great indicator here is how well Population A will do within a given square foot of planting space, which is critical to planting success.

Imagine the above scenario in your backyard or rangeland or roadside planting. Which one would you want to see? If your planting site has known invasives or invasive species in adjacent areas, the plants produced from Population A may get a jump on the invasives in establishing a plant community, while the VNS would only invite more trouble.

There isn’t much else that can be said for VNS seed sources. The plants produced from such sources are often found wanting, lacking any great shows of plant performance values (germination rate, overall plant size and vigor relative to a given species, stand density, etc.), and are always the Dollar General of seed quality. Such seed sources should not be recommended to any paying seed customer.

In short, it is best practice to purchase named varieties of seed sources (“Native” is not a named variety). These varieties are of known origin(s), known traits, and known field performance. With named varieties of seed sources, you get what you paid for, and you often see what you paid for in a planting. With unnamed or VSN seed sources, you often see what you did not pay for in a planting.

The NRCS considers a planting to be successful when 20-60 live seeds per square foot are present. This is why it is critically important to purchase seed on a PLS basis and not bulk, and to purchase known and tested varieties and not unnamed or VNS sources.

In the last column of data, imagine a square foot of space within your planting area occupied by annuals, as is often the case in the first few years of grassland plantings due to the nature of succession. In this example, would you want that square foot to be 92% Cowpen daisy–a native annual and a contributor to the emerging plant community–or would you want to take your crapshoot of a chance with VNS, which likely will leave gaps in that one square foot and open the door to any invasives that may be in the soil seed bank or in the adjacent landscapes? You can extrapolate this example into however many acres you might plant and then realize the problem with planting VNS and unnamed seed sources.

America’s Grasslands Conference 2023

The 6th Biennial “America’s Grasslands Conference” will be held in beautiful Cheyenne, Wyoming August 8th through the 10th.  The conference theme is diversity, practicality, and the necessity of partnerships in facilitating grassland conservation. (More information on the conference.)

North American grasslands are the most imperiled ecosystem on the continent, the least protected of landscapes, and are threatened worldwide with extinction by conversion. For too long, there has been an overwhelming focus on planting more trees as some noble act of conservation, much to the detriment of grasslands. But we can’t plant trees as some saving act of grace to get out of the climate catastrophe. Planting trees is fine, but should only be done in areas fully supporting forest cover. Planting trees into grassland–a relict of colonialism–defeats the purpose of grassland conservation and contributes further to grassland decline. Just as there are old growth forests in North America, so, too are there many old growth grasslands. Some grassland plants can live a century or more.

One of the two largest intact remaining grasslands in North America is in Wyoming: The Wyoming Basin Steppe. This grassland is also the largest intact desert grassland region in North America and contains about 55% of the remaining habitat critical for the long-term viability of Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) species. Additionally, the Wyoming Basin grasslands are home to the greatest length and largest scale of migratory pathways for the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) and greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Without this expansive and intact grassland, those two iconic species would likely go extinct, along with numerous other wildlife and plant species, and the livelihood of the Western cowboy would be impacted.

Wyoming Basin Shrub Steppe ecoregion boundary

Save the date. Head to Wyoming this summer, and find out how you can help spread the word far and wide that grasslands are one of our greatest national treasures and worthy of as much and more protection than we give to forests.

It’s Been a Decade

August to September of 2022 marked 10 years utilizing this blog and persona to explore the natural world and to impart, as much as feasible, the information gleaned from observations, readings, and work experience.

When I began this blog, I was still in the budding phase of my interests in plants and their habitats and how it all works and had not yet begun my professional career (which happened in 2013). Naturally, my interests then were viewed through a novel and emotional lease, as is normal of such circumstances. My views since have evolved to become matter of fact in realizing the restoration work we do—and it is an honest day’s work—pales in comparison to the damages we’ve caused. In short, it’s upsetting about those damages we’ve caused to the world’s ecosystems, but unfortunately, that’s just how it is. Time to take our losses and move on in true conservation fashion, lest we repeat our scorched history.

My interests and experiences have taken me from my boyhood sandy lands in the Western Cross Timbers of North Central Texas—the realm of the Post Oaks and the Blackjack Oaks (the last band of old growth hardwood forest at the zone of transition to tallgrass and mixedgrass prairies)—and the little bluestem range, where I spent many days and nights exploring and following wherever my youthful enthusiasm took me. A budding sense of wonder filled those years, which, over time, evolved into passion, interests, and eventually led to work in natural resources.

To Colorado’s high-country covered with iconic dog-hair stands of Lodgepole Pine, whose serotinous nature is exacerbated (for better or for worse) by the Mountain Pine Beetle, long a major agent of influence in that forest type. It is a dry and windy forest, and the wind often visits ferociously during times of fire.

To the Shortleaf Pine forests of southeastern Oklahoma, where I was introduced to the namesake pine species and a pro-prescribed fire culture in sleepy valleys of the old Ouachita Mountains and their foothills, where life is slow and good and calm. I can still hear the gentle streams and rivers wandering through the pine-clothed San Bois Mountain range.

To south central Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin Plains—a low-country area of loess-covered hills and closed watersheds—where I was introduced to one of the tallgrass prairie’s finest forbs, the compassplant, and saw just how tall big bluestem can grow in the true prairie region. I also learned much of Nebraska is not flat, and those who dismiss the state as part of “flyover country” do not know what they are missing. It is one of the most scenic states in the Great Plains.

To the high-desert and semi-desert grasslands West of the Pecos—the Trans-Pecos or Far West Texas (not “Southwestern Texas”)—where elevation and precipitation runs the game and controls the clock, and where the remoteness and the mountains surprise many visitors. This is the land where the air smells of the sweet and earthy aroma produced by old-growth creosotebush after rainfall events during the monsoon season.

And now to the Llano Estacado—one of the largest tablelands in the North American High Plains, bounded on the west and the east by dramatic, palisaded escarpments, to the north by the Canadian River valley, and to the south by the Chihuahuan Desert and the Edwards Plateau— in what has long been a grassland empire. Here, cotton remains king, yet its reign is in question as more than 70% of the 2022 cotton crop failed due to accelerated water level declines of the Ogallala Aquifer and due to the extended toll of drought (which requires pumping more of less available water). What the upland cotton previously took away from that once vast grassland, residential development now threatens what little remains and what could be restored, to remain in family domain or for enjoyment by the public.

Work in the natural resources world is one full of manic and depressive contradictions, as is any industry dominated by the fallible human. One of the impressions that has stuck with me after so long in this field is this: That we study, we observe, we reflect, we recommend, we publish, we sound alarms, and we explain why, and still the demolition continues. Or someone does the opposite of what we recommend. Or we are simply ignored during times of outreach. Yet still, we continue our work, if not for the joy of these unique and rare work environments, then at least for the simple fact that we aren’t relegated to the modern cage of slavery called the cubicle.

So, here’s to another 10 years, one year at a time. Here’s to new experiences in different ecoregions and environments. Here’s to renewed hope despite the collective pain and suffering of the last several years. Here’s to making the best of hard times and realizing that “tough times never last, but tough people do”. Here’s to welcoming and enjoying below normal winter temperatures, because for some of us, it’s the only real winter we have left anymore. Here’s to making do with what we’ve got instead of blindly hoping we can smart our way through catastrophe. Here’s to open space conservation because they’re not making any more land or wildlife species. Here’s to getting smart with water usage across the whole of society because the water cycle is increasingly broken and the water wars are on the horizon. Here’s to understanding that the “geography of hope” doesn’t mean dwelling in eternal optimism while the actions we take upon our landscapes obviously do not work in the land’s favor and are against the climatic grain. Finally, here’s to realizing that what little we have left has to work, or else.

Plant of the Month – Allium coryi

Note: As time allows, I will do a “Plant of the Month” feature on this blog.  Expect most plants to be photographed and described as seen in Texas.  Other possible locations will be New Mexico and Oklahoma.  Even then, other locales aren’t ruled out in the event of travel.

Yellow-flowered Onion (Allium Coryi), a wild onion species endemic to the mountains of the Trans-Pecos region of Far West Texas, is the only known yellow-flowered Allium species in the United States.  Its habitat is rocky slopes of mountains and rocky plains in between valleys at elevations of 2,500′ to 4,500′.  Yellow-flowered Onion begins flowering in April and lasts through early to mid-May.


Allium coryi in profile.

Some common associates found growing with Yellow-flowered Onion are Awnless Bush Sunflower (Simsia calva), Fleabane (Erigeron spp.), Flax (Linum spp.), Thistle (Cirsum spp.), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), Honey and Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosaP. velutina), Threeawn (Aristida spp.), Plantain (Plantago spp.), Texas Skeletonweed (Lygodesmia spp.), White Rock Lettuce (Pinaropappus roseus), Zinnia (Zinnia spp.), Paperflower (Psilostrophe spp.), Blue and Black Grama (Bouteloua gracilis, B. eriopoda), Silver and Cane Bluestem (Bothriochloa saccharoides, B. barbinodis), Lovegrass (Eragrostis spp.), Bristlegrass (Setaria spp.), Arizona Cottontop (Digitaria cognata), and Hairy Tridens (Erioneuron pilosum).


Allium Coryi habitat in rocky slopes nearing the upper altitude limit for this species. The soils at this site are an extremely gravelly loam with scattered rock outrcrops.  These mountains are of volcanic origins. The vegetation type shown is classified as “mixed prairie” and this vegetation type can be found at elevations of 4,500 – 6,500′.

The specific epithet “Coryi” honors Victor Louis Cory, an Iowa-born botanist who made many contributions to the field of botany in Texas while employed at Southern Methodist University.  The type specimen was discovered in the vicinity of Alpine, TX and now resides at the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium.  The plant’s descriptions were placed into literature by Marcus E. Jones, in “Contributions to Western Botany” (17:21).  His entry can be read here.

Much about the life and times of Marcus E. Jones can be read here.

The Roaming Ecologist Update

Putting the blog back together again!


After a long hiatus, this blog will slowly return to form over the coming months. There have been many changes over the years, namely, the web address of this site. As well, the site layout has changed (and may change again), and some links may be broken. I will attempt to clean up as much as time allows.

More to come!