A bag of moist peat moss and rare American chestnut seeds are ready to spend the winter in David Spahr's refrigerator. By spring the seeds will have sprouted and be ready for planting. Image Courtesy of David Spahr. Credit: Courtesy of David Spahr

A Knox County farmer has created something of an oasis for some of the state’s rarest and most endangered edible native plants, trees and shrubs.

Maine’s native edible plants have suffered a lot over the years at the hands of humans. Climate change, the introduction of invasive species and outright eradication have turned the edibles that used to thrive on the state’s landscape into rare and endangered commodities.

David Spahr is doing what he can to stem the tide for those rare edible plants, and he’s doing it one seed at a time on his Washington farm, where he’s successfully growing native rarities such as beech plums, wild high bush blueberries, black walnuts, American chestnuts and butternuts. And much of that success is thanks to a unique seed storage method.

In all, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry lists 350 species of plants native to Maine as rare or critically imperiled.

Among those are beach plums, and Spahr, an educator and forager, has tended what he believes is the only beach plum orchard in the state. He currently has 70 of the bushes growing on his homestead.

Among the rare Maine edibles on David Spahr’s homestead are beach plums. He has 70 of the trees in his orchard. Credit: Courtesy of David Spahr

Once common in the state, the shrub is now listed as rare in Maine after becoming a victim of commercial and housing development. It can grow up to 14 feet tall and the edible plums taste somewhat like cranberries.

In addition to the more rare native plants, Spahr also grows huckleberries, elderberries, serviceberries, apples and grapes. Not only does his work preserve plants, it has created his very own home produce section for his personal consumption.

To store the seeds, Spahr first collects them from his existing plants. Next he fills resealable plastic bags with damp peat moss and then “plants” a seed inside of the peat moss. The bag is then sealed and stored in his refrigerator.

“It’s a technique more suited to trees and bushes,” he said. “I have done this for years and created my orchards from those seeds.”

When done correctly, he said the seeds germinate and sprout, but don’t grow beyond that over the winter.

“By spring they have all started to sprout out in a very manageable way,” Spahr said. “With this process there are times I have been able to store seeds for two years.”

He prefers the strategy because it takes a bit of the guesswork out of the spring planting. He knows which seeds are viable because they have germinated and sprouted before they even go into the ground.

Most of his plantings began with seeds he acquired from fellow seed collectors in Maine or found in the wild around the state.

“My first plum beech seeds I got from a neighbor who had one in her yard,” Spahr said. “She ate the fruit, kept the pits and gave them to me.”

Admittedly, he has gone a bit overboard with saving seeds and now finds himself overrun with bags of native seeds for native fruit trees and bushes not often found in gardens or orchards in the state.

Spahr’s efforts also mean that his home grown food does share refrigerator shelf space with baggies filled with his preservation work.

Spahr said he would be happy to trade or give away some of his current seed bounty — safely tucked away in baggies, of course — to help others preserve and enjoy the rare Maine edible plants.

“Mostly all my plants are native or wild and done dirt cheap,” he said. “I do it partially to sell and partially for me to have interesting things to eat all the time.”

Avatar photo

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.