top of page
  • Penn Parmenter

Collecting Seed in the Wild

By Penn Parmenter:

I’ve always wondered if grabbing a handful of seed from the National Forest is ok. Is it legal? I know it’s not legal to remove plants. Popular plants like Echinacea or Wild Ginger have been stripped from the wild.

If I take seed anywhere, I’m going to do it responsibly. I do not take more than 10-30% of any stand I’m working on. A large population is required to take more than that. I also take seed from different plants here and there, rather than all in one spot. There are many factors to consider: is the plant endangered or rare? Are there only a few plants in the stand? Have the animals taken what they need to survive? And, of course, is the seed truly ripe?

Calypso bulbosa, wild Fairy Slipper orchid PHOTO: Jeremy D Wade, Wikipedia
Calypso bulbosa, wild Fairy Slipper orchid. PHOTO: Jeremy D Wade, Wikipedia

Knowing your native plants is very important if you want to be a part of the natural ecosystem and help, not hurt.

Take Calypso bulbosa (Fairy Slipper) for instance. When you see one in the wild, you want to take it home. You must resist this urge and learn about this little, exotic orchid. In Colorado’s mountains in particular, success of the Calypso bulbosa and its seed depends on many things in a tough but fragile ecosystem.

Calypso lives with its feet entwined in the must-have mycorrhizal fungi of the forest floor. Since it offers no nectar, it uses beauty and fragrance to lure pollinators. Bright color and a sweet scent works the first time, but when insects find no pay-off they don’t return.

If you take the plant, which is illegal, or the seed, you must re-create that exact unique ecosystem or you will lose both. The way to enjoy the elusive Fairy Slipper is to hit the woods on Father’s Day weekend, search in shade near decomposing fallen logs, then lie down on your belly to get a great photo.

The Rules

National Forest and BLM rules are more complicated than I thought. Every agency, (including CO State Forest), have different rules and the National Forest rules are different for each regional office. Each regional website may or may not have the information posted or available unless you call or go in. (Don’t bother to call late in the week.) Here are some examples of what is possible.

Kinnick-kinnick or Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursa (above). PHOTO: PENN PARMENTER
Kinnick-kinnick or Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursa (above). PHOTO: PENN PARMENTER
Bearberry seeds in bear scat. PHOTOS: PENN PARMENTER
Bearberry seeds in bear scat. PHOTO: PENN PARMENTER

San Isabel National Forest

With inexpensive permits you can take these special forest products from San Isabel National Forest: Firewood (cordwood), Post & Pole, Christmas Trees and Transplants.

The list for ‘Personal Use’ Forest Products includes how much per day and per year you can take without a permit, including, but not limited to: Dry Cones, Limbs/Boughs, Mushrooms, Walking Sticks, Decorative Wood, Piñon Nuts, Wildflowers, Herbs, Rocks/Boulders. All have weight limits.

You must take the aerial part of the plant for Wildflowers and Herbs, which includes the seed-heads. You can take up to two pounds a day for cuttings of Wildflowers and Herbs and up to 50 pounds per household per year.

You can take 5 pounds of Piñon Nuts per day with a limit of 50 pounds per household per year.

Rio Grande National Forest

They have an easy to find and thorough list including everything from basketmaking material to corral poles to medicinal plants to berries and tipi poles. They offer incidental free use, permit, and permit with a fee (seeds, for example). The permit fees and the product fees are very reasonable. Seeds cost an additional $0.25 per pound with a $20 minimum purchase per permit. This is for people who want to collect more than what the personal use rules provide and let me tell you, a pound of seed is a lot. Many mountain flowers have tiny seed and a small portion is enough to start plants and direct seed some into your garden; you can grow and expand that variety each year with just a handful.

For “Incidental Free Use Without a Permit” the daily limit is one pound of seed; yearly limit is 20 pounds. For “Edible/Decorative Berries/Fruits/Nuts” you can gather two gallons per day of each variety or no more than 10 gallons per year. Since each of these is a seed or has seeds inside you get the benefit of both the fruit and the seed. This is a way to support the Forest while still benefiting from nature’s abundance.

Arnica cordifolia seedheads
Arnica cordifolia seedheads

Bureau of Land Management

The BLM has its own list of rules. Visit


The removal of rare or endangered species is not allowed anywhere in Colorado. This includes our State Flower, the Rocky Mountain Columbine. You may not collect anything in Primitive, Wilderness, Research Natural, Botanical. or Scenic Areas. You may not dig up and transplant plants with a permit other than those listed by the forest. Seed collecting is a renewable resource that allows you to increase your own wildflower stand without killing a lot of native plants.

The best way to apply for a permit or learn the rules in your area is to visit your local office, where the people are very knowledgeable and can help you decide which type of permit is right for you or if you need one at all.

This land is your land, this land is my land….

Penn & Cord Parmenter garden and grow food and seed near Westcliffe. Both are regional ­high-altitude gardening instructors and the founders of Smart Greenhouses LLC, a sustainable greenhouse design company, and Miss Penn’s Mountain Seeds. Visit



bottom of page